Predictability, the way forward?

By Jithendri Gomes

Climate change is now a normal term in our vocabulary, and it is almost clichéd as it is used so commonly. It was an unknown one to the generation before us. This fact alone must warn you of the dangers of letting it pass or be vainly mentioned. It now has a direct and more in-your-face presence in our lives. Do you toss and turn at night because it is too warm? Is it too hot to be outside during the day? Does it rain so hard that it floods your house or road? Do you find the prices of vegetables and fruits rising every day? You have climate change to blame for all of this and many more dilemmas.

Climate change and global warming are often used interchangeably but have distinct meanings. Similarly, the terms “weather” and “climate” are sometimes confused, though they refer to events with broadly different dimensions and timescales.

Weather refers to atmospheric conditions that occur locally over short periods of time, from minutes to hours or days. Familiar examples include rain, snow, clouds, wind, floods, or thunderstorms. Climate, on the other hand, refers to the long-term regional or even global average of temperature, humidity, and rainfall patterns over seasons, years, or decades.

Global warming refers to the long-term warming of the planet that began in the early 20th century, most notably since the late 1970s due to the increase in fossil fuel emissions as per the Industrial Revolution. Since 1880, the average surface temperature has gone up by about 1 °C or more. 2016 has been the warmest year so far, and the current decade since 2010 has been the warmest decade. This certainly has to be frightening news.

Climate change refers to a broad range of global phenomena created predominantly by burning fossil fuels, which add heat-trapping gases to Earth’s atmosphere. These phenomena include the increased temperature trends described by global warming, but also encompass changes such as sea level rise; ice mass loss in Greenland, Antarctica, the Arctic, and mountain glaciers worldwide; shifts in flower and plant blooming; and extreme weather events. We know we are experiencing climate change now more than ever in Sri Lanka because of the extreme weather patterns.

To educate us more on these issues, we spoke to Dr. Erandathie Lokupitiya who is well-qualified and an admired professional in her field with many research papers published with her work.

She is currently a senior lecturer at the Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences, University of Colombo. She is also a national expert in preparing greenhouse gas inventory for the Third National Communication of Sri Lanka by the Ministry of Mahaweli Development, and the founding director of the Environment and of the Center for Environmental Initiatives at the University of Colombo. Dr. Lokupitiya has a Ph.D. in ecology – focusing on climate change and estimation of greenhouse gas emissions – from Colorado State University, USA. She served as a research scientist at the Department of Atmospheric Science of the same university before she joined the University of Colombo in 2012. She is the principal investigator of several national and regional-scale projects concerning climate change impacts, mitigation, adaptation, greenhouse gas inventorying, and carbon footprint analysis.

“If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” – Mark Twain
“We can feel that climate change is happening right now because of the extreme weather changes we are experiencing. It is safe to say the changes began to happen way back in 2010, and it is only after 2014 that we saw it clearly affecting our weather patterns. Almost every year, we had a drought period followed by severe floods.

“When it is warm during the dry period, the water evaporates or is absorbed by surface area and plants. When it is cooler, it forms water vapour which in turn becomes clouds and we experience torrential rains. These are the two extreme scenarios that we see as droughts or floods.

“We are ranked No. 2 in the list of countries that are experiencing climate change the most, and our agriculture industry is the most affected. Farmers have stopped farming due to the unpredictable weather patterns. For example, in certain areas in Madampe, farmers have abandoned their fields due to the unpredictability of rain.

We see a proper weather forecast system and early warnings given to them to be the solutions.

“Global warming is a result of the level of gases like carbon dioxide increasing in the atmosphere. Usually, some amounts of such gasses are absorbed by vegetation, which is no longer the case. So farmers abandoning their crops is only adding to the problem in the long run. This is why we strongly feel that finding a solution for farmers and making the weather forecasts accurate is the way forward,” Dr. Lokupitiya detailed.

Educating farmers on how to continue their livelihoods is also an important aspect; especially warning them of delays in rain in order to minimise crop challenges that take place due to climate change. The practical aspect of this is definitely an issue as Sri Lanka as a country has always been less advanced technology-wise.

