Global warming’s the fight of our lives. We’re losing it

With the biggest culprits failing to act on climate disaster, the human race does not have much long left.

For three years now, I’ve been following the news on heat waves and hot spells happening all over the world, including Vietnam. The pattern is pretty obvious: record-breaking high temperatures, followed by more record breakers.

I am sure many of us are asking the same question. When will the heat waves and hot spells, or global warming in general, stop? Is there a maximum threshold? A breaking point? We don’t know.

Here’s what we do know. Humanity won’t last long at this rate.

The first time I encountered this topic up close was the heat wave in northern Vietnam in 2017. It was a heat wave unlike any other before it: 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in most northern areas including Hanoi. I remember thinking: this is it, this is the peak. There is no way it can get hotter.

Boy, was I wrong.

Last July, a similar heat wave struck Vietnam for about five days. Right from my balcony, I recorded a felt temperature of 50 degrees Celsius. It was like the ground had split open and hell had broken loose.

And this year, the heat caused more than physical discomfort. Hanoi and other northern provinces could no longer enjoy the Lunar New Year festival like they used to. No light drizzles and chilly breezes of early springtime. Instead, the sun greeted us all with downpours of molten gold, spilling the streets and coating towns in amber. It was not actually that poetic – it was hot as hell.

Then came this April, when Vietnam saw yet another record-breaking high temperature of 43 degrees Celsius in the central province of Ha Tinh. Since then, I don’t want to use the phrase “record-breaking.” What’s the point?

Earlier this month, I participated in a conference with colleagues from 12 countries most affected by climate disaster.

Unsurprisingly, one of the main topics was the sweltering heat the world was experiencing. India, Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan, even the frigid mountains of Nepal, not one has been spared from the licks of the flames of global warming.

Someone needs to come up with a long-term plan to address this ongoing problem, immediately. Like right now.

It might be too late anyway for humans to limit the earth’s temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030, at least according to a 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The level of greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere is already way beyond that, the report said.

Two things need to be done to stop the mercury from rising. One, greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut down completely, and the remaining gases in the atmosphere need to be get rid of. Two, a forest that spans the entire planet is needed to absorb the excess carbon dioxide in the air over the next 40 years. Both need to be done at the same time, as we humans, as well as other creatures, still need to consume energy through eating and drinking and breathing, which produces greenhouse gases.

It seems like a lost cause.

A farmer water his dry field in Soc Trang Province in southern Vietnam, April 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Cuu Long

We have to do something, and we have to do it together.

But some countries haven’t got the memo.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced in 2017 that the country would cease all participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation, saying the accord would “undermine [the U.S.] economy” and put the U.S. at a “permanent disadvantage.”

China, meanwhile, has promised to cut down on its greenhouse gas emissions, but does so by shifting it to other countries. Both superpowers are two of the most prolific greenhouse gas emitters in the world. And who is paying the price for their irresponsibility?

Poor and developing countries are. Honduras, Myanmar, Haiti, Nicaragua, Vietnam and many more are getting the shorter end of the stick, as concluded by numerous climate change reports over the past decade.

17 percent of Saigon could be completely submerged by the end of this century, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment said last year. Venice will completely vanish underwater within the same time frame if global warming is not stalled, according to a 2017 study by the Quaternary International.

The apocalyptic list goes on and on.

Amidst this, developed countries are still inclined to shift their responsibilities to the most vulnerable victims of climate change by providing energy project loans and infrastructural investments. It is this inequality and unfairness, this denial and refusal to cooperate, that will doom us all. No one will win this game. What lies ahead is a scorched Earth, floods of Biblical proportions and a planet devoid of life as we know it.

But let’s talk about us. What do we do when it gets hot? We look for cooler places. We turn on fans and air conditioners. We need electricity to do so. We get electricity from coal power plants. Burning coal produces carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.

Now imagine tens of millions of people doing the same thing. Every day, day after day. See where we’re heading?

I’m not saying this to shame anyone. I am saying we are digging our own graves. The industrialized progress we have made may have brought us perks like air conditioners and ice-cream, but it has come with deforestation, pollution and mass urbanization. For every degree Celsius going up outside, city folks experience it two degrees hotter, thanks to an absence of trees and an abundance of skyscrapers.

The very least we can do now, especially in major cities like Hanoi and Saigon, is plant more trees and make more ponds and lakes, repositories of water. We have to stop licensing construction projects that encroach rivers and lakes and serve to increase population density. This won’t do, but it’s a start.

The fight against climate disaster is the fight of our lives. If we don’t join it with radical seriousness, we are done.

*Nguyen Ngoc Huy is an expert on climate change at the Vietnam National University, Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

This story, first published by VN Express,  has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters.