Be green or be gone: Why we can no longer ignore climate change

  • Increasing climate refugees from local agriculture, fisheries sectors
  • Climate change affecting Ceylon Tea’s unique quality 

By Sumudu Chamara

The Covid-19 pandemic might seem like the most pressing issue we have to deal with today, but it is not the only threat to our existence. Extreme weather conditions have been intensifying the world over, with a spate of heat waves and floods affecting several Western countries.

Over the past few weeks, foreign media reports recorded heat waves in the Northwestern parts of the US and Canada, as well as in Russia. 

The temperature in the US had reportedly increased for a record 20 straight days, while Canada witnessed its highest-ever temperature of 49.6° Celsius last month, and Russia is expected to record its hottest summer ever by the end of July. Meanwhile, the Death Valley in Southern California, USA, recorded the highest temperature ever recorded in the world in more than 100 years, i.e. 54.4° Celsius. The last record-high temperature, i.e. 56.7° Celsius, was recorded in 1913. 

Sri Lanka’s most pressing concern is whether we are safe from such vicissitudes. Unfortunately, being an island, we are at risk from the rising water levels and other issues caused by climate change. To look into what Sri Lanka’s situation is concerning climate change, and how we could do better, we spoke to several persons who have knowledge regarding this contentious subject.

Nationally Determined Contributions

All the above mentioned extreme weather conditions were reported in a context where the Cabinet of Ministers last week decided to update and submit the country’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) relating to the Paris Climate Agreement to the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

The Cabinet decision issued last week said that Sri Lanka had been acting as a stakeholder nation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change since 1993, and had signed and ratified the Paris Climate Agreement in April and September 2016, respectively. The fundamental objective of the Paris Agreement is to maintain global warming under 2° Celsius, compared to the level that existed in the pre-industrialisation era, and to take all applicable precautions to maintain it at the level of 1.5° Celsius. The NDCs comprise the list of activities carried out by local stakeholders to realise that objective.

Cabinet also decided to appoint a national monitoring committee to supervise whether the contributions listed under the NDCs are efficiently and productively implemented, and the country has already submitted to the UN the first set of NDCs for the period 2020-2030, which is to be updated every five years. 

A bigger issue

So what is the extent of the threat posed to Sri Lanka by climate change? The most prominent impacts of climate change include droughts, floods, increasing temperatures, and the loss of biodiversity (caused by adverse weather conditions), which are also the main focus of most activities aimed at conserving the environment. However, according to Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle (BCRC) Convenor Supun Lahiru Prakash, the impacts of climate change are not limited to these issues, and have a large number of indirect adverse effects on the flora and fauna.

Adding that Sri Lanka has mentioned what it can do to reduce climate change at the local level under the NDCs, Prakash opined that being a small country, Sri Lanka is not a major contributor to climate change, including global warming. However, he noted, Sri Lanka has to suffer the consequences of worsening climate change conditions, and therefore, it needs to take prevention and adaptation measures. 

He further noted that Sri Lanka is not in a position to take large scale measures to address climate change, owing to a number of factors such as limited resources and traditional socio-economic conditions and practices, and opined that a lot of other countries also face such difficulties despite the need for more action.

However, the adverse impacts of climate change, he noted, are manifold, affecting a large number of industries. “These adverse effects are not limited to environmental issues. People’s health, the agriculture sector, developmental activities, and even basic services such as transport services, are also facing difficulties due to climate change and factors contributing to climate change. For example, when the sea level rises, it affects roads as well as other facilities located in coastal areas. But as a developing country, we do not have the resources to recover efficiently,” he pointed out. 

“The harm caused to the lives of animals and people is also a huge issue. Needless to say, the harm caused to the environment is a result of both rising seawater levels and human activities such as sand mining. There is a question as to whether we have the capacity to rebuild the affected infrastructure, and that is why we need to prevent, or adapt to manage, these adverse conditions. 

“If we look into extreme weather events, they directly and severely affect the agriculture sector. Droughts and floods are the most common issues, but we need to understand that these weather conditions indirectly affect food security related issues and the farmers’ economy. Since prevention is a difficult and long term process, adaptation is the immediate measure we can take as a country.”

Prakash added that climate refugees (environmental refugees or climate refugees are people who are compelled to leave their environment and homes owing to changes in their environment such as floods, deforestation, desertification, and coastal erosion) in Sri Lanka are on the rise due to adverse weather conditions affecting various industries. 

“Another indirect impact is the increasing number of climate refugees. We usually fail to identify climate refugees or even the fact that they are forced to migrate because of the indirect impacts of climate change. As far as Sri Lanka’s situation is concerned, it is mostly those involved in agricultural and fishing industries that are affected, as climate change causes severe impacts on the conditions that help them continue their farming or fishing activities. A considerable number of them have had to abandon their occupations and migrate to other areas, especially urban areas, looking for alternative occupations.”

Quoting research he conducted in 2019 into whether there is a statistically significant correlation between climate change and dengue, Prakash noted that one of the reasons for increasing dengue cases was the increasing temperature – which is a direct result of climate change. 

He also added: “Rain, as well as increasing temperature, and dengue have a significant correlation. Not only mosquitoes, but also several other types of insects and pests, spread due to temperature changes, especially when the temperature rises. Due to this reason, diseases such as dengue and pest-related issues spread to areas in which they were not prevalent before. 

