Image from Climate Change Adaptation Sri Lanka

While awaiting to hear of the brilliant contributions that Sri Lanka has made to the just concluded United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), conference in Durban, the view from Durban is somewhat clouded.  The global polluters are demonstrating extreme disdain of accepting any responsibility they have to the rest of humanity who share a common atmosphere with them.  The unilateral move by Canada in withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, a move endorsed by the fossil energy industry, demonstrates how much public interest has been eroded from political enclaves.

The UNFCC itself is a lame duck, it is still unable to recognize or identify the difference in value of carbon originating from biotic sources and fossil sources. This fact is commonsense; that while a diamond, petroleum, a lump of coal, piece of wood or piece of fruit is comprised of carbon, they are not the same, and they have different values.  So in burning them up we have to recognize the value (cost) of each. The carbon dioxide that emanates from them by burning is also different. The carbon dioxide from biotic carbon will always have the carbon isotope C14, while carbon dioxide from fossil carbon will never contain C14.  In time, the differences are in millions of years.

This much is common knowledge, most high school children are already aware of these facts. Then why has the UNFCC chosen not to ‘see’ that there is a value and temporal difference between biotic and fossil carbon cycles?  A cynic might say that many are in the pay of the energy industry. But what about our Sri Lankan scientists, who attended Durban?  Surely they will never sell out to the energy industry!  Perhaps they have already identified these fundamental structural flaws within the UNFCC and we might see this stand reflected in their reports.

In the meanwhile, apart from the innumerable conferences and workshops that we could have, what should we do in Sri Lanka?  This question has come sharply into focus with the news that Russian scientists have discovered hundreds of plumes of methane gas, some  over 1,000 meters in diameter, bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean. Methane is about 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.   Dr.Igor Semiletov of the Russian Academy of Sciences stated in a recent interview “ Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of meters in diameter. This is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 meters in diameter. It’s amazing.”

All this points to the need for immediate action. Landscapes are slow to respond to rapid changes. The effect of the increase in storm force was apparent all last year. By now we should have had some national adaptation strategies. Yes, there has been a plethora of conferences around the subject, but what do I do if my drinking water runs out? What do I do if there is salt intrusion into my field? How do I deal with sudden windstorms ? If the years spent on discussing adaptation had borne any fruit, we would now be seeing public education programs on climate change preparedness by now.

So we wait with hope for information from the Climate Change Secretariat on the range of adaptation strategies that we could use in our respective professions in Sri Lanka.  But it would behoove us to begin adaptive field studies with our farmers now, based on the predictive models that have a systematic data updating function.   The Climate Change Secretariat needs to coordinate all agencies dealing with natural resources, in order to develop functional models for adaptation. From the signs about us we know will have to face the oncoming changes, we need a national plan that informs the public on how we should prepare.


  • Philip

    Has no one bothered to consider that our energy use releases heat and that heat causes temperature rise. Burning of fossil fuels comprises 80% of our energy use, so the corresponding rise in temperature with rising CO2 is natural but it is the heat released by these fuels as well as the heat from nuclear plants that must be eliminated. We are adding 16TW of heat annually to our atmosphere and projected to go much higher. Now 16TW is enough to raise the temperature of the atmosphere by 0.17*F. annually. Actual rise is ~ 0.05*F due to glacial melting and thermal lag (heating the rest of the earth). Looking at it another way, the geothermal flow is 44TW. If we add 16 more to make a total of 60TW, what will be the equilibrium temperature? If radiation is a function of the fourth power of temperature then the temperature will rise another 44*F. If heat is indeed a factor, nuclear power is not a solution, and there is a tremendous push to replace fossil with nuclear. Will any of the Kyoto scientists explain why they have not addressed the role that heat emission is playing on global warming? After all this time we are still arguing about CO2, and should we sequester it, etc. Putting a tax on carbon will not eliminate it. I do not know how the nations of the world can force heat emitters to stop present emissions, much less not propagating more.

  • kadphises

    Some years ago a friend of mine at a gathering was ranting on about the US using up all the world’s resources. He was right, but only upto a point. I couldnt help but be a little amused because just delving a bit into his own lifestyle would have revealed what a resource waster he was. He never caught the bus. Went everywhere by car, with his A/C on full(He had several and one was a gas guzzler). Did several trips abroad for this and that conference. In fact his carbon footprint could not have been very different from a whole lot of average Americans. The only reason Sri Lanka’s Greenhouse emmissions are low is because we have a huge population of poor people who dont use cars, dont use air travel, dont use A/C etc. There are Americans in this category too. But they are few.

