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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 24, June 7, 2014

Climate Change: Uncomfortable Realities

Monday 9 June 2014, by Sudhir Vombatkere


World Environment Day — June 5

People and society as a whole react to sudden or quantum increase in matters which affect general safety or welfare, but are neglectful of slow changes. Global warming and consequent climate change have ongoing effects which are gradual or creeping but very real. The long-term effects are known and accepted as meriting serious consideration. There are many antici-pated effects of climate change, but possibly the best known is the melting of polar ice (and additionally in the Indian context, recession of Himalayan glaciers) and the consequent rise in sea level.

Rise in Sea Level

The Hindu op-ed page on May 14, 2014, carries a news item titled ”Antartica ice sheet collapse has begun, scientists warn”. The subject appears esoteric or restricted to the interest area of env-ironmentalists, bleeding heart economists or little-else-to-do busybodies. But this is not true at all! It may not directly or immediately affect today’s adult reader, but it will certainly and seriously affect the day-to-day life of Generation-Next.

Who lives on the Antartica continent? Only scientific expedition teams of various countries, and penguins! We do not know how to communicate with penguins, but scientists are able to inform us that when (not if) the ice that covers Antartica melts, the level of the oceans will rise by about four metres over the next couple of centuries. But the ocean level may rise by one metre over the next few decades, and when (again not if) that happens, coastal cities all over the world will have to be abandoned and the people who live in those regions will be forced by circumstance to migrate to higher ground. In our own country, the ongoing rise in ocean level has already affected large areas of the Sunderbans in West Bengal, the population of which is already migrating to higher land.

The ocean level rises so slowly that it cannot be observed on a month-to-month or even a year-to-year basis, but its effects on people and their land and livelihood are happening in real time as land gets eroded and people have to move out or at least away. Sea level rise is not noticeable since the ocean does not present a flat water level like a lake, because of the waves that strike the shores non-stop. Therefore we have the concept of “mean sea level” (MSL), which is computed from measurements made with sophisticated instruments over a period of years. But long, long before the MSL rises by one metre, perhaps when the MSL has risen by a mere 10-cm, India’s seaside metros, namely, Chennai and Mumbai, would have had to begin building sea walls for protection from the sea. Of course, every seaside village, town and city will also face the rise in MSL, but there will be no funds to construct sea walls. (Sea walls will call for regular, expensive, unaffordable maintenance and be effective for only a decade or so.) In every case, people will have to move, if not migrate, and along with people, their occupations and businesses will also be affected. In every case, it will be the poor who will be constrained to migrate, with rise in social tensions especially in the destinations of migration. Briefly, local economies will be adversely affected.

More Effects of Climate Change

All this is about what will happen regar-ding only one effect of global warming, namely, rise of sea water level. Even for this one aspect, only the time-line (the “when” and “at what rate”) is in dispute. It may be alarming, but we can ignore it only at risk to ourselves and the generations that will succeed us. Therefore we need to see how we can adapt to and mitigate the ill-effects of the inevitable climate change, of which the rise in sea level is only one phenomenon. Other phenomena predicted by climate scientists are:

• Lowered rainfall in peninsular India, with desertification hastened by rampant forest felling in the Western Ghats, and major perennial rivers (Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, for example) becoming seasonal. This will affect water availability and agriculture/food security of India’s peninsular states.

• Melting and decrease in mass of Himalayan glaciers, with major perennial rivers (Ganga, and all her tributaries, for example) becoming seasonal. This will affect water availability and agriculture/food security to many millions of people who live in the Gangetic plains of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

• “Extreme events”, that is, heavy storms and cyclones. With higher air temperatures, the water vapour held in the atmosphere increases and thus rainfall is more intense.

Even if this dismal scenario happens after 40-50 years, its effects can and must be anticipated for strategic planning at national and State levels. The combination of the various effects of climate change could very well be additive and make the scenario grimmer or its effects earlier. In recognition of climate change and its effects on populations, the Government of India and some State governments (including the Govern-ment of Karnataka) have constituted committees to consider the effects of climate change and draw up action plans, which obviously need to be time bound.

Another Factor

There is another factor which we need to consider, that will greatly affect societies, as it is closely linked with climate change. This is the fact that oil production all over the world has reached its peak, with only a decline in production in the future. India consumes around 0.83 million barrels of oil per day. (Just for interest, the world consumes about 83 million barrels per day, and the USA consumes about 8.3 million barrels per day.) With the demand for oil rising due to unthinking industrialisation and oil production falling at the same time, oil can only become increasingly unaffordable. At present, about 30 per cent of all India’s import costs go to pay for oil, and India annually pays about Rs 7,50,000 crores for its oil imports.

