Data, democracy and decision making: A look at climate change and India through the prism of past, present, future

Happy New Year!

Just kidding — this is a climate change column: of course, I’m going to rain on your parade!

In this piece I want to consider the past, through five pieces of data, the present political context, and three important events in the coming year that are central to climate change and India.

Let’s start with the data:

The Data

#1: The world has warmed by about 1°C in the past century, with the warming accelerating in the past few decades.

#2:  97 percent of climate scientists agree that humans are responsible for the recent warming of the Earth.

#3: India is the most vulnerable country to climate change. India is vulnerable because it is relatively “poor”, quite hot, quite dry, and has a large group of people working in agriculture. Why is agriculture important, you may ask. Agriculture is fully exposed to the elements, and thus unprotected from the talons of the elements. Moreover, over half of India’s farms are rainfed, meaning they do not have the insurance of irrigation against delayed or absent rains. Add to this, the large numbers of small and marginal farmers who have neither the financial wherewithal nor market access to cope with the increased volatility that comes with a warmer climate, and you begin to understand the extent of this vulnerability. In 2018, a leading multinational bank ranked countries on their relative vulnerability, as a product of their exposure to climate risks, their sensitivity to those climate risks, and their ability to respond. India ranked the most vulnerable country to climate change.

#4: In 2018, global CO2 emissions were estimated to have risen by about 2.7 percent. Thanks to climate inertia, even if we were to considerably slow down emissions, or even stop them, the warming and all the associated effects would continue for some time. This is because it takes hundreds to thousands of years for all the CO2 we put up in the air to be removed. Until then, some part of the warming effect will continue.

Some might say, well, then, India, as a large carbon emitter should do more. There are multiple perspectives on this. If we consider historical emissions, which, given several greenhouse gases have atmospheric lifetimes of centuries seems an appropriate approach, India’s emission share appears tiny. Then, of course, is the “equal right to pollute” — wherein we look at carbon emissions on a per capita basis. Here again, India’s responsibility to emission cuts is diluted given her per capita CO2 emissions are just under a 10th of America’s and about 1/4th of China’s per capita CO2 emissions.

 Data, democracy and decision making: A look at climate change and India through the prism of past, present, future

India’s responsibility to emission cuts is diluted given her per capita CO2 emissions are just under a 10th of America’s and about 1/4th of China’s per capita CO2 emissions. REUTERS

A different aspect to consider is that Indian electricity’s (coal plants and all) sectoral share was about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2013. In other words, too small to be interesting from the point of stopping global emissions. Fascinatingly and more relevantly, capacity additions in India from renewable energy handily overtook capacity additions from conventional sources (thermal/gas/nuclear) in FY18. Hmmm.

#5: Given India’s peculiar vulnerability to climate change, less-interesting role in emissions and climate inertia, adapting to a warmer climate assumes paramount importance (incidentally, many of those adaptive actions result in lower emissions). Climate change changes the hydrological or water cycle, making it rain on fewer days, more intensely, and makes wet regions wetter and dry regions drier. Now consider that India is already water scarce — asking about 1/5th of the world’s population to survive on 1/33rd of the world’s water. Moreover, India’s water supply is highly seasonal, which makes storage important. But we have neglected our water storage for decades — both above the ground and below.

Given this data, what decisions follow?

One clear decision is to manage our relatively scarce, spatially variable,seasonal water a heck of a lot better.

Nice to say in theory. In practice, who should take these decisions?

The Democratic Context

Most people I speak to say, “the government”. But this decision-maker comes with its own issues. The reality is that India is a democracy — and a raucous one at that. Which means policy makers typically do what will make them get re-elected. Which, hard as it is to believe, is the decisions they believe people want so much that they, the people, will reward them, the politicians, with a vote.

As I have written before, voters tend to have a short-term outlook, which bodes ill for longer- term, management-type policy decisions. Moreover, decisions like pricing water require the outlay of large amounts of political capital, which means political incentives need to be compelling. Are they?

Not quite. Take the case of Telangana. In early 2018, the TRS government started favouring populist measures – free electricity for farmers, free apartments etc. over resilience-building measures like tank (water storage) rejuvenation. They won emphatically.

