What's with the Climate?

Voices of a Subcontinent grappling with Climate Change


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Climate Change and The Struggle to Keep Up Cultural Practices

Sharanya Sanjeev*

Is climate change all about raising temperatures we say? We at Climate Tracker are taking a closer and distinctive outlook. Time-tested survival techniques and cultural traditions are falling prey to detrimental human activities. Once joyous occasions, now conservational obligations.

Dhe Village of The Himalayas

Inheriting Indian and Chinese traditions, the present-day Tibet celebrates New Years’ eve called Losar in a unique mix of music, dance, skits, food, and drinks. Dating back to prehistoric times, the festive celebration is marked by offering grains that is used to brew Chhaang, an alcoholic drink like beer.

Climate change has had detrimental effects on this age-old festival and similar traditional practices. Once a fortnight full of merry making has now been reduced to a tradition that the community is battling to conserve for the generations to come.

Amount of snow in these regions have been considerably reduced in the past few years, shrinking the volume of snow-fed water resources. Decline in water levels has affected grazing lands by narrowing their expanse, thereby fatally affecting livestock such as cattle, goats, and sheep.

Ancient Maldivian calendar forecast turning futile

The Nakaiy-monsoon calendar played a crucial role in the lives of Maldivians, accurately predicting best times to fish, travel, cultivate crops, build houses, etc. Comprised of ninety-nine percent water and one percent land, lives of Maldivians surrounded the monsoon calendar’s forecast. Climate change has now made this ancient technique unreliable. Unpredictable weather changes are agonising people, driving them away from their ethos.

Progressively drying lake in Peru

Year after year, the Huacapunco thank their goddess Panchamama, Mother Earth in the Peruvian culture, for the prosperity their land adorned and ask her blessings to offer perennial grant of water. Recent times have proven hard for this tribe. They continue the tradition of dancing at the foot of the lagoon in colourful attires, seeking the goddess’ blessing, but in vain, as the lake gradually drying up with no signs of recuperation.

Making a difference

We, at Climate Tracker, a network of 3000 journalists and photographers track these adverse changes and voice out to save cultures and traditions that are falling victim to human activities. We are publishing a photobook documenting these changes and striving to complete it just in time for the UN Climate Change negotiations

How you can help

Support us by funding this Project where you will aid journalists and photographers visit these communities, engross themselves in their culture and traditions, document climate change effects and publish the photobook by November, 2017.

(Sharanya Sanjeev is part of a youth global organisation – Climate Tracker. Climate Tracker is a group of 3000 journalists and photographers that track climate change, create awareness amongst stakeholders and present our report during the UN Climate change negotiations.)


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BONN Ultimatum?

Saumya Chaudhari*

In March this year, the world-renowned physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking revised his Doomsday Clock and declared that humanity only has 100 years before a cataclysmic event destroys life on Earth. He accompanies these apocalyptic predictions with seemingly fantastic solutions for survival. These at best involve, a one-world government and at worst, colonizing other planets for multi-planetary human existence.  One would hope that these possibilities, both terrifying yet exciting, would evoke sincere efforts and accelerate collective global actions to combat disastrous climate change.

In this backdrop, the world once again gathered together in Bonn, Germany (8th-18th May, 2017) in the hope of furthering the climate negotiations at Paris and following through with their commitments. Every attempt at climate negotiation begins with countries standing at vastly varied footing, looking towards a commonly acceptable ambition and pace to achieve the same ends. Considering the enormous disparity between the economic and social positioning of all Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), arriving at a consensus on many issues at the Conference of Parties (COP) is undoubtedly challenging. However, it is the political considerations of a nation that reinforce this disparity and prevent a magnified outlook and a possible compromise between Parties. Some suggest that politics may be kept aside and a pragmatic approach be adopted in order to arrive at an agreement on an issue of such global importance. However, the recent political shuffle in the United States has visibly held progress of years of climate negotiations at ransom. Creating a vacuum in place of leadership at the Bonn climate talks, the new US government was suddenly seen denying climate science and hinting withdrawal from the Paris agreement altogether. The US, with a record of the largest contingent of diplomats from a single country, was represented by merely seven officials at Bonn with a clear agenda to advance US business and commercial interests.

