Home 2020 Editorial


by Raghuram Murtugudde
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Illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt

When I was asked to edit a series of articles on climate change for Fundamatics, I couldn’t wait to say a ‘Yes’. I am an engineer who drifted from computational fluid dynamics into climate modeling and then into earth system and human impact. I am now quite familiar with the different views people bring to climate change and its impact, as well as solutions. The articles capture a kaleidoscopic range of views. As a climate scientist and a dabbling practitioner of sustainable water and agricultural methods, I can add a tiny bit of perspective to the set of articles.

Climate change has taken hold more broadly now as a descriptor, mostly as a reaction to the rage that ‘Global Warming’ seems to produce in some sections of humanity. But ‘change’ here is the keyword. Typically, sufficient sampling is needed to ensure that there is in fact a ‘change’. The story of vanishing birds on campus is an example. Once our antennas are up for ‘detecting’ climate change, we begin to see change everywhere.

And yet, we need to be careful because the old adage is that nature makes the rules and biology finds the loopholes. Detection of change can then lead to some formal approaches to ‘attributing’ the changes to human actions. So detection and attribution are the Yin and Yang of climate change even though one is keenly aware that we are accelerating climate change, and there may not always be the luxury of waiting for change to be confirmed.

Detection and attribution are the Yin and Yang of climate change even though one is keenly aware that we are accelerating climate change, and there may not always be the luxury of waiting for change to be confirmed.

The story of change in Coorg brings up extremes of rainfall and dryness. This is observed clearly now, and action is underway. The one I watch carefully is the prediction and projection of weather, climate variability, and change under MoES and its institutions. It is really beginning to yield results in terms of more skilful predictions and better channels of communications of warnings. Evidence is emerging that timely action is saving lives during floods and cyclones. But drought management requires broader scale strategies like drought-resilient agricultural practices – agroforestry, rainwater harvesting, afforestation, drip irrigation, and such. Applications of weather and climate predictions to various sectors are growing in India. This should lead to better adaptive management of food, water, energy and health.

Coastal protection will need a recovery of mangrove forests and zoning laws for waterfront construction, protection of corals, wetlands, etc. India has over 7,000 kilometers of coastline when combined with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. While India has committed itself to afforestation as an additional sink for carbon under the Paris agreement, we should remember that forests in coastal waters can sequester three to ten times the carbon as land forests. And they clean up the water, enhance biodiversity, protect against storms and erosion, and make for amazing ecotourism.

Murals at entrances to Juhu Beach, Mumbai. Photo Courtesy: Devesh Khatu.

These also raise the issue of how we ‘battle’ climate change. But are words like ‘war’, ‘crisis’, and ‘battle’ even appropriate in the first place? If we are also the culprits then who are we battling? We can point fingers at politicians and energy companies and so on. Politicians tend to be held responsible for their decisions, while scientists and citizens may have the comfort of screaming for action without being responsible in any way. Frankly, we all must be part of the solution.

Youth is energised, and yet they are not aware that their parents are living perfectly normal energy-intensive lifestyles. The youth themselves may not be capable of the kind of behavioural changes needed, to play their part – like not rushing to buy the latest iPhone. Most, importantly, the philosophy of “the end justifies the means” in messaging climate change and attacking individuals or countries, or companies may cost us our credibility. People naturally take the words of politicians with a grain of salt but scientists and social activists must maintain their credibility at the highest level. It is best to look into the mirror, and accept that none of us are living a lifestyle that is minimal in terms of our environmental footprint.

Mural near Girgaum Chowpatty. Photo Courtesy: Devesh Khatu.

That then should lead us to discuss potential solutions. India needs to focus on food, water, energy and health when it comes to solutions, and driving research and innovation. Reducing the energy- intensity of the GDP, and the carbon intensity of energy production are the high-level drivers of everything under this broad umbrella. Energy production has to focus on de-carbonization, and leapfrogging the follies of the west, which grew rich with carbon-intensive fuels.  Agricultural practices have to be friendly to the soil and water as well as reduce emissions while ensuring food security for all. Transportation needs to be efficient and emission-free, and also provide accessible public transportation that reduces the unsustainable growth of personal vehicle ownership. Managing water resources sustainably must come with quality, quantity and access. India’s air and water quality have a long way to go in terms of reducing disease, morbidity, mortality and labour lost. Scalable solutions must come out of self-reliant innovation. For example, the demand for air conditioning will continue to grow exponentially but the replacement for HFCs may cost India an arm and a leg.

Green funds must then be incentivised to flow towards green technologies and solutions for food, water, energy and health. India exploited its investment in science and technology education when the outsourcing boom came along. Can it position itself for the green technology boom? It may have no choice but to strategise itself towards such a position, especially considering its current reliance on imported energy. Especially considering that the region is only going to get warmer, and the neighbourhood may not get any friendlier. The climate vulnerability of the countries around India, and the geopolitical machinations of countries near and far, pose severe national security threats to India. A micro scene is already playing out at the northern border and with the Rohingya issue.

Anecdotal evidence of a series of actions narrated in the Thekambattu story brings us back to what individuals can do. We have to be realistic about how such activities can be sustained and scaled up to make a difference. The inevitability of human tendencies to drift towards comfort which so far has come from energy-hogging lifestyles cannot be wished away. Can energy become completely carbon-free and allow us to lead a luxurious life without worrying about the future of the environment?

To avoid the Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference of earth’s functioning, we will need exactly that. People shouldn’t feel like they are sacrificing themselves or doing something special by reducing the impact of their actions on the environment. The solutions have to be as easy as smartphones—convenient and simple to use; everybody wants one. Saving the environment is right now a luxury that only a few can afford. An environmentally friendly lifestyle should be affordable to all.

I am not convinced that putting up signs everywhere that say ‘NO’ to everything, will lead to a safer planet. Travelling has always been critical for cultural exchanges, food has always been good for cultural identity, and energy has always been good for exploring the universe while water makes everything beautiful. Good health comes from consuming mindfully. Not just food, but also energy and water.

I am optimistic that a game-changer will come along. I also wonder whether nature meant us to evolve to become so dissipative merely because everything in the universe dissipates energy. But that’s a thought for another day. Besides, do we really want our children to grow up thinking the world is coming to an end? I would rather have them dream about building rockets to go out into the solar system and beyond.

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