Clear and present danger

Climate Change

The intensity, spread and relentless fury of the floods in Kerala have set alarm bells ringing. It is important to recognise that this was an extreme climate event — Kerala hadn’t seen such extreme precipitation in 125 years - triggered by climate change. We must not forget the floods in Uttarakhand in June 2013 and in Chennai in 2015.

What must concern the executive in the states and at the Centre is the pattern of change in ‘average weather’ manifesting in the growing intensity, recurrence, frequency and spread of such extreme events, whether floods or droughts. Climate change represents a clear and present danger with long-term implications, and the spectre of significant human development decline in India over the medium to long term.

Climate change is characterised by changes in the average weather, including rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns and rising sea levels. Evidence from different studies points to the average annual temperatures increasing significantly, but unevenly, across India. Between 1950 and 2010, peninsular India experienced increases of between 1-1.5 degrees Celsius. Changes in the precipitation patterns are more difficult to measure, but again, empirical data suggests that the temporal and spatial distribution of rainfall is changing in ways that are unprecedented, resulting in recurring rapid onset climate events –- floods, storms and droughts.

Global climate models are the only tools to approximate the anticipated changes -– the Climate Model Inter-comparison Project (CMIP) includes 18 such models. A recent World Bank study draws on this data and points to startling projections that have serious long-term implications for South Asia in general and India in particular.

The prediction by these climate models is that the average temperature in South Asia will increase further, between 1.6-2.2 degrees Celsius; and that the average monsoon precipitation will increase between 3.9-6.4%, depending on whether we traverse a climate-sensitive or a carbon-intensive development path.

Worse still, several ‘climate hotspots’, including large metropolises like Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai are emerging in India. That Kerala was not an anticipated climate change hotspot makes the diverse and spatial and temporal effects of changes in average weather more, not less, complex.

There is, therefore, urgent need for governments to go beyond natural disaster management to better understand the long-term effects of changes in temperature and precipitation; how these changes will vary from region to region and manifest in differing extreme climate events; and how the local impact of a global process will significantly challenge the human development prospects and livelihoods of communities.

Enabling evidence-based and community-led climate sensitive adaptation and mitigation strategies through a diverse, decentralised model informing development planning will be the key to building climate change resilience. Policy attention has focused on developing early warning systems, disaster-resilient infrastructure and emergency response, and commendably so, to reduce the economic shocks from extreme weather events.

Little effort has been made, though, to understand the multi-faceted effects of such events on livelihoods, health, and climate change-induced migration. Even less understood are the long-term implications of these changes on poor households and vulnerable communities.

Developing action plans

Going forward, devising appropriate adaptation and mitigation strategies at geography-specific and household levels to reduce the adverse economic impact of extreme climate events will require a portfolio of actions. The emphasis will have to be on developing action plans especially for the climate change hotspots in India and investing local institutions and communities with climate change action capacities and the agency to act.

However, we must recognise that climate action comes with considerable costs and hence must be based on data and evidence informing policy. For sustained and sustainable action, understanding the etiology of changes in average weather will be a necessary condition.

Considerable primary research will be necessary to answer some important questions: what changes in average temperature and precipitation can be anticipated in the vulnerable regions? How will these changes impact the livelihood, health and education prospects of the vulnerable communities? What interventions might help build community agency to adapt to climate change impact and build climate resilience over the long term?

The Centre and the states have an important role to play in building institutional capacities and in empowering communities for action, as do civil society organisations. In doing this, the focus must be on rural households dependent on agriculture from the perspective of drought. It is clear that the households dependent on agriculture for their livelihood will be the most affected by climate change. The hotspots that constitute large urban agglomerations, especially along the coast, will be exceptionally prone to floods, storms and tsunamis. These will need special attention. There also needs to be an economy-wide policy to mainstream gender in climate action plans, for it is always the women that bear the brunt of the development deficit.

Reviewing and revising the national climate action plan 2009, such that it becomes an actionable strategy instead of a mere statement of intent, and enlisting the participation of the states, the private sector and the community in its implementation is a necessary first step. India must also demonstrate its commitment to the Paris Agreement and implement an outcome-based, time-sensitive, multi-stakeholder roadmap to achieve the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution.

The spectre of climate change disrupting India’s development potential is emerging to haunt us. We need to address the underlying causes to tackle this challenge. Failure to exorcise this spectre with informed advocacy and coordinated action will place the future of vulnerable communities and the human development prospects of millions of the poor in our country, in jeopardy. The great human tragedy of the Kerala floods and the loss of lives in their wake hold up this single message and must not be in vain.

(The writer is Director, Public Affairs Centre, Bengaluru)

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