In the eyes of a lay observer, the tussle at each Conference of Parties (COP) essentially surrounds the incompatible interests of the developing and developed nations. The Paris climate agreement of 12th December, 2015, was hailed as landmark since it culminated years of attempts by United Nations to forge an international and collective consensus. Nearly 200 nations had signed the agreement. The decision to contain the rise in global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial levels) had been agreed upon by both developed and developing nations alike. In addition, periodic stock-take of progress on national commitments, provision for an adaptation fund for developing nations seeking to combat climate impacts, etc. were settled between all Parties. However, in seventeen months from Paris to Bonn, the positions of countries have altered and the unanimity between the Parties on these issues is less evident.

Put simply, the compromise between the developing and developed nations is essentially one that strikes at the question of equity. The developing countries believe that the major chunk of contribution to the climate change that manifests itself today has been caused by the developed countries due to their reckless economic and technological growth since the industrial revolution. Following this reasoning, they conclude that mitigation efforts today must witness ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibility’ (CBDR) with a focus on the developed countries that have nearly peaked economic and human development indices. This is opposed to the developing nations, some of which continue to languish and others that are inching towards economic goals along with efforts to alleviate poverty, hunger, diseases, and fulfilment of basic human rights for all citizens. As expected, the issue of CBDR is a bone of contention between the two blocks of nations. So is the issue of adaptation fund and technology transfer that puts the onus on the developed nations, firstly, to contribute towards the adaptation strategies of the developing nations; and secondly, to assist their transition to low emission economies by providing innovative technology. Despite having agreed upon these commitments in Paris, the developed countries were seen re-evaluating these at Bonn.

National agendas for progress lie at the heart of active political considerations. At this point it must become clearer why the international climate negotiations are largely at the mercy of the political regimes globally. Political shifts in countries that pivot on certain matters of primary concern to nations may leave other matters that are not perceived as critical unhinged and astray. Despite its urgency for over a decade or two, climate change has failed to occupy this central position in any national agenda. With the rise in global terrorism and the risk to national security, a jingoistic approach to development has overtaken most parts of the world. Many democracies have begun nurturing populist measures instead of measures that foot holistic and sustainable development of the country.  In such a situation, concerns such as adaptation to climate change lack the necessary political wind beneath its wings.

Clearly, political flux cannot be kept mutually exclusive from climate negotiations. However, for concrete results that effectively mitigate climate change, national commitments of Parties at COP cannot be as fickle as politics would render them. Nearly all Nationally Determined Contributions and goals for climate change mitigation fail to legally bind Parties. In the absence of real political will towards collective action, it becomes easy to evade these commitments. Therefore, every climate talk that seeks to build upon the previous efforts may appear more like another fresh start with countries possibly approaching the forum with altered political agendas.

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source: World Resources Institute

Being the two largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world as per the World Resources Institute, the US and China usually led the developed and developing fronts at the helm of climate talks. With the US taking a backseat, the mantle has now passed to the European Union. At Bonn, the EU was seen rising to the occasion, taking the lead and seeking future collaboration with China and Canada. At this point it is also worth considering that although EU is in principle a single entity, the positions of the EU member nations are not identical. This may raise doubts about the consistency in their position on climate change as a single entity in the future, especially in light of Brexit.

For any effective progress, it is imperative that the commitments by Parties be made legally binding. Although there exist progress trackers and a framework for periodic reviews on various parameters such as individual efforts, implementation, transparency, adaptation, etc., a system for holding nations accountable for the results is lacking. Goals once agreed upon at COP must be unalterable by Parties despite any political flux or change in the national political regime. Further, any scope of deferring effective action must be eliminated. This usually involves ambiguity surrounding the agreements signed at COP. For instance, the meaning of the term ‘equity’ when applied to global stock-take of progress on national commitments was unsettled. Although the term was first introduced in the Paris talks, it was sought to be interpreted and clarified by the developed nations over a year later at Bonn. Such delays may be averted by timely and thorough discussions and in its absence pose as convenient opportunities to evade compliance. These measures among others may mitigate the effects of ill-conceived political decisions that risk undoing years of global progress. Maybe with some sincere strides in the right direction, we could hope for Mr. Hawking to revise his Doomsday prediction and lend us some more Earth time.

