Climate change: why India needs to lead (part one)

Sixty years after independence, India’s journey to freedom and opportunity is still incomplete. In the first segment of a two-part article, Malini Mehra sets out the country’s crucial climate challenge.

It is an exciting time to be an Indian. Sixty years since independence, the country has shot to global prominence and is making its economic presence felt. It is now the fourth largest in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) and projected to be one of the three largest – along with China and the US – by 2032. Last year, India Inc. was the toast of Davos as its “Global India” campaign took the Alpine resort by storm, raising the rafters to Bollywood hits.

But India’s journey to freedom and opportunity is incomplete. Critics charge that a key area of our international policy remains in the dark ages – climate change.


A generational challenge


Despite Rajendra Pachauri, an Indian, chairing the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in India, climate change is virtually a leadership-free zone. It is time for Indians to wake up to the issues and demand more of our political class – and more of ourselves.


For my generation, climate change will present the most compelling leadership challenge. We are entering an era of instability when natural phenomena, such as the monsoons and mountain-fed streams that make our country liveable and our economy productive, may no longer be relied upon.


The impacts of climate change will be felt not only in years, but also over generations. Tackling it will require far-sighted leadership. Its greatest victims will be the poor, the marginalised and the disenfranchised.


Why should we be worried?


The Earth is warmer now than it has been for the past 650,000 years. Scientists have correlated this warming to an increase in carbon dioxide (CO2), and other greenhouse gases (GHG), released by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas since the beginning of the industrial age 150 years ago.


To put this in perspective, the pre-industrial concentration of CO2 was 280 parts per million (ppm). In 2005, in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, one of the most pristine parts of the world, this had reached 381 parts per million. In 2006, measurements in Svalbard, in the high Arctic region, had recorded 390 ppm – a full 10 ppm above the global average. This last figure most likely reflects our own emerging carbon footprint, as emissions from Indian and Chinese power plants and cars head northwards.


These emissions that we release today will still be in the atmosphere 100 years from now. This is why the infrastructure we build now matters so much. By 2030 all major countries – including India – will need to reduce emissions to make a stable climate possible. This is not a developed country plot to thwart the ambitions of emerging economies such as India. It is the blunt reality of climate physics.


In this world of risk and uncertainty, the best approach is a precautionary one. The UK’s Stern Review on the economics on climate change emphasized that action now is far better – and more cost-effective – than action in the future. The report’s author, Sir Nicholas Stern, calculates that the cost of climate change could be somewhere in the region of 5% to 20% of global GDP, if current trends continue, compared to the 1% of global GDP cost that is needed to tackle the problem.


Impacts on India


India has strong reason to be concerned. Climate change is projected to impact tropical countries more negatively than temperate ones, and as a tropical country, our geography is our destiny. India’s 7,500-kilometre coastline will be particularly hard-hit by storm surges and sea-level rise displacing millions, flooding low-lying areas, and damaging economic assets and infrastructure.


The encroaching salt water will poison fields and make coastal agriculture unviable, deepening the crisis that is already full blown in India’s farm sector. Just these impacts alone could severely test India’s governance systems and its institutional and social resilience. Unless dealt with effectively they could also quickly turn into political challenges.


For the 700 million people in rural India who are dependent on the most climate-sensitive sectors for their livelihoods – agriculture, forests and fisheries – the future brings declining crop yields, degraded lands, water shortages and ill health.


It also brings confusion and helplessness as people lose their traditional capacity to “read” the weather and adjust accordingly. When the rains do not come and when the natural world does not behave as it should, societies which have survived by observing the world and adapting to it lose essential coping skills.


Climate change, at a most profound level, can disempower by rendering traditional knowledge useless. How this will affect identity and culture amongst India’s tribal and indigenous communities is something we are yet to properly understand.


Phenomena consistent with climate change projections for India can already be seen across the country. 2007 has brought “wild weather” to South Asia with the worst floods in living memory and 20 million people displaced. Islands and villages in the Bay of Bengal have been lost to sea-level rise causing a drift of ecological refugees to cities such as Kolkata (Calcutta).


The rapid melting of the Himalayan glaciers – the source of our major river systems – is a cause for particular alarm. Latest IPCC estimates suggest that they may shrink to one-fifth of their volume within a few decades. Initially this may cause floods as the waters melt – and then a water crisis of unprecedented proportions as the rivers dry.


Seven of the world’s major river basins originate in the Himalayan and Tibetan plateaus. They are the source of water for 40% of humanity. China, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Burma all share these borders. If the rivers do run dry, a more serious cause of regional destabilization can scarcely be imagined.


When it happens, it will make India’s current water conflicts such as between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the Cauvery look like a walk in the park in comparison.


But this is not only a story of human impact. It is estimated that up to 50% of the country’s flora and fauna could be threatened, with at least a quarter of our biodiversity lost. For a country with such a long and mythic self-identification with our plant and wildlife, the loss of our natural heritage will carry both socio-cultural as well as significant livelihood implications.


Malini Mehra is the founder and chief executive of Centre for Social Markets. In 2007, she was named as an “Asia 21 Young Leader” by the Asia Society. She has been featured on CNN and BBC World, and in Time and Fortune magazines.

Homepage photo by Tobias Leeger via Flickr