Climate Change: Time for adaptive measures

Last Updated : 11 April 2022, 03:00 IST

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After the Glasgow climate summit in late 2021, climate change has receded to the background, with the Russia-Ukraine war, Covid pandemic, elections, hijab controversy and so on dominating the headlines. But there is no escape from the problem of climate change, which is only getting more and more serious.

A UN climate report from IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change) titled “Climate change, impacts, adaptation and vulnerability” was released on February 28 and it soon disappeared from the front pages. In recent years, the world has experienced unprecedented floods, droughts, heatwaves and forest fires, leaving a trail of death and destruction.

The IPCC report, which is a consensus of the scientific community based on published scientific research, has provided scientific evidence on the extent of ongoing impacts, projected impacts in the coming decades, and potential opportunities to reduce vulnerability and adapt to climate impacts.

When the IPCC report was released, the UN Secretary-General remarked, “I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this.”

One of the scariest messages is that time is running out to slow or halt global warming, and for any adaptation or coping strategy to protect humanity and nature from the climate threat.

Scientists are not known to be alarmists and try to be optimistic, by saying there is still a chance to save humanity and nature with actions to reduce greenhouse gas or carbon dioxide emissions by developing adaptation strategies and building resilience to climate risks.

Mean global warming has already crossed 1.1 degrees Celsius, compared to the mean temperature about 100 years ago, and is already impacting human societies and natural ecosystems. The world has seen the hottest heatwaves, extreme floods, severe droughts, loss of biodiversity and declining crop yields.

Studies have shown that between 1980 and 2019 global average crop yield potentials have declined by 5.6% for maize, winter wheat by 2.1%, soybeans by 4.8% and rice by 1.8%. Every 0.5 degrees Celsius or even one-tenth degree Celsius warming counts and could lead to irreversible loss and damage.

A new finding is that climatic hazards will compound with one another to cause catastrophic impacts.

For example, extreme heatwaves combined with drought will lead to a steep decline in crop yields, severe forest fires and loss of human lives due to heat stress, and food and water shortages. Scientists warn that billions of people will not be able to work in the field due to severe heat waves, affecting labour productivity and loss of wages, especially in countries such as India.

Extinction of species is projected to range from 14% at 1.5-degree Celsius mean warming to nearly 30% at 3 degree-warming. According to many modellers, the world is heading towards 3 degree-warming. Similarly, the global population exposed to severe flood damage could increase from 25% at 1.5 degrees Celsius to 30% at 2-degree Celsius mean warming. Further, over a billion people will be exposed to severe droughts impacting food production.

Malnutrition is already prevalent in India and in many developing countries. A study has shown that protein, iron, and zinc availability in wheat is projected to be reduced by up to 12% by 2050 in all regions. New research finds that over the next 30 years, climate change and increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could significantly reduce the availability of critical nutrients and reduce growth in global per capita nutrient availability of protein, iron and zinc by about a fifth.

According to the UN report, over 3 billion people already live in countries highly vulnerable to climate impacts (such as droughts, floods, forest fires and cyclones), with global hotspots concentrated in Small Island Developing States, South Asia, Central and South America, and much of sub-Saharan Africa. Projected climate change will increase the risk and vulnerability of communities leading to loss of human life and damage to infrastructure and food production systems.

A large developing country such as India, with over 1.2 billion people, must have its own assessment of the impact of projected climate change on food grain and fish production, nutrition, biodiversity, vector-borne diseases, infrastructure and coastal areas.

Unfortunately, the last report that assessed some of the impacts (not all) at the national level was published in a report submitted to the UNFCCC in 2012. Since then, a lot of new research and modelling advancements have happened, but India doesn’t have any national-level assessment even in a sector such as agriculture or food production.

Actually, we need assessments of the impact of climate change and vulnerability to climate risks at district and state levels, to enable the development of short- and long-term resilience strategies to climate risks and build adaptive capacity among farmers, fisherfolk and coastal communities, and natural ecosystems. Such assessments must be based on the best of science and modelling.

The Paris agreement has a target of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius and preferably below 1.5 degrees Celsius. According to estimates made by the Indian Institute of Science, many districts of Karnataka are projected to experience warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius by the mid-2030s. So, Karnataka may face severe impacts of climate change in less than 20 years.

Thus, India and Karnataka must aim to develop long-term institutional capacity for research on climate impacts and vulnerabilities, and more importantly develop implementable adaptation solutions to enable rural and urban communities and natural ecosystems to cope with climate change.

Mitigation leading to a reduction in greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide emissions is a global challenge, but adaptation to climate change impacts will be at the level of farmers, fishermen, villages and panchayats. Even urban centres such as towns and cities will need adaptation plans, as the report states that the bulk of the population residing in urban areas, including the poor, will be most vulnerable to climate impacts.

There is a need for careful transformational and long-term adaptation planning, as the report highlights that some short-term adaptation measures may be damaging the long-term capability. So, Karnataka should aim to develop an “Adaptation Plan” for different crops, forest types, coastal zones, districts, towns and cities.

(The writer is a retired professor, Indian
Institute of Science, a climate change
expert and an IPCC author)

Published 10 April 2022, 18:44 IST

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