By: Hajrah Mumtaz

AS Earth Day 2017 passed on Saturday, a number of news headlines from the preceding days provided reason to reflect on how humanity’s habit of heedless consumption and propensity to pollute is killing the planet.

In this age of fake news and alternative facts, one reality that was for decades held by many to fall into the former category has in recent years finally emerged as an undeniable truth: climate change is real, under way, the result of human activities, and devastating. So much evidence has mounted up over the years, from warming seas to melting Arctic ice and a thinning ozone layer that it would take a Trump-like approach to facts to argue any different. Most recently, scientists rang the alarm bells over the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s only living structure that is visible from outer space.

According to the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the miracle that took hundreds of thousands of years to develop and is one of the Earth’s most complex ecosystems has suffered two consecutive years of ‘massive bleaching events’. This refers to the evacuation of the polyps that live in the physical structure of the coral, and that give coral its distinctive colour. They, along with millions of other organisms, are abandoning the Great Barrier Reef, or dying, because ocean temperatures are rising beyond the levels they can survive.

The sort of destruction being recorded in this World Heritage site was not expected for another three decades or so. The word being used is ‘terminal’, and researchers have warned that what’s happening here should be taken as indicative of the similar, less visible, havoc being wreaked by climate change on the rest of the planet.

Climate change, real and devastating, is the result of human activities.

Not content with this aspect of humanity’s handiwork, we’re having an effect beyond the confines of the planet as well. This month saw the seventh European Con*fe*rence on Space Debris, held at the European Space Agency (ESA) Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany. Space debris is stuff like spent rocket parts, fragments from defunct spacecraft or satellites, or leaked liquids like coolants that have solidified into pellets in the cold of space.

Radar stations have tracked some 18,000 objects in orbit, of which only seven per cent are operational satellites. But radars can only track objects of size; the ESA estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of bits of junk in orbit, ranging in size from millimetres to a metre. A major issue that came under discussion at the conference was what is known as the Kessler syndrome: frequent collisions of space debris with each other and operational satellites exponentially increase the amount of space debris, leading to many more collisions – eventually leading to the loss of use of certain orbits because anything put there would definitely get hit.

The sizes of this garbage don’t seem to present reason for alarm. But consider this: on Aug 23, a solar panel of the ESA’s flagship Earth observation satellite, Sentinel-1A, was hit by a piece of debris probably no more than few millimetres in size. It caused damage over a 40cm-wide area, affected the satellite’s electrical power, and knocked the satellite itself into a slightly different orbit and orientation. That’s because anything in orbit travels at orbital velocities, which are measured in kilometres per second. And to come to grips with how much mankind has sent barrelling into space, so far 7,000 spacecraft have in total been launched in the 60-year history of space ex**plo**ration (since the launch of Spu*t*nik One in 1957). But the effort to bring the entire world on**line means that companies such as Space X, Samsung and Boeing are set to send more than 10,000 satellites into orbit in due course.

It may feel superfluous to be discussing these issues in Pakistan which, not being heavily industrialised, does not have too much responsibility to shoulder in such matters. But it is precisely countries such as this that stand most heavily affected by climate change in particular, and least capable of dealing with the fallout. There is already a growing body of experiential evidence, for example, that the traditional seasons for sowing and reaping crops and fruit are shifting, but this is barely being discussed at policy level, despite the existence of a ministry for climate change.

Further, if the mindset that underpins harmful practices were taken as a yardstick, we would certainly appear on the list of those that care not about the adverse consequences of current practices. Our domestic record of polluting practices, including our inability to curtail the use of polythene, or to treat sewage or industrial effluent, is damning. At least in world good news, there was this headline on Earth Day: “Britain goes a full day without coal” in the push to move away from coal-fired power generation. Pakistan is still in the process of setting up coal-fired plants.