Friday, December 18, 2009

Seas are rising. Is the end nigh?

Never in human history have so many got together for so long to achieve so little on the weather. Everyone in Copenhagen knew that it was all about the earth’s survival, yet no one was willing to take the actions they knew they should. The rich were unwilling to cut down on the luxuries they had got accustomed to while the not-so-rich were unwilling to cut down on their desire for the same luxuries. So rhetoric replaced reality. Result: The danger level is up by another degree.

Weather is a boring subject. But this conference has been of life-and-death importance. The best way to understand it is to look at it from the perspective of history. At the end of the last ice-age (about 9000 to 10,000 years ago) catastrophes wrecked the world. Great icecaps from northern Europe and north America melted down, massive floods swept across the globe, sea levels rose as much as 100 meters devouring 25 million square kilometers of land, which is equal to about seven Indias or three Australias.

There are ominous signs that similar things may be happening again because of rising temperatures. The past ten years have been the warmest in recorded history. Unprecedented droughts and floods caused tens of thousands of deaths even in Europe and the US. Antarctica has been losing at least five billion tons of ice every year since 2006. U S vice-president turned environmentalist Al Gore’s estimate of a 20-foot rise in sea levels “in the near future” may sound alarmist. But even sober predictions put the rise at 18 to 59 centimeters by the end of the 21st Century. If the Antarctic glacial melting is also factored in, the rise could be four to six metres. Alarming enough.

Now we can appreciate the desperation that drove the Maldivian Cabinet to hold a meeting at the bottom of the sea and the Nepalese Cabinet to meet on the peaks of the Himalayas. Maldives will be one of the first nations to disappear if the seas rise a wee bit. As for the Himalayas, a Hollywood movie last year showed a gigantic monster of a tsunami sweeping over its peaks.

That may be a filmic exaggeration, but the title of that picture, “2012”, was not chosen on a whim. Some cultures hold 2012 as the year in which the world as we know it will come to an end. This “superstition” started because the Long Count Calendar of the Mayan civilisation ended with that year. Modern-day media have taken up the cry. History Channel’s “2012: End of Days” and Discovery Channel’s “2012: Apocalypse” were popular television hits.

Even those who reject doomsday beliefs should have no difficulty accepting that many ancient human settlements are today under water. Ruins of a well-developed township about a mile from the Mahabalipuram shoreline were discovered last year by a joint Indo-British team. A city five miles long and two miles wide lies 120 feet under water in the Gulf of Cambay. Similar submerged settlements exist off Egypt, Greece, Cuba, Japan.

Against the backdrop of this long history of the ocean gobbling up coastal areas, we can see the sense in the proposal made by oceanographic specialists in India that human dwellings should be at least half to one kilometer away from the shoreline. But our land developers and real estate lobbies proudly defy such counsel. Our hungry politicians and hungrier bureaucrats support them. We let hazardous wastes to be dumped irresponsibly, our rivers to be systematically killed by sand mafias. In Copenhagen the world’s worst polluters fought for their right to pollute. Perhaps we deserve what the Bhagavatam has predicted for us: Lord Kalki will kill by the millions those thieves who have dared to dress as Kings.