17 Sep 2023  |   05:27am IST

The Danger Zone

Vivek Menezes

Rain continues to fall in Goa this weekend, but just across the border in Karnataka it is painfully clear the monsoon has failed. Earlier this week, the Revenue Minister Krishna Byre Gowda, who heads the state sub-committee on disaster management, reported that an astonishing 195 out of 236 talukas across India’s eighth-largest state are officially suffering drought, with 161 of them already experiencing severe shortages. This crisis goes far beyond water supply, to pose huge threats to food security across the region, because at least 50% of standing crops have withered into the dust due to drastic precipitation deficits over the past month alone. 

The grim forecast is that more damage is likely to occur in coming weeks, which brings to this agonising new reality: our neighbouring state, which supplies most of our vegetables and fruits, is now home to the second largest tracts of dry land in the whole country (after Rajasthan) and almost 80% of its arable land has become critically prone to drought.

This very bad news is uncomfortably close to home, but even worse has playing out the past few days as an unmitigated horror show of climate-related catastrophes all over the world. To the east, both Hong Kong and Shenzen are reeling from tropical storm Haikui, which dumped more rainfall on these two vital economic nerve centres than ever recorded before, since they began maintaining the data over 140 years ago. Across the Pacific in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, yet another concurrent cyclone deposited over a foot of rain in less than 24 hours, with floods and landslides resulting in dozens of deaths, the highest toll ever for a climate event. Worst of all by far was the wrecking-ball devastation wrought by Storm Daniel which careened across the Mediterranean to unleash unprecedented havoc in Greece – the equivalent of three years of rainfall in two days, which has submerged the country’s breadbasket into an unfarmable giant lake – and then slammed into Libya to trigger extraordinary devastation: 5,000 presumed dead with 10,000 missing and total casualties likely to pass 20,000 in the end.

The sad truth is none of these shocking events are any kind of anomaly any more. Instead, these kinds of previously inconceivable – or, at worst, once-in-a-lifetime – disruptions are only to be expected as routine in our age of climate change, that has been caused by human activity’s effects on the ecosystems that have sustained us over the past 10,000 years in the time period known as the Holocene, which comprises the combined achievements of all of our civilizations. That grim fact became even plainer earlier this week, when, for the first time ever, scientists working with the Stockholm Research Centre provided us with an important framework to understand and gauge the “planetary boundaries” which have until recently shored up the “safe operating space for humanity”. Their new research paper in the journal Science Advances identifies nine processes “that are critical for maintaining the stability and resilience of Earth system as a whole” and concludes that “all are presently heavily perturbed by human activities”. What is more, six of those nine have already been transgressed, which has brought us all the way to an unforeseen precipice. Now, we are in the danger zone for life itself.

The new paper’s co-author Johan Rockström offered this trenchant analogy to understand its findings: “This update on planetary boundaries clearly depicts a patient that is unwell, as pressure on the planet increases and vital boundaries are being breached. We don’t know how long we can keep transgressing these key boundaries before combined pressures lead to irreversible change and harm.” He explained that “science and the world at large are really concerned over all the extreme climate events hitting societies across the planet as we move through the third human-amplified El Niño in only 25 years. But what worries us even more is the rising signs of dwindling planetary resilience, manifested by the breaching of planetary boundaries, which brings us closer to tipping points, and closes the window to having any chance of holding the 1.5°C planetary climate boundary. If you want to have security, prosperity and equity for humanity on Earth, you have to come back into the safe space and we’re not seeing that progress currently in the world.”

What is the current bottom line for our prospects on Earth? The findings from Stockholm Research Centre’s team of scientists are neatly illustrated in the elegant, useful chart that accompanies this column. In their report, it carried this explainer: “Six of the nine boundaries are transgressed. In addition, ocean acidification is approaching its planetary boundary. The green zone is the safe operating space (below the boundary). Yellow to red represents the zone of increasing risk. Purple indicates the high-risk zone where interglacial Earth system conditions are transgressed with high confidence. Values for control variables are normalized so that the origin represents mean Holocene conditions and the planetary boundary (lower end of zone of increasing risk, dotted circle) lies at the same radius for all boundaries (except for the wedges representing green and blue water, see main text). Wedge lengths are scaled logarithmically. The upper edges of the wedges for the novel entities and the genetic diversity component of the biosphere integrity boundaries are blurred either because the upper end of the zone of increasing risk has not yet been quantitatively defined (novel entities) or because the current value is known only with great uncertainty (loss of genetic diversity). Both, however, are well outside of the safe operating space. Transgression of these boundaries reflects unprecedented human disruption of Earth system but is associated with large scientific uncertainties.”

(Vivek Menezes is a writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival)


Idhar Udhar