(Saumya Chaudhari is, a law graduate from the National Law Institute University, Bhopal, set to begin her career as an environmental lawyer in Delhi.)

 


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The need to keep temperature below 1.5 degrees and the impacts in India

Chaitra Yadavar*

I personally remember sweating an unlimited amount even at 10 am as I stepped out to catch a local train to attend a meeting or to buy something from a grocery shop in May 2016. I didn’t remember it being this hot in the last 3 years. In the local trains, women would be discussing how they wake up in the morning to get ready for office, they would be completely covered in sweat. I used to thank my stars when I heard this as my family used to put the AC on before sleeping. All my friends and me, whoever used to work from home, switched rooms whichever were facing East and started working whichever room was facing West, in the mornings. It was unbearably hot!

I wasn’t surprised when I read that the European Geosciences Union published a study in April 2016 that examined the impact of a 1.5 degree Celsius vs. a 2.0 C temperature increase by the end of the century.

Heat waves would last around a third longer or rain storms would be about a third more intense. Also, the increase in sea level would be approximately a third higher and the percentage of tropical coral reefs at risk of severe degradation would be roughly that much greater.

In 2015, we saw global average temperatures a little over 1℃ above pre-industrial levels (before the industrial era began), and 2016 is proving to be even hotter. In February and March of this year, temperatures were already 1.38℃ above pre-industrial averages.

There are major reasons to be concerned about these factors being in India. South Asia’s vulnerability to these and future disasters is great, principally for reasons of population and poverty. The majority of South Asian countries are low or lower-middle income countries that already struggle to support the daily needs of their growing populations. Because poorer households dedicate more of their budgets to food, they are the most sensitive to weather-related shocks on agriculture that can make daily staple food unaffordable.

The point to remember in this scenario is that majority of the Greenhouse Gas emissions are let out by the first-world countries and the third-world and comparatively poorer countries like India have to suffer its disastrous consequences.

The destruction from flooding could wreak havoc in South Asia’s low-lying and urban areas. Extreme heat is already disrupting the growing season for regions in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Wheat production in the Indian portion of the Indo-Gangetic Plains, a fertile area that also encompasses parts of Pakistan and Bangladesh, may decrease by up to 50 per cent by 2100, harming the hundreds of millions of people who rely on it for sustenance.

The story of 1.5 C

Around 180 countries have so far signed the Paris climate agreement in which they pledged not only to limit the global temperature rise since pre-industrial times to “well below” 2C but to do their very best to keep them to 1.5C.

But as recorded temperatures this year have edged above 1C, scientists believe we are already dangerously close with the 1.5 degree target.

This new study suggests that it will “almost certainly be surpassed”, at least over land, based on the amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere.

Other researchers agree that keeping temperatures at the 1.5 figure is going to be a significant, if not impossible, challenge. But if the world is to take the 1.5 target seriously, then a serious discussion needs to be held about the implications of that goal.

After all, this is a global climate agreement. And to many countries, passing those temperature limits could be a disaster.

A ticking heat time-bomb: India

In the past few years in India, at times there is a severity in temperatures, at times it rains in odd months. The unpredictability and large scale loss which climate change has brought about is visible in states like Rajasthan. On May 19 2016, India’s all-time temperature record was smashed in the northern city of Phalodi in the state of Rajasthan. Temperatures soared to 51℃, beating the previous record set in 1956 by 0.4℃. Also, 2015 saw a flood in a city like Udaipur, which was an unheard-of phenomenon in this region!

India is known for its unbearably hot conditions at this time of year, just before the monsoon starts. Temperatures in the high 30s are normal, with local authorities declaring heatwave conditions only once temperatures reach a stifling 45℃.

Much of India is mostly in the grip of a massive drought. Water resources are scarce across the country. Dry conditions make extreme temperatures worse because the heat energy usually taken up by evaporation heats the air instead.