“For example, in areas such as Nuwara Eliya, mosquito-related issues were not prevalent before, but now they have become an issue for those areas. Around 60% of Sri Lanka belongs to the Dry Zone, and water and sanitation are therefore very important.”

Explaining the little-known economic impacts of extreme weather conditions, he pointed out that tea grown in upcountry areas had a specific demand and market due to its unique quality. However, increasing temperatures have affected this uniqueness, which could cause it to lose demand. Another example he pointed out was the decreasing demand for clothes used for snow sports – due to melting ice and lower snowfall in certain countries, the demand for Sri Lankan-manufactured clothes imported by these countries is likely to decline.

“There are almost no fields that are unaffected by climate change-related extreme weather conditions. This issue, therefore, is not just an environmental issue. Instead of promoting and building coal power plants, which greatly contribute to climate change, Sri Lanka should focus more on renewable energy like other countries do,” Prakash emphasised.

Working with limited resources

Although Sri Lanka may lack the resources to take strong measures to limit climate change contributors such as industrial activity, Prakash noted there are several other steps it can take in various sectors to adapt to and prevent climate change in the local context.

He explained: “Forest conservation and increasing forest cover is one of the major steps we can take, and when making promises to international bodies such as the UN, the Government should evaluate whether it has the resources to implement those plans and how exactly they are implemented. 

“However, when it comes to the matter of carbon emissions, Sri Lanka’s extremely disorganised garbage management is in a very poor state. The lack of proper public transport is another factor that leads people to refrain from taking public transport; but before encouraging the people to do so, the authorities must improve the infrastructure and standards of public transport, and this includes reducing the use of fossil fuel. 

“In addition, reducing greenhouse gases is a measure that needs to be taken with the agriculture sector. We must support farmers to opt for eco-friendly agricultural practices, and to look into other related matters such as income, the managing of crops, and water resources management. All these are steps we can do with the resources we have. We must take climate change more seriously, not because Sri Lanka has promised the international community, but because we have to save our citizens.”

Implementing policies and educating citizens

In terms of promises to the international community, Sri Lanka is a part of international conventions, such as the Paris Agreement, to mitigate its contribution to climate change and implement measures to prevent and adapt to worsening weather conditions. However, simply being a part of such conventions does not assure that causes of climate change are addressed at the ground level; it is the implementation of such measures that is key.

Emphasising this point, environmental lawyer Dr. Jagath Gunawardana said that even though Sri Lanka formulated policies to reduce factors affecting climate change years ago, the implementation of those policies does not take place properly. He opined that activities that are discouraged under these policies are still taking place, and thus Sri Lanka is putting its future at risk by allowing this to continue. 

“Sri Lanka does not contribute to climate change considerably; but we still have to face it because it is a global issue. We have shaped our laws in accordance with international conventions and laws, and under them, we have restricted certain imports and have taken measures to address carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. However, we have to adapt, and we need stronger policies for adaptation. We are making ourselves more vulnerable by harming the environment through acts such as deforestation. We are moving into a dangerous situation, because we are increasing our vulnerability to climate change, even though we should be increasing our resilience instead. Sri Lanka needs stronger policies for adaptation.”

Dr. Gunawardana added that there are no international mechanisms for Sri Lanka to receive compensation for the impacts it faces due to other countries’ actions, which is an issue that needs attention.

Meanwhile, Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Chairman Attorney-at-Law Ravindranath Dabare also observed that Sri Lanka needs more practical policies as well as laws to reduce activities that contribute to climate change. “Coal and fossil fuel consumption is one of the main reasons that worsen climate change. However, every Sri Lankan government keeps importing coal and fossil fuel for electricity and transportation purposes, whereas even countries that do not have the renewable energy sources that Sri Lanka does have started focusing on generating renewable energy, such as solar power.”

Dabare further alleged that people’s awareness about how the country contributes to climate change is inadequate because governments do not wish to educate the people. He added that if the people had adequate knowledge about such matters, governments would not be able to continue with activities that cause increased climate change.

Prakash also agreed that climate literacy is extremely low among Sri Lankans, which has in turn hindered the people from identifying their individual responsibilities. 

“Most updated knowledge about climate change is in English. Sinhala and Tamil speakers, who make up most of the communities that directly deal with extreme weather conditions, do not have adequate access to up-to-date and accurate knowledge about climate change, and it has hindered them from understanding the true nature of their issues and discussing those issues with governments and the authorities,” he noted.

Although The Morning attempted to contact Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera and the Climate Change Secretariat to discuss more about the status quo, they were not available for immediate comment. 

While the Covid-19 pandemic is a critical issue that the human race is grappling with, extreme weather conditions induced by climate change pose a threat to all living beings on the planet. As the major contributors to this issue, we need to pay attention to the matter and take long term actions to deal with it. As some who spoke with The Morning mentioned, even though Sri Lanka’s contribution to this issue may be small because of the country’s size, the country will still have to deal with the extreme weather events caused by the actions of larger countries.

Sri Lanka needs to understand that issues such as deforestation, the loss of biodiversity, and non-eco-friendly development activities are not the issues of a specific region or country, but that of the entire world.