June 24, 2013

ignoring climate change events at our own peril

The human, animal and ecological tragedy which unfolded in the wake of extremely heavy rainfall over the Himalayan mountains in Uttarakhand state 10 days ago, is yet another wake-up alarm for us (Indians) and everyone else elsewhere.

I wrote an editorial on this issue recently in the newspaper I work for currently. Here is what I wrote:

Ignore at own peril

Last week's unfolding of human and ecological consequences of extreme weather events raises several red flags

As an economy we need to come out of our lethargy in planning, accounting, budgeting and enforcing policies for mitigating the huge negative economic consequences of climate change-induced events abetted in a large part by ecology-insensitive development models. 
This is one immediate and glaring lesson to draw from the unprecedented loss of human lives and the massive suffering inflicted on humans, animals, ecology, places and structures in the Himalayan hills due to sudden and extremely high levels of rainfall in the region over a week ago. Extreme weather events are not new to our country given its vast expanse and multiple eco-systems but they have become more extreme and more frequent. Like Mumbai's extreme rainfall event of July 26-27 2005 and the recent cloudbursts-accompanied extreme rainfall over the Himalayan region in Uttarakhand, the extreme weather events have also become much faster in their onset, without even a day's warning sign.

Climate change deniers might argue against the very concept of global warming caused by dangerous levels of carbon dioxide and other deadly gases in the atmosphere. If they are right we can only be set back a few decades in our rapid development drive due to the high costs associated with mitigation measures. But if they are wrong and climate change-induced disasters cause all-round devastation will not only not develop the economy but it will set it back by centuries.

India came out with its first national action plan on climate change exactly five years ago, on June 30, 2008 to be precise. It was not exactly an early start but still it had to come out one day and was welcomed by one and all. However, red flags were evident even then in the criticisms of the action plan, the pre-dominant one being the climate change plan was only a bundling of existing national plans on renewable energy, water, agriculture and a few others. Much of what the plan detailed was already in the open and what was required was a new, dynamic plan marked with much-needed urgency in financing, implementation and enforcement. Ironically, the national climate change plan had a separate mission for sustaining the Himalayan ecosystem which included adoption of best practice norms for infrastructure construction, promotion of sustainable tourism and regulation of tourist inflows. None of these apparently got translated from the written, lofty word to ground-level hard physical enforcement. If this continues to be this nation's track record then we can very well kiss double-digit GDP growth rates good-bye since extreme weather events leaves behind ferocious economic consequences, immediate and futuristic, and which tends to have severe cascading impacts on the entire country.

A new World Bank report, released earlier this month, focused on climate extremes and regional impacts, and it stated the likelihood of 4 degrees celsius global warming being reached or exceeded this century has increased in the absence of near-term actions and further commitments to reduce emissions. This rise in temperatures in India is, as per the World Bank report, projected to cause 10 per cent increase in annual-mean monsoon intensity and a 15 per cent increase in its year-to-year variability, which taken together imply chances of extreme wet monsoon increasing to once every 10 years from once every 100 years. At other times, the report states the abruptcy in the Indian monsoon, identified as a potential tipping element of the Earth system, can cause drier, lower rainfall conditions in South Asia.

The onus to mitigate such unprecedented changes in our country lies with this government, and will lie more so on the next one. One hopes the allure of rapid development does not continue to blind the government and the electorate at the cost of our country's already-fragile ecology.

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