    Also, To call India and China big polluters while letting Luxumberg off the hook is for instance sheer madness as it is unfair to expect low energy consuming Indians to consume even less. There is also the fact that much of the goods produced in Chinese factories are consumed in the West and US. We will never get a consensus by imposing these kind of unfair constraints. Therefore IMHO the only fair way of getting a consensus is to impose certain Global restrictions on energy consuming products.

    For example.
    1. Impose a worldwide limit on the weight and engine size of private motor cars. This will not hurt anyone.
    2. Make all the world’s cities car-free and force people to use public transport where public transport is efficient.
    3. Eliminate 1st and Business Class on flights and carry as many passengers as possible.
    4. Impose compulsory use of Solar Panels and rainwater tanks on housing above a certain floor area. e.g. A worldwide law which stipulates solar pannels on a house should be 10% of the floor area.
    5. Impose restrictions on maximum floor for all new houses in cold countries where heating is used in winter.
    6. Tax large houses and offer tax breaks for those living in flats.

    7.Globally Impose Chinese style laws on family size as population growth is the one thing that will counteract any savings we make through technology and restraint. No one upto now has recognised the role population increase will play in Environmental degradation, Pressure on land, Water usage,Resource usage, Greenhouse gas emmisions and environmental collapse in general. My prediction is that the population WILL correct itself within the next 30 years. It will be through war or anarchy. But we have a choice of avoiding all that if we can park this global population behemoth before it destroys all of us. We NEED to achieve negative, or at least zero growth pretty soon.

    It must be realised that the population has been increasing exponentially only since around the beginning of this century. And we are already running out of land, oil, air and drinkable water. Just imagine what it will be like in another hundred years with a population twice as big if the world lasts that long? Todays children I fear face a very bleak bleak future. As for grand children.. forget it!

    • luxmy

      1.The President likes to give money to the armed forces for producing more children.
      2. What happened at the Conference of Climate change and Social Issues 2011 held two weeks ago in Colombo? Where can one find the proceedings please?

      • Kusum

        Why did we a have a conference on climate change in Sri Lanka at the same time as the one in Durban?

        Will those responsible for arranging the Sri Lankan Conference reply please?

    • SL’s population is aging, Luxmy, so more kids are a better thing.

      Kadphises, global restrictions sound good in theory, but are impossible to implement. No one, for instance, can force countries to sign resolutions they don’t want to; eg: the Kyoto Protocol. Aside from the unfairness and impracticality of many of the measures you suggest, who is going to enforce these? There is no global governing body. For global measures to work, national leaders must have the will to enforce them locally, and if they had that, they would already be doing it, which would make global laws redundant.

      • kadphises

        David Blacker,

        Pouplations are aging in many countries and this poses a problem where a smaller productive population has to support a larger unproductive population. The easy and shortsighted way to tackle this is to keep the population growing. However that would inevitably lead to further environmental degradation as the larger population continues to consume more and more resources. Today, Sri Lanka’s population stands at 20 million. If it keeps growing at 2% a year it is going to reach 40 million in just 35 years. Do you think there is enough space, land, fresh water, roads and other infrastructure to sustain that population? The only answer therefore is to achieve 0 or -ve population growth. We will have to adapt in many ways to cope with an aging population. Pensioners may have to be looked after in old people’s homes where they can be cared for more efficiently. We may also have to ration free healthcare for those over say 75 years of age. I agree these are extreme measures but hard times will require tough measures and we are soon going to reach a point where we will have no other choice. So lets get used to it. The good times are over.

      • kadphises

        Global restrictions on engine size for instance are quite easy to implement considering there are only a handfull of companys (all in the developed world) that produce them. Imagine the savings made if car in the world runs on a 1.5 litre diesel engine?

      • kadphises


        The individual countries will have to enforce the restrictions themselves as it is their own citizens who will benefit from the measures. If there is no consensus or if countries try to equalise emmisions on a per country basis without considering the population sizes we will all suffer. There is growing consensus within countrys for such change it will no doubt increase as environmental problems keep increasing.