Oil is the only (yes,


) source of energy that allows movement of people and goods whether by sea, rail, road or air. The economy depends entirely on oil, and reduced availability of oil, whether due to high cost, or interruption in the transportation of oil from oil-well to ship to Indian port to storage/refinery to consumer, will reduce the rate or increase the cost of movement of people and goods across the country/State for day-to-day living. This will inevitably mean that local economies should become increasingly self-reliant starting with survival essentials of food and water.

Development—its Contribution
to Climate Change

Today’s widely accepted measure of development is economic growth, which in turn is measured by the rate of growth of the GDP. Economists believe that every economy must grow in terms of the GDP and aim to maximise the rate of growth endlessly. The philosophy of the rate of growth of the GDP as an indicator of development and progress implicitly depends upon the availability of cheap oil.

As oil is purchased and consumed—for any purpose whatsoever—the GDP grows and the production and sale of goods and services that result, add to the GDP. Thus the ‘economic growth’ philosophy encourages consumption of all kinds of goods and services, and is based upon the cash and credit market economy. The social, environmental and ecological ill-effects of consumption are not easily quantifiable, but even where they can be quantified, as in environmental clean-up costs, the expenditure adds to the GDP. That is, the negatives of development also add to the GDP, and the development model encourages consumption, which in turn adds to global warming and climate change.

The finiteness of oil reserves and the limits of oil production and its decline, are not addressed by the present economic system. The present economic thinking appears not to appreciate that the so-called alternative sources of energy (solar, wind, nuclear, hydel, ocean wave, etc.) cannot replace oil for transportation. Indeed every one of these ‘alternative’ sources are themselves almost entirely dependent upon oil (or coal) for their construction, maintenance and repair/replacement.

Bottom Line

Fundamentally, there are three action-approaches to climate change, all of which need to be judiciously used:

[[<> (1) Measures for reduction of GHG emissions,

(2) Measures of adaptation to the changed situations, and

(3) Measures for mitigation of the social and environmental ill-effects.

These measures can be decided upon and implemented only after the issues concerning climate change and its link with the economic growth development model are understood, and the urgency of planning and appropriate action are appreciated.

On June 30, 2008, the Government of India issued a National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). The NAPCC states: ”Emphasising the overriding priority of maintaining high economic growth rates to raiseliving standards, the plan identifies measures that promote our develop-ment objectives while also yielding co-benefits for addressing climate change effectively”., and outlines eight “missions” and three programmes for implementation.

The reasons why the basic approach of NAPCC is faulty are:

* ”Maintaining high economic growth rates” (raising the GDP growth rates), as explained above, involves not merely higher consumption but growing rates of consumption of all sorts of goods and services. Whether or not this raises living standards as expected, it will certainly raise demand and consumption of oil, which inevitably results in increased GHG emissions.

* Promoting the present development objectives which prescribe economic growth, actually defeats measures to reduce GHG emissions (and hence reduce the intensity of the effects of climate change). This is incompatible with ”yielding co-benefits for addressing climate change effectively”.

The concept of economic-growth-as-develop-ment, is responsible for global warming and climate change. So long as this concept of development persists, emissions of GHGs will only increase. Therefore, the first step in any credible action plan to reduce the effects of climate change should address the possibility of delinking development from consumption and GDP growth. Thus measures for reduction of GHG emissions should begin with defining a new model of development which is not predicated on industrialisation. This does


imply that industry must be stopped, but all activities that increase the demand for and consumption of oil should be reduced. Mega- and large “infrastructure projects” which centralise resources and need high energy (oil, etc.) use should be replaced by decentralised projects. The measures for reduction of GHG emissions should include calibrated emphasis on agriculture of food crops (rather than cash crops) and water conservation by watershed management.

Adaptation to actual changed climate conditions like reduced rainfall, perennial rivers becoming seasonal, ground water depleting, involves population survival issues to be addressed by appropriately changed agriculture policy and agriculture practices including seeds and techniques of rainfed food crops (millets) cultivation in place of water-demanding food crops. Also needed is adaptation to reduced oil availability situations (for whatever reason, like high cost, interruption in supply chain, political embargo, etc.) that will impact the economy due to restricted or reduced sea-rail-road-air transportation. This is a matter for national strategic foresight.

In order to deal with mitigation of the social and environmental ill-effects of climate change, a more extensive and intensive public discussion not restricted to experts, will be required.

Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM, retired in 1996 as Additional DG Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ AG’s Branch. He holds a PhD degree in Structural Dynamics from the IIT, Madras. He is Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA, in international studies. With over 370 published papers in national and international journals and seminars, his current area of interest is strategic and development-related issues.

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