December 13, 2013
Hundreds of climate scientists from around the world have worked for five years to reconfirm that we are continuing to cook the earth. So what?
A few people do not believe the scientists. A few others scream for a change in the direction of the global economy. But most of us say so what? Or it’s a problem caused by rich countries, why should we have to suffer for it?
The trouble is, we cannot afford to say ‘so what’. Climate change is already hitting our lives. The scientists, who formed the first group in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said in their fifth assessment report last week that the Indian monsoon is likely to get more erratic throughout this century. We already know the first 13 monsoons of this millennium have been erratic, alternating between droughts and floods. Hoarding is blamed for the rising prices of onions, tomatoes and other vegetables. But the vagaries of the monsoon also have a big role to play in a country where over 60% of farms are dependent on rainwater.
Scientists tend to be cautious, especially in large groups, and the IPCC is the most cautious of them all, with the work of 259 authors from 39 countries being reviewed by 572 other scientists and then representatives of 110 governments before last week’s report was officially unveiled. The report still tells us that we are on our way to raise the earth’s average temperature by over two degree Celsius by the end of this century.
We can probably live with this if it just means more uncomfortable summers. But if you look at the numbers sufficiently long term, say since 1900, there is a strikingly close correlation between the increasing temperature of the earth’s atmosphere and the number of storms, floods and droughts. The economic survey of 2009 had calculated that handling these events was costing India around 2.6% of its GDP.
The IPCC also predicted last week that global warming would raise the sea level by 28-97 cms by the end of the century, and the current trend points to the higher end of this range. Ask the owner of any coconut plantation on the Indian coast, and you’ll be told the rate of coastal erosion has increased, so much so that in some coastal belts of Orissa and Kerala, a line of coconut trees has already been uprooted. Rice farmers who raise barricades to keep the saltwater out — as in the Sundarbans — are finding the waves getting higher, crashing through their barricades and ruining their crops more and more frequently.
That’s happening today, and if the scientists are correct, much worse can happen. Many parts of Mumbai, Chennai, Kochi and so many other cities and villages are less than 97 cm above the sea. So are some parts of Kolkata, though they are around 100 km from the coast.
It is clear that we cannot afford to ignore the effects of climate change. So what should we do?
The IPCC is clear. The main cause of climate change is the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases — mainly carbon dioxide — in the atmosphere. This rise is mostly due to the increasing use of fossil fuels — oil and coal. But these are our main sources of energy, and we need more and more energy for India’s development. So how can we solve this problem?
For two decades, at international climate negotiations, Indian officials have largely stuck to the line that since the problem has been created by the rich world, the solution must come from it. India may be the world’s third highest carbon emitting country today — after China and US — but most of the extra carbon in the atmosphere has been put there by rich countries since the start of the Industrial Age. Even today, India’s per capita carbon emission is less than one-tenth of that in the US. We have an estimated 400 million people without electricity, so how can anyone tell us not to emit more carbon? Any government that asks India to do that must pay for it, in money and through cheap technology transfer. The atmosphere belongs to all of us, the available carbon space must be apportioned equally, and going by that, we have a lot of our quota left.
All this is true, and a very good negotiating tactic. But it does not solve our problem. There is no sign that the rich world will pay India or any other developing country any significant amount, and meanwhile climate change is gathering pace. Most developing countries — including India — are closer to the equator than most rich countries, and scientists tell us the worst impacts of climate change will be in the tropics.
So, in our own interest, we have to get more proactive. We have had a National Action Plan on Climate Change since 2008, but little action since then, except to enhance energy efficiency. The ambitious solar mission is constantly beset by corruption scandals. There is an urgent need to clean that up and move aggressively towards renewable energy. It will cost more but not as much as many believe if we count the subsidies that coal and oil get. In the long run, not moving towards renewables will be far costlier.
The IPCC has reconfirmed that the current global fossil fuel use pattern will take us beyond the two degree mark by 2100. The earth can endure that. It has endured much warmer periods since its formation. But human civilisation has grown in the narrow climate band we know. We may not be able to endure the big change that is coming unless we take urgent steps to combat it.
This article was first published in the Hindustan Times.