Climate change is creating new realities for many communities across the globe, threatening livelihoods and producing environmental refugees in some cases, and presenting new opportunities in others.
The Ganges River, which flows across northern India, has been revered for millennia by millions of Hindus as a sacred source of healing and enlightenment. Now, according to the United Nations, the glacier that feeds the Ganges is shrinking and could disappear by 2030.
Robert Bradley of the World Resources Institute in Washington says the melting is largely due to rising global temperatures.
"The global temperature has risen by the equivalent of one degree Fahrenheit since the pre-industrial period. The temperatures, particularly in the winter, particularly toward the poles, are getting warmer. So we're seeing a lot of impact in places like Alaska and northern Canada. Permafrost [i.e., permanently frozen soil] is melting and the sea ice is retreating. That's already affecting shipping lanes. It's affecting polar bears and their habits,” says Bradley. “We're also seeing in mountainous areas a lot of glaciers in full retreat. The city of Lima in Peru, which is a city of about two-million people, depends entirely on a glacier for its water supply. That glacier is retreating rapidly and is expected to disappear in twenty years time."
In Greenland, indigenous people who traditionally have used dog sledges to navigate the ice, now have to use boats to reach their traditional hunting grounds.
Climatologist Bruce Finney of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks says climate change in America's northernmost state has triggered a chain of environmental events.
"There are examples like tundra habitats with tree lines moving, where animals are changing their ranges and people have to act accordingly for their subsistence. And there are a lot of insect outbreaks that happened in the past, but they seem to be happening with more occurrence lately,” says Finney. “And lots of areas of forests in Alaska have been affected by the Spruce Bark Beetle. And there are basically dead trees now where there were healthy forests just 20 or 30 years ago. And that's affecting habitats for animals."
Poor Countries May Suffer Most
Most analysts note that the effects of climate change tend to hit poor countries the hardest because they generally lack the resources and options to deal with them.
Nick Nuttall, the spokesman for the United Nations Environmental Program in Nairobi, says the changes are not all negative and may encourage new industries and greener lifestyles. Nevertheless, he says they add considerable challenges to existing problems in countries in Africa and Asia.
"You have higher population densities than you've had before. And climate change just adds a whole new dimension to existing problems in terms of what you do, things like crop planting, or what you do about things like infrastructure planning. If you want to go for a big reservoir, a big hydro-electric plant, the kind of weather patterns and the water flows that you've based everything on in the last 100 or 200 years are fundamentally changing," says Nuttall.
One of those challenges, many analysts say, is that dwindling natural resources often lead to conflict. Jay Gulledge, a Senior Research Fellow at the Pew Center for Climate Change, says this is already happening.
"Darfur is an example of a region where existing political turmoil has been exacerbated by climate problems, whether or not we know why desertification is happening there. It could be because of global warming or it may have happened anyway,” says Gulledge. “But it is an example of where the politics of a region have gotten out of hand because of competition for water. So we are going to see very likely much more of those kinds of problems because we are in a trend of a changing climate."
Many experts warn that climate change could also trigger an environmental refugee crisis. They say scarce natural resources and development projects are already displacing large numbers of people in Asia and Africa.
The U.N.'s Nick Nuttall says concern over this issue became apparent last year when the United Nations launched an initiative to help African countries climate-proof their economies.
"And this was funded by the government of Spain, whose traditional area would be more Latin America. We said, 'Why? Why are you funding this?' And their clear answer was, 'There are so many people now getting in little boats, trying to brave the Mediterranean Sea, going to the Canary Islands, trying to get to Europe because they are seeing environmental degradation in part because of climate change,'” says Nuttall. “And the Spanish felt that they should fund adaptation to try and bolster the economies and livelihoods of people in those countries that had to flee, because it is already happening. A refugee situation is already underway."
Many analysts say migration is feasible in some cases. They cite the example of the Pacific island of Kiribati, which negotiated with Australia and New Zealand to allow its citizens to relocate as rising sea levels claim their homes. But most experts say relocation is not possible in places like Bangladesh, where millions of people near the Brahmaputra River delta are increasingly threatened by flash floods.
Living with Climate Change
While most scientists agree that climate change will continue, the U.N.'s Nick Nuttall says people will have to adapt to their new environments.
"We're living on a planet of six-billion people right now whose whole lifestyle, whole economies have been based on a set amount of predictability over the last 200, 300, 500, 1000 years, whatever,” says Nuttall. “So the idea that we are introducing into this equation whole new challenges to infrastructure and the way that we have lived our lives is profound. We have big opportunities to restructure the way this world operates and the benefits in the medium to long-term could be absolutely huge."
For India's Hindus, the effect of climate change may be significant. But many analysts say some results of climatic change may lead to new industries in the short-term and new habitats and species in the long-term. Whatever the scenario, most analysts agree that climate change will challenge a world long set in its ways.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.