“I must highlight that our Meteorology Department is working very hard towards achieving this technology sooner rather than later. They are working on a more accurate weather forecasting system and a way to educate the farmers,” Dr. Lokupitiya added

Better safe than sorry

“Climate change has affected our country in a number of negative ways; mainly loss of lives, damaging infrastructure, and affecting the lifestyles of people. Millions of rupees are spent every year by the Government for recovery and rehabilitation,” Dr. Lokupitiya stated. This is soon proving to have a large impact on our economy or rather it already has. Unfortunately, more often than not, it is the poor that have to face the consequences and are most impacted by these extreme weather patterns and their aftermath.

According to a World Bank report on Sri Lanka, annual losses (housing, roads, and relief) due to disasters amount to Rs. 50 billion. According to the sources of the National Disaster Relief Services Centre (NDRSC), over Rs. 9 billion rupees had been allocated by the Government on food, drought relief, and recovery in 2018. These two facts alone prove the impact it has on our economy.

Monsoons, why are you unpredictable?

There are many reasons why monsoons can be unpredictable. Dr. Lokupitiya mentioned three contributing factors – ISO events, temperature changes, and regional changes.

“Temperature changes are very dangerous and are something we need to keep a close watch on. Our day-time temperature has remained somewhat the same, but our nights are fast becoming warmer. The difference between the temperatures are fast reducing. If it goes beyond 35 degrees Celsius we have to be cautious, if it goes beyond 40 degrees it is dangerous, and beyond 45 is critical. This rise in temperature is already very evident in India; it has happened in multiple locations. I hope Sri Lanka will never get to that stage. We have to be careful,” Dr. Lokupitiya iterated.

It’s not our fault?

“Sri Lanka contributes to the problem comparatively less. Our emission of greenhouse gases has only been one tonne per capita per year. That is very low. The problem is like the saying – every drop counts, every little bit of emission contributes immensely to the problem at hand. And any emission made will have an effect and be a direct cause of climate change. If we can stop using fossil fuels it will help immensely.

“Land has boundaries but with the atmosphere it is different. It doesn’t matter where the harmful gases were released, the atmosphere will absorb it and it will travel about and may end up affecting an area far away from its origin. It doesn’t matter where you live; if we continue like this, it will affect all of us and on a greater scale,” Dr. Lokupitiya added.

But there are some things that the authorities can do and implement to help take out one contributing factor.

For example:
In Kenya, there is a fine of $ 38,000 or up to four years of imprisonment for using, producing, or selling a plastic bag

The UK has a tax on plastic bags

Taiwan has restricted the use of single-use plastics (imposing extra charges)
Ireland has already banned single-use plastics. Other countries that have banned single-use plastics include Rwanda, Morocco, and cities such as Montreal, Malibu, Seattle, New Delhi.

We must be encouraged that our government tried to impose this rule, but it is disheartening to know that we failed. It must also be highlighted how this list itself reveals that it is the developing countries as opposed to the developed that are making a bigger effort, even while being the bigger contributors of harmful gases to the atmosphere and in turn to climate change.

What can we do?

Dr. Lokupitiya also shared a list of small measures that we can take as an individual and as a family to help contribute to this problem in a positive way.

Start by reducing our use of fossil fuels and burning it less. We tend to release a lot of carbon dioxide and other harmful gases by doing so.

Deforestation is the other main contributing factor.

Change our energy sources and usage patterns.

Reduce the amount of waste that we release on a daily basis and use degradable products. It goes without saying that single-use plastics are a major contributor to climate change.

Save water, as sometimes we have to use electricity to pump water.

Become an environmentally friendly person and be mindful about your actions.

Dr. Erandathie Lokupitiya delivered the monthly lecture for June of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society on “Climate change and our responsibility”, and had these comments to share about the event: “About the lecture itself, I was very happy with the outcome. I felt the audience was listening and engaging with what I was presenting. Most of them even came and spoke to me privately after the lecture. This, I believe, is a very positive outcome as it reveals that there are more people out there who understand that there is a need for attention to this problem and will help contribute towards the solutions.”