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This present political season is interesting in many ways, one of which is that new words, phrases and punch lines are daily being added to our national lexicon. We are also adopting new attitudes. For instance, because of the widespread interest in the campaign of one of the presidential candidates, we now seem to have developed a sudden interest in data and data-crunching. Politicians now fall over themselves to prop their points with statistics and numbers. On the same hand, we are now more prone to verify every piece of information that is thrown up by canvassers. We Google stuff that is thrown at us. We cross-check every bit of info offered by political-office seekers. It all started when that presidential candidate followed up his assertions with the line: You can go and verify.

This is why, as an environmental advocate, I feel the need to advise all those climate change deniers and naysayers, who are still in doubt of how real a threat global warming poses to our society, to go and check the news. Not just today’s news but news that is as old as their great-grandparents. On the other hand, I also want to admonish the climate scientists and activists not to rest on their oars in this fight. The window of escape for the world may be narrower than we have gauged.

On August 14, 1912, a newspaper called the Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata and Kaipara Gazette of New Zealand printed a prophetic paragraph in its “science and news” section with the title, Coal Consumption Affecting Climate. The piece read, “The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.”

Note: Controverting the above prediction, it did not take a century for the chicken to come home to roost. Indeed, within decades, the world began to witness increases in temperature, followed by extreme weather events. By the mid-70s when scientists came out with their preliminary findings, it dawned on us that humanity had in fact contributed to the changing climate through the burning of fossil fuels. By the early 90s, we decided to make it official at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The rest is history.

The above article’s authenticity is supported by the fact that it can be found in the digital archives of the National Library of New Zealand. Further attesting to its authenticity is that an identical story had appeared in an Australian newspaper a month earlier, in the July 17, 1912 issue of The Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal, as found in the digital archives of the National Library of Australia.

It is instructive to note that the first person to use the term “greenhouse gases” was Svante Arrhenius (a Swedish scientist) in 1896. In a paper published that year, he made an early calculation of how much warmer the earth was, thanks to the energy-trapping nature of some of the gases in the atmosphere. Even at this early stage, he understood that humans had the potential to play a significant role in changing the concentration of at least one of those gases, carbon dioxide (known as carbonic acid back then): “The world’s present production of coal reaches in round numbers 500 millions of tons per annum or 1 ton per km of earth’s surface. Transformed into carbonic acid, this quantity would correspond to about a thousandth part of the carbonic acid in the atmosphere.”

Back to the present. Is it a coincidence that this year’s weather events are described with the alarming word “apocalypse?” First, it was the heat apocalypse of Europe. Now is the flood apocalypse in Pakistan—where one-third of the country is submerged in water. Multistorey hotels crumbling into rising waters. Surging waves crashing into elevated roads and bridges. Millions of people driven from their homes. The South Asian country of about 220 million people is now facing an unprecedented crisis after eight consecutive weeks of heavy rainfall. According to Pakistani officials, the floods have killed 1,100 people, affected more than 33 million residents, wiped out 1 million homes and destroyed about 2,200 miles of roads. Nearly 500,000 people are in displacement camps and many others have nowhere to go.

As it is happening in Pakistan, so it is in Sudan. Torrential rains and flash floods continue to wreak havoc across Sudan affecting tens of thousands of people. By August 28, about 226,200 people have been affected, according to the Government’s Humanitarian Aid Commission, humanitarian organisations on the ground and local authorities. The rains and floods destroyed at least 13,200 houses and damaged another 34,200 in 15 states. The government authorities reported that 89 people died and more than 30 people were injured since the beginning of the rainy season.

It is the same story in West Africa. In Sierra Leone, as the country is about to celebrate the five-year anniversary of the landslide that happened in 2017 and killed over 1,000 Freetown hillside residents, another flooding-induced slide just occurred, killing some Freetown residents whose houses are on the hillside. In Nigeria, we are also inundated with similar calamities. It is happening in many places at the same time—Jigawa, Lagos, Borno, Cross River, Anambra, Enugu and Benue, among other states. It is real and you can go and verify!

The amount and rate of warming expected for the 21st century depend on the total amount of greenhouse gases that humankind emits. Models project the temperature increase for a business-as-usual emissions scenario and aggressive emission reductions, falling close to zero, 50 years from now. This is the idea behind the global net-zero vision we are now all part of as a global community. In simple terms, net zero means cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible, with any remaining emissions re-absorbed from the atmosphere by oceans and forests for instance.

Net zero is important because science shows clearly that in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change and preserve a liveable planet, global temperature increase needs to be limited to 1.5 degree Celsius pre-industrial levels. Presently, the earth is already about 1.1°C warmer than it was in the late 1800s and emissions continue to rise. To keep global warming to no more than 1. 5°C—as called for in the Paris Climate Agreement—emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Transitioning to a net-zero world is one of the greatest challenges humankind has faced. It calls for nothing less than a complete transformation of how we produce, consume and move about.

This is why the next election in Nigeria must be about issues. Let the candidates tell us how they plan to align with the net zero projection in the critical sectors of the economy. The energy sector is the source of around three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions today and holds the key to averting the worst effects of climate change. The Federal Government just announced what energy transition would cost us. How feasible is this new trajectory? Do we have candidates who could muster enough political will to align with this global trend? Replacing polluting coal, gas and oil-fired power with energy from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, would dramatically reduce carbon emissions but it requires fundamental policy adjustments and real sector incentives.

Greg Odogwu’s piece appeared in Punch