        For example, Today the US and West keep bailing out the populations of Eastern Africa whenever a famine (brought about by dessertification) hits them. The affected area and the frequency of these famines keep increasing. Yet the population in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia and Sudan keeps increasing. Average families have 4 or 5 kids. There will inevitably be a point when the UN, US and EU give up and recognise that the problem is too big to solve. And where would we be then? These countrys will have to recognise at some point that the land is not capable of supporting their populations. The only way I see of avoiding the inevitable is for these countries to voluntarily reduce their populations by having fewer babies before they all die of starvation.

      • Kusum

        There has been a consensus among human beings around the world that we need to control the human population.

        How many national laws are adhered to by the government itself, leave aone the international laws?

      • Kadphises, SL is nowhere near overpopulated, and even if the population doubles in 35 years it is manageable given the probable technological advances over time. Vast swathes of SL away from the main roads are largely unpopulated, and an improved transport infrastructure will enable people to live further and further away from urban centres where they work and are forced to live presently.

        Countries like the US take for granted that they will have to bail out Africa, and take that as a given for being what they are. They’ve been doing it for most of the past 60 years, long before environmental issues became headlines.

        Engines may be made by a relatively few companies, as you say, and I use the word “relatively” quite broadly because in fact there are quite a few engine manufacturers out there, especially when you include the new boys in China, India, etc. But the fact is that the numbers don’t matter. Look how few control the petroleum industry; and yet they are able to prevent real change in energy use.

        Yes it might seem pretty cool if every car had a 1.5-litre diesel, but only if everyone used their cars as a utility, and was happy to be like everyone else. Fact is, many people want their cars to represent themselves, and be fun as well as utilitarian. A manufacturer or marque that suddenly decided to restrict its engine lineup to just one model, will see a huge dive in sales. You may say that it won’t matter if everyone does it, but there just isn’t a way to make everyone do it. So as long as some won’t, those that do will lose out. That basic fact applies to other industries too.

        It’s all very well to say make cities pedestrian areas and rely on public transport, but the reality is that except for the First World, most cities have inadequate public transport, and are incapable of implementing such a system. Plus there’s nothing green about big buses and trains that run on diesel.

        I could go on, but I think you get the point.

      • kadphises


        Of course, for any change there needs to be the will and if there is no will there will be no change. People will never cut back on their consumption voluntarily because they realise that their own personal contribution to the global problem is infinitissimal. If you ask an average man on the street if he is prepared to kill a cow and eat it he will most probably say no. But will he be prepared to stop buying beef in the hope that if more do the same they could collectively save the lives of more cattle? I doubt it. So even if we have a whole population of people who favour ending the slaughter of cattle it is almost impossible to achieve it unless the govt legislates agains it. (This is only and example. I am not a crusader for banning the slaughter of cattle)

        In the same way many people realise that the only way to address environmental issues is reduce consumption. However they will not change their habits as long as they feel others will continue to do it. Therefore government regulation are the only feasible way of achieving something like this.

        Today the way contries are trying to introduce these behaviours is by making it increasinghly expensive to run a 5.0 litre guzzler than a 1.5 litre car. But I fear these measures are not drastic enough.

        I doubt if Chinese and Indian manufacterers are the problem. They already use 1.5l engines It is the Germans and the Americans. Mainly the Americans who are producing the guzzlers.

        Sure, we can crowd more people into Sri Lanka at the expense of our wilderness areas. But would it be worth it? What would we gain by it?

        If a country were were to ban the manufacture and use of cars with engines over 1.5 litre it means they stop importing them too. So how could a manufacturer elswhere exploit the situation and increase their market share within that country? If the EU, US and Japan take the lead that alone would result in a huge reduction in emmisions. Chinese and Indian cars are not as thirsty anyway.

        A bus with 100 passengers riding in it witll always be greener than 100 people driving about in 100 cars.

      • Kadphieses, you don’t need to tell me about the virtues of government legislation, or its effectiveness. My point to you was on the ineffectiveness of global measures. The latter cannot work until the governments are willing and able to pass and implement their own legislation. So it has to be a bottom-up system rather than one imposed from above. The latter rarely work, as I pointed out with the example of Kyoto.

