Kerala floods: global warming in action

Kerala floods: global warming in action

Incessant rains and landslides in Kerala and Karnataka have not only been among the deadliest on record but are also part of a new global pattern of extreme weather. With Karnataka’s Cauvery and Kerala’s Idukki reservoirs filled, and the epic floods causing rising fatalities, despite evacuations, and untold human hardship, the first and foremost concern clearly is rescue and rehabilitation. But, even at the height of these catastrophes, it is high time to recognise the hand of global warming in exacerbating extreme weather in South India and around the world.

India is no stranger to floods and storms. Weather disasters are a fixture, with generations of people showing great resilience against these events. Indian central and state administrations and society score high on their readiness to respond and react. But the worry now is that the new normal — weather marked by higher precipitation and higher temperatures — is increasing the frequency and ferocity of weather disasters, making them more lethal and financially damaging, and very difficult to confront.

Three factors are turning hazards of nature into full blown catastrophes. The first is the growing exposure of people in harm’s way due to population increase and urbanisation, as we have seen on the western coast of India. The second is the greater vulnerability of people because of the destruction of the environment and natural defences, which hurt the poor the most. The third reason is that because of relentless emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide from fossil fuels like coal), our planet is now one degree Celsius hotter than before the Industrial Revolution. With that, the rate of evaporation from the ocean increases, warmer air holds more vapour, and more intense rainfall and deadly flooding follow. 

Maximum and average temperatures have risen significantly over the past 60 years across most Indian states, including Kerala, with Tamil Nadu at the high end of this trend, according to India Meteorological Department. Warmer air more quickly evaporates water and also causes drying more quickly.

This year’s heat waves in Delhi and northern India, and Pakistan, as well as in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, saw temperatures hitting 47 degrees Celsius in some locations. One estimate puts the death toll from heat waves in the past quarter century at 25,000, with the poor hit the hardest.

The higher rate of evaporation from a warmer climate contributes to more intense precipitation and rain. Extreme rainfall is also more notable, even as average rainfall during the year does not show a clear historical trend. By one estimate, intense rainfall in Kerala from June 1 to August 8 this
year was 23% more than the average for the same period during 1871-2005.

Asia is bearing the brunt of more weather disasters, but this is truly a global phenomenon. California’s wildfires—the largest recorded in the state—are being stoked by dry vegetation and hot, windy weather in which maximum temperatures in the state this summer have registered the greatest increases in the country.

Being better prepared in the face of natural disasters calls for regulating the location of residences and businesses along coastlines and hill slopes, and reinforcing buildings, roadways and bridges. Of high payoffs are early warning systems, mock evacuation drills and the provision of secure shelters.

These steps ahead of Cyclone Phailin in Odisha, for example, meant a 99.6% reduction in fatalities from a comparable cyclone 14 years earlier.  

The new climate reality, however, means that in addition to the usually needed disaster preparation, climate mitigation must become a global priority, marked by a significant reduction in the use of coal in energy, transport and agriculture. India is the world’s third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, after China and the United States. That said, the country ranks far lower in per capita emissions because of its large population, while the US is far and away the largest emitter in per capita terms.

Many places, including Indian states, face the frustrating irony of suffering damages from weather disasters that are way out of proportion to its relatively light carbon footprint. Kerala ranks 16th in per capita emissions in the country. This asymmetry affects other countries in Asia, too, at the sharp end of climate disasters, most notably Bangladesh and the Pacific island countries. Despite their softer carbon footprints, they must drastically step up climate adaptation and resilience building — and lend a voice in the call for climate mitigation by all.

Being a small state doesn’t mean having a small voice. The leaders of Pacific island countries and the Philippines have made impassioned and effective pleas to the big carbon emitters to sharply cut their emissions, as the Paris climate accord calls for. For resilience building on the part of countries to make a difference, the big industrial countries must cut carbon emissions under their Paris commitments — and more, as is becoming increasingly apparent.

(The writer is Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore and former Senior Vice President, the World Bank)