21 January 2017
Living in a hotter world
The world has turned the page on 2016 with the worrying revelation that it was the warmest year on the instrumental record since the late 19th century, and the hottest of three record-breaking years in a row. While the rise in global average surface temperature by about 1.1º C last year over the pre-industrial era was aggravated by the El Nino phenomenon of 2015-16, the trend is a warning to all countries that they cannot afford to rely on carbon-intensive growth any longer. Explaining the scientific view, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies points to the rise in temperature as being driven “largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.” The warming pattern must be seen in the context of declining sea ice cover in the Arctic, compounding the loss of ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic. In the Arctic, which is witnessing a decline in the extent of sea ice in the lowest month at the rate of about 13% every decade, melting creates a vicious circle of more exposure of ‘dark areas’ to sunlight, higher melting and more dark surface absorbing heat. Such phenomena accelerate the rate of global warming, with consequences through climate change for coastal areas, access to water, farming and human health.
A warming globe with changes to the climate in the form of altered rainfall, drought, floods, lost biodiversity and reduced crop yields would particularly affect millions in China and India. It is heartening that Chinese President Xi Jinping asserted the importance of the Paris Agreement on climate change at the Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum, and virtually cautioned incoming U.S. President Donald Trump against reneging on it. India’s own commitment to the climate accord must be strengthened with clear and unambiguous actions. This should lead to a scaling up of renewable energy and measurable decline in use of fossil fuels. Union Power Minister Piyush Goyal has promised a steady increase in solar power capacity, going beyond the target of 100 gigawatts by 2022, but such goals become more credible when there is action in individual States to make the average citizen a partner in the effort. States should be ranked on their policies that help unlock investment in the sector, including domestic rooftop installations, and the weak service infrastructure for solar should be upgraded without delay. India’s water stress is heightened by extreme weather episodes, and this requires an enhanced policy response to protect farmers, livestock and vulnerable communities.
A deserved commutation
Chelsea Manning, the American whistle-blower slapped with a 35-year sentence for leaking classified State Department documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, has had her sentence commuted by the outgoing President, Barack Obama. Earlier known as Bradley, she has gender dysphoria, is undergoing hormone therapy for gender reassignment, and has twice attempted suicide while being held at a men’s prison. She has served more than six years of her sentence and, assuming Mr. Obama’s commutation is implemented, could hope to be freed by May 2017. Even as White House officials underscored that the 44th President had commuted the sentence, not pardoned her, and thus had not removed a federal crime from her record, Mr. Obama insisted that “justice has been served”. Central to his argument was the fact that she had served time in jail after pleading guilty to 10 of the 22 charges, relating to espionage, fraud and theft, for releasing 2,50,000 diplomatic cables, 5,00,000 military reports, military videos from Iraq and Afghanistan, and dossiers on prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay. When the cables and reports were blasted across the Internet and select media outlets by WikiLeaks in 2010, Mr. Obama had to send the then U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to various world capitals and assuage America’s allies in the face of uncomplimentary private comments by U.S. diplomats.
Mr. Obama’s decision to commute the sentence could not have come at a more fraught juncture in U.S. politics. WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, had promised to allow himself to be extradited to the U.S. if Mr. Obama freed Ms. Manning. Now he says he will abide by that promise. However, WikiLeaks also put itself at the centre of what has been a difficult American election resulting in the victory of Donald Trump, when it published emails of the Democratic National Committee allegedly stolen by hackers with links to Russia. Those leaks, along with other cyber-malfeasance associated with the highest levels of government in Moscow, are considered by many angry Democrats to have derailed Ms. Clinton’s run at the White House. Has Mr. Obama done a good turn to a group that played a role in the Democratic Party’s debacle in November last year? Has he opened up his party to attacks by Republicans for sending a “troubling message” to future leakers with information that could play into the hands of America’s enemies? Maybe. Yet what he has done for sure is to mitigate, in small measure, the U.S.’s reputation as a superpower that preaches about democratic values such as the right to dissent and freedom of speech, yet at home has come down with an iron fist on whistle-blowers.