Extremism is an anathema – insights from climate change

Photo taken on December 23, 2017 shows a general view of the flooded Municipality of Kabacan, North Cotabato, on the southern island of Mindanao, after Tropical Storm Tembin dumped torrential rains across the island. File photo: AFP

“We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.”

– Barack Obama, Former US President

WE know that the Earth goes through a pattern of changing weather conditions. That is a given fact. Even on a daily basis, it is something that is quite easily observable and a phenomenon which we cannot dispute.

On a daily basis, it is easier to observe the fluctuating conditions because of the relatively short duration involved. The same for a week, months or over a span of few years.  Also, the fluctuation or changes that occur happens within a given ambient range. In other words, the change is not drastic. In that sense, and to a certain degree, we can tolerate some element s of fluctuations, but only within a given range and for shorter durations.

However, if we were to extrapolate the timeline to cover a very prolonged period, the persistent fluctuations in weather and climatic conditions prevailing over a long duration will not be tolerable. Especially, when the fluctuation happens between two extremes that goes beyond the normal tolerable range. In fact, depending on the severity of the extreme and fluctuating conditions, a situation where the extremism beyond the norms becomes the norm, it becomes an anathema to humans, and other life forms.

Fundamentally, and seen over a longer spectrum of time, the Earth is observed to be alternating between prolonged periods of warming and cooling conditions. While this is not easily observable in the same sense as the daily weather conditions, and because of the gradual nature of the change, we accept as a matter of fact and, as reported in the relevant literature, that the Earth has indeed undergone different, and dramatic, climatic cycles or epochs over the ages.

These epochal phases can last over millions of years. When extreme conditions is coupled with the prolonged duration, the effect of extremism will threaten not just humans but other living things too. The exposure could lead to species extinction due to the inability to adapt to the prevailing conditions. In other words, any form of extremism can be life threatening or, put differently, extremism is bad for peoples’ and other beings’ wellbeing and threatens existence.

Presently, it is believed that we are undergoing a warming up phase, made more topical by the use of the catchphrase “global warming’ – which is very much in vogue.  Put simply, it means that the temperature is gradually but surely going up, as confirmed by the data collected over time.  In other words, we are in a period of history which is witnessing the transitioning of the world into a more pronounced warm phase, or new epoch.

What the final conditions or end state of the warming up process would be, remains to be seen – but to speculate on the scenarios is not that difficult to imagine or conjure. For our present purpose, let’s just say that it would be simply unpleasant, to put it mildly.

It has not always been like this.  In the not too distant past, reckoned by geological time, the Earth has had undergone a severe cooling down phase known as the “ice age” or “glacial age” where a large part of the Earth’s surface was covered by ice and glaciers. The effects of the glaciation is observable to this day, especially on the topography of certain regions of the world.

It was a very cold world back then which obviously presented existential challenges to flora and fauna due to the extreme prevailing low temperature. If we look to the artic conditions today, we will notice that very little life forms survive in the extreme conditions. Obviously, there are no trees and land based vegetation.  Imagine most of the world in an artic like conditions today. Clearly, nothing would live, let alone survive well.

Grass grows on a now-dry section of lakebed at the drought-stricken Lake Mead on June 23, 2022 in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada. Photo: AFP

Coming to the main focus of this posting – the emerging existential issue of this day and age, namely, the rapidly warming up process of the Earth, or the rather, the fast pace of the warming up process, it becomes clear that what is happening is life threatening. The frequency and severity of extreme weather patterns is also clearly observable and being experienced. So it is difficult to deny its occurrence.

The main worry from this emerging situation relates to our ability or inability to cope with the consequences of global warming, the long-term heating up of Earth’s climate system due to rising temperatures, and at a pace and intensity that is upsetting the climatic and weather patterns of the earth and destabilising the natural balance of things.  For example, we have heard about rising water levels due to the melting of the ice caps which threatens island nations and coastal areas with flooding and permanent inundation.

Ice breaks up early on the Kuskokwim River beside the Bering Sea and near the climate change affected Yupik Eskimo village of Quinhagak on the Yukon Delta in Alaska on April 12, 2019. File photo: AFP

In other words, the very ecosystem that sustains life on the planet is drastically changing towards an extremism end of the spectrum. Something that we are not ready for.  Worst, some people are in denial of what is occurring or just don’t care less. How could we not be concerned when extremism rudely interjects into our lives?  Can we really afford to be neutral?  Not for long, as everyone will be affected. Note the frequency of rain and the associated flash floods we find in Kuala Lumpur, or other places for that matter, that we find at present.

Apparently, the process of global warming has been going on for a while now, but it is believed that the pace and rate of temperature increase has picked up and increased rapidly over recent times. For example, from the literature review, it has been observed that since the pre-industrial period (the period between 1850 and 1900) there has been an increase in heat trapping greenhouse gas levels in the earth’s atmosphere.

The culprit to this sad tragedy is what is collectively called ‘greenhouse gases” which term includes gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and ozone which traps the incoming radiation from the sun and creates a blanket effect over the earth. For the purpose of this post, we should note that the most important greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and water vapour. It should be noted that surface- level ozone, nitrous oxides and fluorinated gases also have properties that trap infrared radiation.

