Climate Change: Needs to change course

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

Climate change leading to global warming and other attendant atmospheric problems has attracted headlines since a long time. Now, a recent assessment report by government scientific institutions have come out with some startling revelations like the average temperature in India is projected to rise by 40 deg C, frequency of heat waves to be 3-4 times higher, intensity of tropical cyclones to increase substantially and sea level to rise by 30 cm by the end of the century as compared to the past two-three decades.

The report, titled ‘Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region’ from the Ministry of Earth Science and edited by scientists at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune shows temperatures of the warmest day and the coldest night of the year have risen by about 0.63 deg C and 0.40 deg C in the recent 30-year period (1986-2015). Moreover, these temperatures are projected to rise approximately by 4.7 deg C and 5.5 deg C respectively by the end of the century in business as usual conditions. 

The study report referred to various studies that spell out how cities like Mumbai and Kolkata faced floods in the recent past due to “climate shifts, urbanisation, sea level rise and other regional factors”. Noting that India has witnessed an increase in the frequency of droughts and floods during the past few decades, the report observed that humid regions of central India have, notably, become drought prone. Referring to past assessment, it also pointed out flood risk “increased over the east coast, West Bengal, eastern UP, Gujarat and Konkan regions as well as in a majority of urban areas such as Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai”.

The warming has been spread across the country, not just in the plains but also in the hilly terrains, where landslides have increased considerably. To cite an example one may refer to the hills of Uttarakhand, which has 968 glaciers, are not just getting warmer but as the State’s pollution control board study, climate and rainfall data over a 100-year span from 1912-2012 found the mean annual temperature went up by 0.45 deg C.

The change, though small in absolute terms, means a large amount of heat accumulating over a long period. Since 1990, it has witnessed an upward spike. Within the State, Pithragarh witnessed the highest increase (0.58 deg C) followed by Chamoli (0.54 deg C), Ridraprayag (0.53 deg C) and Uttarkashi (0.51 deg C) – all hill districts. Rainfall deficit over the past century has been a significant 13.05 cm. and this is a common phenomenon in most other parts of the country. The decrease in rainfall, specially during the rainy months of June-September, indicate that the climate of the State is changing notably, as per the report.

The report concludes that since the middle of the 20th century, India has witnessed a rise in average temperature; a decrease in monsoon precipitation; a rise in extreme temperature and rainfall events, droughts, and sea levels; and an increase in the intensity of severe cyclones, alongside other changes in the monsoon system. There is compelling scientific evidence that human activities have influenced these changes in regional climate.

Human-induced climate change is expected to continue apace during the 21st century. To improve the accuracy of future climate projections, particularly in regional forecasts’ contexts, it is essential to develop strategic approaches for improving the knowledge of Earth system processes, and to continue enhancing observation systems and climate models.

Meanwhile, the Oxford Economist, a leader in global forecasting and quantitative analysis, observed that in India, where population, weighted temperatures have risen by about 0,5 deg C to around 26 deg C today, the GDP level would have been 20 per cent higher and growth as much as -.75 percentage points in 2019 in the absence of any warming to date. According to the two scenarios explored by the study, unmitigated climate change will make 75 per cent of countries poorer in per capita terms than they would be without climate change. Thus, the impact if future climate change will severely impact the livelihoods of populations in a large number of countries, the study pointed out.

Another aspect of the climate change scenario has been the COVID-19 pandemic thereby disturbing nature’s ecological cycle, notwithstanding that pollution levels have drastically come down. Similarly, climate change is being driven by humanity’s exploitation of nature as a captive resource – our constant need to consume more and more.

Not just in India but reports indicate that since 2014, Earth’s five warmest years have been recorded and the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the remaining planet. The World Meteorological Organisation estimated that while temperatures from 2016 to 2019 were the highest on record, this year is predicted to be even hotter.

Though the subject is widely discussed and debated, there is little action by the government in this regard. Obviously, being a poor country we cannot think of preventive medicine, similarly very little long-term measures are being taken to control floods and droughts, which are more or less a regular phenomenon.

Let us take the case of 870 Protected Areas (PAs) of the country which include national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, conservation reserves and community reserves. Though there has been a rush to declare PAs in recent times, this has scarcely been accompanied by structural improvements in their protection or management or increase in financial support. According to a recent report, 65 per cent of the PAs are under 100 sq km in size which, scientists point out, is not enough to host viable ecosystems. Only 28 PAs are above 1000 sq km in size. Deficiency of trained personnel for protection from poachers and the timber mafia has left PAs vulnerable to predations, as has been manifest during the recent pandemic.

As is well known, these parks are indispensable for species that would otherwise not stand a chance, the most obvious being mammals such as tigers and elephants. PAs also provide immense ecosystem services to human society. A government sponsored study estimated that the 10 tiger reserves annually provide Rs 330 billion worth of water services that would otherwise have to be paid for. But finances for their conservation have been far from adequate and cannot serve the desired purpose.

Finally, it cannot be denied that global warming is expected to have a devastating impact on many countries, including India’s economic growth. Thus instead of tall talk, there is need for evolving a well-coordinated strategy to protect the environment with proper safeguards at the grass-root level. Several incidents that have appeared in recent times point to the fact that industries do not follow necessary safeguards and get away by paying money to politicians and law enforcing agencies. Environmental monitoring and strengthening of rules and regulations need to be tackled effectively to thwart climate change and eventual GDP loss. There is need to change the course of economic development towards a more sustainable one. Simultaneously, governance needs to be strengthened in the country to save poor rural folk from various types of environmental hazards.


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