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Climate change is here already, and we’re not ready

We cannot control weather and climate events, but we need to put more effort into disaster-risk management

Firstpost print Edition

Climate change is probably the biggest challenge that the human civilisation faces today. Its impact is already visible and points to the role played by man-made emissions in altering the balance of our climate system.

Human activities have pushed up the global temperature by 1°C from the pre-industrial level, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has said. The pace of global warming has accelerated in the recent decade (2006-2015), with a likely range of temperature rise between 0.8 to 1.2°C. The temperature rise is expected to touch 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052. Simply put, we will not be able to keep global warming below 2°C, as was agreed in the landmark Paris agreement. In fact, we are looking at a 3-5°C rise by the end of this century, the UN World Meteorological Organization has warned.

 Climate change is here already, and we’re not ready

India’s large population, a growing economy and challenges associated with poverty and unemployment make it particularly vulnerable to climate change. Long-term (1951-2018) trends in mean temperature indicate a significant warming in almost all the seasons. Both winter and summer have become warmer in most of the western and southern India. A large part of the country has seen warming during the monsoon season. The worst, however, has been the post-monsoon season (October-December) during 1951-2018. All India averaged mean temperature has increased by about 0.8°C in the post-monsoon season over the last 70 years, enough to tell us where we are headed. Similarly, rise in day and night temperatures has led to frequent hot days, heat waves, and hot nights.

Changes in rainfall pattern, too, can’t be ignored. For instance, monsoon rain has significantly declined in the Gangetic Plains and the northeastern region. At the same time, several parts of central India have seen a threefold rise in extreme rainfall. The monsoon, which is the life-line of Indian agriculture, too, has been erratic. Across the country, there has been a decline in the number of rainy days as well as less intense rainfall days

The level of climate-change risk is associated with the likelihood of occurrence of an event and consequence of that event. Let us look at heatwaves in India. The 2015 heatwave killed more than 2,000 people. Before 2015, such a heatwave was observed in 1998. The likelihood of such heatwaves rises manifold if global mean temperature goes up by more than 1.5°C by the end of the century.

In our recent research, we found that if the global mean temperature rises by 2°C, there could be a 30 time increase in severe heatwaves. Moreover, heatwaves occurring in both day and night are likely to increase eight times, if the rise is above 2°C. The consequences of such heatwaves will remain high despite adaptation and acclimatisation.

Similarly, heavy rainfall events and flooding caused serious damage to agriculture, infrastructure and human lives. Urban as well as large-scale flooding are the new normal in India. Remember the Mumbai, Chennai, Uttarakhand, and Kerala floods? These events disrupted human lives and caused huge economic losses. Evidence suggests the frequency and intensity of such catastrophic events will go up with global warming.

Risk of natural disasters that are likely to rise in the future depends on weather and climate events, exposure, and vulnerability. While we cannot control weather and climate events, we need to put more efforts towards disaster-risk management and climate-change adaptation to reduce human and economic losses.

But, there are financial, technology and knowledge gaps that limit our ability to adapt to the disasters associated with climate change. We need to build capacity and strengthen our institutes to increase the pace of adaptation and reduce the adaptation gap. Under the high-emission climate-warming scenario, financial needs for adaptation in India can be more than a trillion dollars by 2030. Considering its population and agriculture, water resources and public health sectors, India will need new and robust strategies to tackle the climate change challenge.

(Vimal Mishra is an associate professor at Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar)

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