Apparently, the ‘sweet spot’ where humans can survive and thrive is a very narrow band between the two extremes of the very cold and very hot range.  Something that is rather humbling to reflect upon or take note of. In particular, if we consider that it cannot be accidental or a matter of coincidence that we have somehow managed to find this ‘sweet spot’ on the temperature spectrum and on this tiny planet we call home and located in a vast and endless universe. 

Knowing our inability to survive the extremes, finding the ideal conditions would be an impossible feat, humanly speaking. We could hardly go to the moon which is just a step away from the Earth. We don’t have the technology and ability to traverse even own known universe or solar system. We can’t stay on the moon because it does not have basic necessities that allow life to survive, let alone thrive.

The current episode of rapid increases in temperatures is not desirable because the carbon dioxide, methane, soot, and other pollutants that we release into the atmosphere act like a blanket which traps the sun’s heat and cause the planet to warm up. This warming up effects as a result of the higher temperatures are worsening many types of extreme weather and climatic conditions which leads to major storms, heat waves, floods, and droughts. Something that we are experiencing almost on a daily basis.

Warming temperature creates an atmosphere that can collect, retain, and unleash more water, changing weather patterns in such a way that wet areas become wetter and dry areas drier. These fluctuating effects, known as the La Nina (wet) and El Niño (dry) phenomenon are being accentuated or magnified in intensity and frequency by the global warming phenomenon.

I recall freshly in my mind the rather severe 2014–2016 El Niño season which caused widespread disruptions to flights around world, proliferation of natural forest fires and human induced open burnings. It was almost impossible to walk outside office located in the Central Business District of Singapore, where I was working, and we had to wear masks to go out for lunch. A precursor or practice run for another widespread mask wearing in the not too distant future when the Covid -19 pandemic hit the world.

The unusually warm waters influenced the world’s weather in a number of ways, which in turn significantly affected various parts of the world. These included drought conditions in Venezuela, Australia and a number of Pacific islands while significant flooding was also recorded. During the event, more tropical cyclones than normal occurred within the Pacific Ocean, while fewer than normal occurred in the Atlantic Ocean.

It was reported that the El Niño event affected millions of people around the world, including in Africa, Central America, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. These effects included below or above- average rainfall, flooding, increased food insecurity, higher malnutrition rates and devastated livelihoods.

So how does this heating process which leads to El Niño episodes happen? To answer this question, it should be noted that the heating up process can take two forms- either produced naturally or due to human activities.

The Earth is heating up over time due to natural or tectonic forces and also from human activities. It is to be expected that over time, the fluctuation of greenhouse gases concentrations will be influenced by a number of natural processes such as tectonic activities which obviously operate at timescales of millions of years or other natural processes which include vegetation, soil, wetlands and ocean source and sinks which operate at timescales of hundreds to thousands of years, namely on a shorter cycle or timeline compared to tectonic activities. These natural processes are major forces that are beyond our ability to control.

But what we should be more concerned about is the part where we acknowledge that one of major contributors to the generation of greenhouse gases in human activities — especially fossil fuel combustion which started in earnest since the Industrial Revolution (1700s or 18th century) — and are responsible for steady increases in atmospheric concentrations of various greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). 

Since they are induced by human activities (termed as ‘anthropogenic’) it also implies that they are controllable if these activities are controlled or managed properly. Hence, the need to focus on human generated greenhouse gases. Whether they are indeed controllable remains to be seen. Or have we already reached an inflection point where the momentum has reached a point of no return? When extremism feeds on extremism?

As indicated earlier, human activities increases atmospheric CO2 levels primarily through the burning of fossil fuels, principally coal and oil and also through the use of natural gas for use in transportation, heating, and electricity production and through the production of what is termed as ‘Portland’ cement. I read that it is estimated that around 4–8 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions come from the manufacture of cement, making it a major contributor to global warming. That’s a lot of CO2 volume being attributed to cement manufacturing and use. Other human induced sources include the burning of forests and the clearing of vegetation and forests from the land such as through deforestation.

It is estimated that anthropogenic or human induced emission currently accounts for an annual release of about 7 gigatons (which is 7 billion tons) of carbon into the atmosphere, which is equal to approximately 3 percent of the total emissions of CO2 by natural sources.

This additional or amplified carbon load from human activities is enough to exceed the offsetting capacity of natural sinks – meaning the ability of nature to absorb the CO2 by natural process is less than the volume of emission (estimated to be by as much as 2–3 gigatons per year). We are producing more CO2 than the planet’s ability to deal with the excess in the natural way. Multiply that amount of CO2 by many years which makes up decades and centuries that has elapsed, that becomes a very big volume of CO2. No wonder, the gravity of the problem we have wrought upon ourselves.

Human activities is contributing to creating adverse living conditions on the planet. Our own act is helping to produce or is worsening the extreme conditions which will be a threat to our own survival. That sounds illogical, unacceptable and inhumane. But it is happening.

Realising and acknowledging that we have a problem is an important step towards some form of action over, or resolution of, the problem. Burying our heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich is a real danger and one can assume that the majority of the human beings falls into the proverbial ostrich syndrome.

It is not because they have not heard about the problem but because they refuse to take personal responsibility for contributing to the problem. As a consequence, they are not doing anything useful to mitigate the effects of global warming or worst, they seek to challenges the ‘science’ behind the phenomenon and choose to live in denial. That is also a form of extremism. One of extreme stupidity. 

We have not talked about ideological or political extremism such as Nazism and the rising ultranationalism that is rapidly spreading across the world. A subject for another time, maybe.

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