The Climate Solution by Mridula Ramesh: An important book on climate change, tailored to India
Despite few caveats, Mridula Ramesh's book is an important contribution to climate action, tailored to India, and written with lucidity.
India is a developing nation with a hot and water-stressed climate — supporting 17 percent of the world’s population on merely four percent of the world's freshwater resources, with a largely agrarian economy heavily reliant on the monsoon. The high fatalities during heat waves around the country, from the floods in Chennai in 2015 to the Marathwada drought 2013-2016, to cite only a few examples, underlines the intense vulnerability in the country to vagaries of climate. In fact, studies suggest that India is singularly vulnerable to climate change.
Clearly, creating resilience to climate change in India is of pressing importance. It is this that Mridula Ramesh addresses in her eminently well-written book, The Climate Solution: India's Climate Change Crisis and What We Can Do About It.
Focussing on adaptation, the author diagnoses the important areas of action and outlines several pragmatic strategies for individual and collective action in India, having successfully implemented some of these personally.
The book is organised into two sections. The first is a discussion on the impacts of climate change in India. The second – the main contribution of the book – focuses on avenues for action.
This section opens with historical data on climate change in India, clearly reflecting the increasing unpredictability of rainfall, the rising incidences of floods and storms on the one hand, and heat waves and droughts on the other. The rapid warming we are witnessing will only exacerbate these problems with severe consequences for both rural and urban India.
Ramesh points out that agricultural yields may decline substantially in the next few decades while cities face the threat of even more flooding as rainfall occurs in shorter, more intense bursts. Coastal cities face increasing contamination of groundwater due to rising sea level and land sink.
The impact of climate change on health is discussed at length. Higher temperatures favour an increase in the spread of vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever. Nutritional deficiency and mortality rates among vulnerable segments are bound to worsen as lowered crop yields push prices beyond their means.
Ramesh also draws the important link between climate change, security, and geopolitics. She discusses the role of the severe drought in Syria from 2007 to 2010 in instigating the ongoing war. Closer home, water conflicts such as between China and India over the Brahmaputra, and the Cavery conflict between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu can only sharpen as climate change threatens freshwater availability.
Within the frameworks of “management” and “innovation”, Ramesh states her case for how to achieve all-round climate resilience in India. Management involves the efficient use of all our resources – food, water, energy and, waste. Technological innovation is what she considers the means to that end.
Ramesh discusses how the use of technologies like drip irrigation, regulations on water pricing and genetically modified crops could dramatically increase Indian agricultural productivity.
Water is a major area the author focusses on while pointing out the massive mismanagement of its sources (eg, groundwater) and its wastage (eg, pipe leakage). The author recommends Israel’s technological and regulatory regimen as a blueprint for water conservation. These include rainwater harvesting, communal ownership of water, plugging leaks and theft, water pricing, and meticulous data collection.
Regarding energy use, Ramesh points out that dated technology and lack of maintenance lead to massive losses during electricity transmission. Theft and wasteful personal use – eg continued use of filament bulbs – add substantially to these loses. She discusses several solutions such as switching to LEDs and modern energy efficient air conditioning, as well as tightening regulation to save energy.
Ramesh also extensively addresses the issue of the huge quantities of solid and sewage waste we generate. Most solid waste ends up in open landfills breeding disease, polluting and aggravating climate change through methane emissions. Segregation of waste at source is the silver bullet, writes Ramesh. Drawing on personal experience, she discusses the steps her family took to eliminate solid waste from their household by concatenating a string of simple ideas. These included avoiding food wastage and using a biogas machine to convert organic waste into energy.
The author also urges new regulatory mechanisms to spur green innovation within the country.
A critical look
The author begins every section with either a personal experience, a fictionalised story or an anecdote. This enhances readability and is a testament to the author’s ability to effectively convey complex ideas.
But as with any work, the book has its weaknesses —
Scalability: Several of the strategies discussed in the book have only been implemented on small scales. Assertions that they can be as effectively deployed at “Indian scales” are not adequately substantiated.
Arguments: Some arguments are logically untenable. For instance, chapter 15 contains the line, “In 2014, an average Indian consumed one-sixteenth of the electricity an average American used. This means that India’s electricity consumption will need to and must grow.” This raises several questions. Why should it grow and by how much? Is American consumption the right benchmark?
Assumption: A central thesis of the book is that improving efficiency in various ways by optimising the use of water, food and energy resources can create resilience. Inspiring work by start-ups and corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects in clean technologies are cited as examples. Yet, historical data suggests that caution is warranted. One would expect that buying a new energy efficient refrigerator should reduce electricity use. However, at least some of the gains are offset because the lowered cost of electric bills encourages people to buy bigger, ever more capacious refrigerators, a rebound effect called the Jevon’s paradox.
Making efficiency central to the book raises concerns about whether the Jevon’s paradox could swamp some of the presumed gains when deployed on large scales.
Philosophy: There are legitimate fears that trusting technological innovation alone to deliver sustainability and climate resilience may be misplaced. It buys into the entrenched economic paradigm of achieving infinite and exponentially rising economic growth on a planet with finite resources – an impossibility.
Despite these caveats, the book is an important contribution to climate action, tailored to India, and written with lucidity. It should be a required read for all concerned citizens, entrepreneurs and decision makers around the country.
Chirag Dhara is a theoretical physicist turned climate change scientist
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