7 PM | A new ethics for a sustainable planet | 2nd September, 2019

Context:Climate change and the need for planetary ethics for a sustainable earth.

More in news:

  • Brazil’s Amazon forests are ablaze with dozens of fires, most of them set intentionally by loggers and others seeking greater access to forest land. The Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has stated that Amazon forests are an internal matter.
  • The American President Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement stating that it is against the national interests of the U.S. 

Climate change refers to the broader range of changes that are happening to our planet. These include rising sea levels; shrinking mountain glaciers; accelerating ice melt in Greenland, Antarctica and the Arctic; and shifts in flower/plant blooming times. These are all consequences of the warming, which is caused mainly by people burning fossil fuels and putting out heat-trapping gases into the air. 

The evidence for rapid climate change is compelling:

  • Global Temperature Rise: The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.
  • Warming Oceans: The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean showing warming of more than 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.
  • Shrinking Ice Sheets: The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost an average of 286 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016, while Antarctica lost about 127 billion tons of ice per year during the same time period. The rate of Antarctica ice mass loss has tripled in the last decade.
  • Glacial Retreat: Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.
  • Sea Level Rise: Global sea level rose about 8 inches in the last century. The rate in the last two decades, however, is nearly double that of the last century and is accelerating slightly every year.
  • Extreme Events:
    • Many cities in Europe and elsewhere have seen high temperatures never before experienced.
    • Heat waves have also accelerated melting of glaciers in Greenland at a rate that was not anticipated by scientific models until much later this century.
    • Decreasing snow cover on the glaciers of Himalayas.
  • Ocean Acidification: Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30 percent. This increase is the result of humans emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and hence more being absorbed into the oceans. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the upper layer of the oceans is increasing by about 2 billion tons per year.

Causes of Climate change:

  • Quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere: Greenhouse gases include water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Of these, water vapour makes the greatest contribution to the greenhouse effect because there is more of it. These gases trap solar radiation (electromagnetic radiation emitted by the Sun) in the Earth’s atmosphere, making the climate warmer.
  • Carbon dioxide content of the oceans: The oceans contain more carbon dioxide (CO2) than the atmosphere and they can also absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. When the CO2 is in the oceans it does not trap heat as it does when it is in the atmosphere. If CO2 leaves the oceans and moves back into the atmosphere this can contribute towards a warmer climate.
  • Vegetation coverage on the land: On a global scale, patterns of vegetation and climate are closely correlated. Vegetation absorbs carbon dioxide and this can buffer some of the effects of global warming.
  • Agriculture and related activities: Agriculture, forestry and other land use activities accounted for a little less than a quarter (23%) of the total net anthropogenic emissions of GHGs between 2007 and 2016.
  • Other major drivers of climate change:
    • Land degradation affects people and ecosystems throughout the planet and is both affected by 3 climate change and contributes to it.
    • Desertification and climate change, both individually and in combination, will reduce the 2 provision of dryland ecosystem services and lower ecosystem health, including losses in 3 biodiversity

Need of land management:

Land use is indeed interlocked with several aspects of life on earth. For example, decades of poor land management in the agricultural system are coming back to haunt us.

  • Soils have become depleted with heavy use of chemicals
  • farms have few or no friendly insects
  • monoculture has led to a reduction in the use of indigenous crop varieties with useful characteristics
  • groundwater is depleted
  • polluted farm runoffs are contributing to contaminated water bodies while destroying biodiversity.

IPCC Report- ‘Climate Change and Land’:

  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently brought out a special report on Climate Change and Land that covers desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems.
  • Very wide in its scope, the report makes it clear that unless land is managed in a sustainable manner, the diminishing chance that humanity will survive climate change will become smaller still.
  • The report calls for avoiding conversion of grassland to cropland, bringing in equitable management of water in agriculture, crop diversification, agroforestry and investment in local and indigenous seed varieties that can withstand higher temperatures. It also recommends practices that increase soil carbon and reduce salinisation.

Way Forward:

  • Managing land better for farming by reducing chemical input drastically, and taking the practice of food production closer to natural methods of agroecology, as these would reduce emissions and enhance resilience to warming.
  • Establishing sustainable food systems means reducing food waste, which is estimated to be a quarter of the food produced.
  • Put an end to deforestation, while conserving mangroves, peatland and other wetlands.
  • Sustainable land management can reduce multiple stressors on ecosystems and societies. It will also help societies adapt better to warmer climates and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Need of a new planetary ethics that supports alternative systems for the future, for a sustainable earth. It is one that cultivates the growth of ecological sensibilities, supports pluralism, enhances quality of life, shifts values away from consumerism and creates new identities and cultures that transcend conventional boundaries.


The burning of the world’s largest forest reserves, the withdrawal of the world’s leading polluter from a major international treaty and the U.K.’s isolationist policies may appear to be the triumph of nationalist ideology. But these actions have consequences that far transcend national boundaries and impact all creatures that share life on the planet. The narrow lens of nationalism is not serving the humanity and there is need to act more ethically to save our future.


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