What we can do to tackle extreme weather events | Analysis
Buying a sea-facing flat in any coastal mega city in India may bring in challenges, warn climate scientists. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) special report on Oceans and Cryosphere in a changing climate made important revelations about the changing characteristics of the sea. It showed that the cryosphere — the frozen part of our planet — plays a critical role in sustaining life on earth. People around the world depend on these systems for basic sustenance. However, climate change is causing adverse consequences across these systems. The report warns that these changes will continue and some of them will accelerate in the near future.
The report warns that the global mean sea level is rising, with acceleration in recent decades due to increasing rates of ice loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, as well as continued glacier mass loss and ocean thermal expansion. The ocean is absorbing most of the carbon sink, making it much warmer than before. The impact of the warming ocean means that there will be an increase in the incidence of tropical cyclone winds and rainfall, increase in extreme waves, with relative sea level rise, exacerbate extreme sea level events and coastal hazards. The fish production is also expected to decline.
While the sea level has risen globally around 15cm during the 20th century, it is currently rising more than twice as fast — 3.6 mm per year and accelerating. The sea level will continue to rise. It is projected to reach around 30-60cm by 2100 even if the greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced and global warming is limited to well below 2° Celsius. In the event of high greenhouse gas emissions, it will rise to 60-110 cm. Global warming has already reached 1°C above the pre-industrial level in 2017, due to past and current greenhouse gas emissions. There is overwhelming evidence that this is resulting in profound consequences for ecosystems and people.
The ocean is warmer, more acidic and less productive. The world’s ocean and cryosphere have been “taking the heat” from climate change for decades, and consequences are expected to be widespread and severe.
So, what does this information mean for India? India has the seventh longest coastline in Asia of 7,500km, stretching from the Arabian Sea in the west to Bay of Bengal in the east. The nine coastal states and two Union Territories have a population of about 560 million. In 2014, around 177 million people lived in coastal districts and 0.44 million lived in island territories in India which are considered to be at a greater risk. This includes mega cities such as Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata along with tier-2 cities such as Surat, Visakhapatnam and Goa.
While events like cyclones will on the rise due to warming oceans, salinity ingress will pollute freshwater bodies and will have huge impacts on water for irrigation and domestic use. The shifting rainfall patterns of the monsoon will also have bearing for people living on the coastal areas. The fish production will decline affecting millions who depend on fish production for their survival. In the last week of September, many parts of peninsular India, the coastal region and sub-Himalayan region received heavy downpour. Hyderabad and Patna have received rains unprecedented in recent history and they barely have the infrastructure to cope with it. The changes we are experiencing show us how vulnerable we are to a changing climate. Though the impacts differ between regions and states, they tend to fall disproportionately on the poor.
Can we do anything to save ourselves from these extreme situations? There are different choices that range from climate-proofing developmental programmes, making infrastructure climate-resilient to adaptation options such as better early warning systems, institutional innovation in tackling disasters and resilient livelihood practices. Combined with this, sustained long-term monitoring, sharing of data, information and knowledge and improved context-specific forecasts, including early warning systems to predict more extreme events, tropical cyclones, and marine heatwaves, help to manage negative impacts from ocean and cryosphere changes. The IPCC report presents the case of Surat that has been setting an example in adapting to climate change. It has set up informal adaptation strategies independent of India’s national climate policy that helps in dealing with events such as cyclones. India is already charting an ambitious mitigation plan and moving towards clean energy, which will help mitigate some of the long-term consequences. Banning of single use plastics is a welcome step as it pollutes freshwater bodies and oceans. The choices we make now are critical for the future of our ocean and cryosphere — and all life on earth. Our future is clearly in our hands.