        As with your beef example, government legislation can be passed only if the people are accepting of it (at least in a democracy). You can’t ban beef if people want beef. You can ban sales of beef on Poya day, if people grudgingly admit that there’s something sinful about eating animals and are willing to give it up for a day. Same with cars. London can impose higher taxes on cars entering the city only if the majority of people are OK with it. Drastic measures cannot be imposed on the unwilling.

        Perhaps one day everyone will be willing to give up the entertainment factor of motoring, but that day’s a long way off. The point is, just downsizing engines won’t work. There has to be serious research and development of lighter materials that don’t require such large engines. How many governments are doing that?

        As to market factors, how many big and medium engine and car manufacturers do you know that produce just for their domestic markets? Export is a prime market since most countries don’t produce their own engines and cars, especially in the Third World. So say Ford (and all other American engine manufacturers) decide to stop producing everything above a 1.5-litre straight-4 turbo, and also ban all imports above that capacity. It’ll basically kill their exports to Europe dead, since they can hardly export an engine that is deemed to harmful at home. European manufacturers such as Audi and VW will continue to send 1.5s to the USA, competing with Ford & Co, while producing more powerful engines for European consumption and export to Asia, killing Ford in those countries as well. Ford will be reduced to fighting for a piece of the domestic pie. It’s not going to happen.

        As for population, do you really think that making inroads to the SL interior will make things worse for our national parks than they already are? A planned infrastructure will enable nature to be also protected, whereas today, it is exploited by people just trying to stay afloat in areas they are struggling to survive in.

      • Oh, and you may argue that a 100 people traveling in a smoke-belching bus is better than a 100 cars, but the fact is in the Third World, entire families travel on motorcycles and small cars; so its no more than 25 vehicles, probably less that are being replaced.

    • Gamarala

      Dear Kadphises, Luxmy and David,

      Part of the problem is that climate change is not instantly fatal – the effects accumulate and creep up over time. The brunt of its effect will be borne by the poor, and those living in coastal areas. The middle-classes currently do not feel the effects strongly enough to implement the solutions Kadphises suggests, or are distracted by other problems.

      I fear that many do not fully realize the gravity of the problem. We will be lucky if we get off with a few degrees change in temperature. In a worse case scenario, who knows? we may even be looking at a runaway green house effect, similar to that on Venus. In which case, not even bacteria will be alive to inherit the earth.

      There’s also this naive expectation (by possibly those who ignorant of technology), that technology alone will prove to be our salvation. That some modern method of carbon sequestration, or some miracle energy source, will solve the problem. Unfortunately, technology isn’t the same as magic. So far, no such solution has been forthcoming. And given that even our natural carbon sequestration methods (e.g. plants) are unable to handle the pressure, it is highly unlikely that a human solution would do any better. The talent we have for releasing energy naturally stored over billions of years is unlikely to be the same as our talent to sequester it again in a few years, or even to come up with alternatives for. The situation as it stands now, looks really grim.

      I agree with Kadphises that controlling population, before natural controls kick in, is an important thing. However, I’m not sure that it should be the top priority. The US, Japan and Europe are single handedly responsible for 2/3 of the world’s energy consumption, yet they have stable populations. Population growth in poorer countries may increase demand for energy, but this energy usage is still lower than the 3 big polluters. Therefore, the bulk of the effort needs to focus on those 3. In the meantime, I too fear that what Kadphises says will come to pass. Population growth is highest in relatively poorer countries. The poor will also be the most likely to die due to the effects of global warming.

      • Ranil Senanayake

        Dear all,

        The one thing that we must address is the fossil carbon cost of consumerist development. Every person consuming ten times more than an year before has added ten more people at his original rate of consumption. To base ‘Development’ on consumption, leads not to a dead end, it leads to a cliff !

  • Kusum


    Please let me know where I can look up to see what happened in the climate Change conference in Colombo in mid-December. Thanks.

    • Ranil Senanayake

      Dear Kusum,

      Unfortunately I do not have that information, even though I work at the international level, I am not usually invited to such events in Sri Lanka. It seems that, the local bureaucratic/camp follower system is a bit allergic to my presence.

      • kusum

        Thank you, Ranil.

        I am only intrigued at the timing – it was going to start(I only saw the notice for the conference, but never saw anything about what actually happened)on 13 December whereas the Durban finished on 11 December.

        Regarding allergy to cooperation and collaboration, it’s so sad.