Contrast this with the case of Madhya Pradesh: the winning party promised farm loan waivers, while the losing party systematically developed farmer and water resilience. Madhya Pradesh is one of the few states in India where farmers are charged for electricity, and the erstwhile government held out against farm loan waivers.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of our political masters writing their manifesto for 2019 elections — what would you do if your job was to win? Give free electricity to farmers, or ask for a water price? Waive loans, or revive tanks? Pretty easy answer, isn’t it?

Decision Making in the Year Ahead

2019 promises to be an interesting year. There are three events, in particular, I would like to focus on:

Event#1: A potential El Nino. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US released a report on 31 December 2018 stating that sea surface temperatures are above average across most of the Pacific Ocean and that “El Niño is expected to form and continue through the Northern Hemisphere winter 2018-19 (~90 percent chance) and through spring (~60 percent  chance).” The report also states that most models expect El Nino to persist through summer of 2019. This is bad news for India.

The last full fledged El Nino was in 2015 – with the murderous heatwaves, failed monsoons and droughts in a large number of districts in India. Still, early days yet, and we will need to watch this space closely on how this unfolds.

Event#2: The general elections. The 2019 election is shaping up to be a cracker. If, as I think is likely, farm loan waivers feature prominently in political manifestos, you will know that perceptual populism has won over any form of resilience-building. Why do I use the word “perceptual”? For one, farm loan waivers do precious little for the greater number of small and marginal farmers whose loans originate in the informal sector. Moreover, if the El Nino begins to manifest in earnest around March, any unhappiness from the effects of the El Nino – heat waves/water shortages etc. are likely to translate into votes against the incumbent.

Event #3: Non-performing assets and financial tightening: More than 10 years have passed since the global economic slowdown. Avalanches of liquidity have slammed into financial markets across the world. These flows are now being pulled back. Going forward, money is likely to be tight. Loans and projects that could have otherwise muddled along, will now become hard to classify as “business-as-usual”. Coal assets – so unsavoury from a climate perspective – become important to salvage from a financial-health perspective. Caught between a slowly warming climate and a fast disintegrating financial system, it’s not rocket science to guess how policy makers will act. Farm loan waivers, which don’t help the climate cause, will further weaken the financial health of India.

The Decision Making

From the past data, it is clear “what” decisions need to be taken — it’s a no-brainer, really. Manage your water and build farmer resilience. But the democratic context determines “who” will need to take these decisions. The political realities of India, and the looming general elections, make it highly unlikely that our central or state political leaders will take that class of decisions in the coming year.

It must be said that really bad El Nino will muddy the waters. If an El Nino occurs and we have a fractured government with little political manoeuvring space at the centre, we could see short-term, populist measures that appear to help (like farm loan waivers) but denude resilience. After all, a weak coalition government cannot afford to squander expensive political capital on unpopular resilience-building measures. However, if an El Nino materialises when we have a strong central government, we could see necessary resilience-building policies. In either case, the first few months of a new government are the time to build in longer term measures such as water pricing, universal water metering and agricultural market restructuring.

Personally, I find that climate change adaptation works best at hyperlocal levels with decisions being taken by we, the people, by the government and the private sector working in conjunction. Why? At the local level, voter incentives tend more aligned, making it is easier for the government to act, because citizens are potentially more willing to stomach short-term unpleasantness such as metering and paying for water. The private sector (with hopefully longer timelines) can augment government capacity more effectively at smaller locations such as districts and cities — both through NGOs with deep community ties, and corporates with employee bases and CSR budgets.

For instance, a bad drought may bring together a gifted civil servant, funds from a local corporate and an NGO working with farmers to craft policies on farmer support. Or, the residents of an apartment complex, like what is happening in Bengaluru, could plonk down the investment for a sewage treatment plant, and start metering their usage, not because of regulation, but because tanker water is too dear.

We saw the political decision making on climate change is a PhD thesis on the art of compromise. How do we ask developed world politicians to get their electorate to cut emissions? How do we ask Indian politicians to implement longer term measures to build water resilience?

The answer is, I believe, to go local.

The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor and author of The Climate Solution - India's Climate Crisis and What We Can Do About It published by Hachette. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at

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Updated Date: Jan 04, 2019 10:38:49 IST