However, a study found a significant increase in the frequency of extreme temperatures and a remarkable trend in the duration of warm spells in India, as the graph below shows. Warm spells, defined as at least six days of extreme temperatures relative to the location and time of year, increased by at least three days per decade over 1951-2010 – the largest trend recorded globally.

Sky rocketing temperatures across northern and southern India have resulted in the deaths of more than 1,242 people though officials warn that the death toll would be much higher since a larger number of heat-related deaths in rural India go unreported.

Most of these deaths are caused by heatstroke and extreme dehydration. Doctors point out that long exposure to extreme heat raises the body temperature to such a high level that it causes the over-heating of an individual’s protein cells negatively impacting the individual’s brain. Many of those dead are known to be daily labourers, who have no choice but to go out everyday in search of their daily bread.

The searing heat wave in Delhi has seen over 200 dead, the majority of whom were homeless.

Indian Meterological Department presently categorises Rajasthan, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Vidarbha, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Telangana, coastal Andhra Pradesh and north Tamil Nadu as experiencing heat wave conditions annually which extend for eight days and more.

A heat wave condition prevails when the temperature rises to 40 degrees Celsius and more. For hill stations, the heat wave conditions are those where the temperature rises to above 30 degrees Celsius.

Dr D S Pai, a scientist at IMD, warned that severe heat wave conditions are resulting in the death of thousands of people every year. He cites the example of how 1,000 people were killed by a heat wave in Andhra Pradesh in 2002 while another 1,000 people died in the state in 2010.

The causes

Glacial melting and increasing deforestation is also adversely impacting weather cycles and is something that is happening in India too.

The report states that the total amount of carbon human beings emit should not exceed 800 gigatons, but by 2011, 531 gigatons had already been emitted.

The effects of this overdose are for everyone to see — a relentless heating up of the atmosphere with sea levels increasingly flooding coastal plains in India and other countries.

Scientists at the Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, associated closely with the drafting of this report, warn that rising temperatures will adversely impact monsoons. Rainfall is expected to increase by 10 per cent between December to February and up to 50 per cent between September and November and the overall monsoon winds are likely to weaken.

According to the report, Monsoon retreat dates are likely to be delayed, resulting in the lengthening in the monsoon season in many regions.

Higher rainfall will not mean an extension of rainy days. Rather, it will see an increase in extreme weather events as happened during the torrential rainfall that hit Uttarakhand in June 2013 and in 2015 and the heavy rainfall that caused flooding of the Jhelum river in Jammu and Kashmir in 2014 causing destruction in a large part of the capital city of Srinagar.

Apprehensive of the rapid rate of glacial melt, the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development said that 54,000 glaciers in the Himalayas could create glacial lakes which would rupture their banks and destroy the surrounding infrastructure and agriculture. The bursting of the glacial lake in Kedarnath precipitated the devastation in Uttarakhand.

A similar lake like this has been created by landslides on the Kali Gandaki river in Nepal after the massive earthquake in Kathmandu in April 2016. If the lake breaches, it would result in disastrous downstream flooding which would spread up to several cities in Bihar.

Scientists question how increasing urbanisation will handle future climate problems, especially since cities produce three quarters of greenhouse gas emissions related to household consumption. The current government’s emphasis on ‘urbanising India’ casts heavy doubts on the future of cities and the environment.

A bad monsoon would mean one more year of poor rains and see a decline in food production.

What can be done?

India is already highly vulnerable to the health impacts of oppressive heatwaves and, as climate change continues, this vulnerability will grow. It is therefore important that heat plans are put in place to protect the population. That’s a difficult prospect in places that lack communications infrastructure or widespread access to air conditioning.

In the longer term, this episode shows that the global warming targets agreed in Paris have to be taken seriously, so that unprecedented heatwaves and their deadly impacts don’t become unmanageable in this part of the world.

(Chaitra runs a website on alternative (eco-friendly) methods of celebrating Ganeshotsav : www.greenbappa.in. She also runs an NGO ‘Rupantar’ working on women empowerment and have previously been selected as one of the 30 fellows to attend the ‘Emerging leaders in Multifaith Climate change movement’ in Rome, 2015.)