Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 11 April 2016

From heatwave to the global hothouse

As the heatwave continues to turn Malaysia into a hothouse, three new studies reveal the effects of global warming may be much worse than previously predicted.


The heatwave in Malaysia has continued relentlessly the past few weeks.  There are reports of the heat affecting fish farms and livestock, resulting in a lot of losses.

As the water level drops in most dams, the water supply situation is also causing concern.  Schools in some Northern states closed again for a few days when the temperatures crossed the danger level.

Last week, haze caused by open burning and forest and peat fires in Sabah’s West coast added to the misery of the people.  The combination of heat-wave caused by El Nino, made worse by climate change, forest fires and haze must be causing residents to feel they are in hell-like conditions, having to suffer the heat, air pollution and breathing difficulties all at the same time.

There are now predictions that rain will soon fall and put an end to the scorching heat.  The bad news is that the rains may be so heavy as to cause floods in parts of the country.

These extreme weather events are no longer temporary irritations that will soon go away and are thus tolerable.  As climate change takes hold, these events are becoming more in number, are lasting longer and having more adverse effects.

They are becoming the “new normal”, in which we have to expect permanent hotter days and nights, and heavier rainfall and flood conditions.  Far from being mere irritations, they will disrupt livelihoods, incomes, our way of life and health itself. 

According to data from the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, Malaysia’s surface mean temperature has been rising by 0.14ºC to 0.25ºC per decade, or up to 1ºC in the past 40 years.

This is a large jump indeed.  Keep in mind that a rise of 1.5ºC (above the pre-industrial era level) in the global temperature is now considered the new danger level, and 2ºC a disaster while 3ºC is an outright catastrophe.

If the temperature in Malaysia continues to increase at the same rate as the recent four decades, we will soon be in the disaster zone. 

Reports also show a pattern of heavier rainfall in Malaysia in recent years, resulting in more serious floods.

In the past fortnight there have been at least three new reports on climate change that conclude that the situation is significantly worse than previously believed.

A report from the United States President’s office, predict there will be up to tens of thousands of additional heat-related deaths annually in the US, according to an eminent climate scientist John Holdren who is Obama’s science advisor.

Holdren said that if there was no sweeping policy change, “People who try to work outside will basically be unable to control their body temperature and die. This is a really, really big deal.”

The 300-page report, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States, is co-authored by various government departments.

“Every human being in every part of the United States is now being impacted by climate and will be increasingly impacted if we do not take action now,” said Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency which contributed to the report.

“We are talking about everything from our food, our water, our air, our weather. If that’s not enough, it’s probably impacting how happy you are every day and what your mental health is.”

The other two papers deal with how the melting of the Earth’s ice caps will raise the sea level much more and faster than previously thought – threatening the survival of many of the coastal cities and regions in the world.

The lead author of one of the papers is James Hansen, perhaps the world’s most famous climate scientist.

The 52-page paper on ice sheet melting, sea level rise and super storms, by 18 scientists (published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics) highlights mechanisms in the climate system that could cause much more rapid sea level rise, as well as super storms.

The paper warns of the loss of all coastal cities as well as future “super storms” more devastating than those seen in the modern era.

It concludes that the melting of Greenland and Antarctica can happen fast, causing sea-level rise of “several meters over a timescale of 50 to 150 years.”

This is much more than the worst-case scenario of the UN climate scientific panel, the IPCC, of a sea level rise of three feet by 2100 in its 2013 report.

Another paper, published in Nature journal, warns that the West Antarctic ice sheet could disintegrate within decades due to global warming, instead of the hundreds of years previously assumed.

This melting of the sheet could contribute to sea level rise by three feet. With ice also melting elsewhere, the total rise may be five or six feet by 2100.  This is double the three feet rise in the IPCC scenario. 

There is only a remote chance of long-term survival (in their present form) of big cities like New York, Miami, New Orleans, London, Venice, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Sydney.

The three reports have relevant significance for Malaysia.  The warning in the White House report about health consequences of climate change is most topical. 

If there will tens of thousands more deaths in the United States due to additional heat, it would be worse for Malaysia, as we have a far hotter climate than the US.

The news that the sea will rise by much more than predicted is also of great concern because a large part of the Malaysian population lives in coastal areas, especially in the Peninsula but also in Sabah and Sarawak.  A large part of the country will be uninhabitable if the sea level rises a few feet, let alone by many metres. 

This news and the heatwave should really spur us to action to curb emissions and to adapt to climate change, as soon and as comprehensively as possible.