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Focus on climate crisis over wars: Climate scientist on Earth Day

ByJayashree Nandi
Apr 21, 2024 10:32 PM IST

The primary climate attribution researcher, investigating the causes behind Dubai’s flooding from heavy rainfall, noted that the climate crisis is intensifying floods, droughts, and heavy rainfall globally

Addressing the climate crisis, not wars, should be on top of world’s to-do list, one of the world’s top climate scientists said on Sunday. India should be prepared to face killing heat and related disasters, Friederike Otto, senior lecturer at the Grantham Institute of Climate Change and the Environment at London’s Imperial College, said in an interview with Jayashree Nandi. The climate emergency is supercharging floods, droughts and heavy rain across the world, said the leading climate attribution researcher, who is looking at the reasons for the flooding in Dubai due to excessive rain. Edited excerpts:

Friederike Otto, senior lecturer at the Grantham Institute of Climate Change and the Environment at London’s Imperial College. (Stefanie Loos/re:publica)
Friederike Otto, senior lecturer at the Grantham Institute of Climate Change and the Environment at London’s Imperial College. (Stefanie Loos/re:publica)

Are you doing a climate attribution study on Dubai’s rainfall event? When can we expect results?

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We have started a study to find out how much heavier the Dubai rainfall was because of climate change. We’re hoping to publish the study on Thursday or Friday.

Could you give us recent examples of how climate change supercharged heavy rainfall and storms. Could you also give examples of how arid regions are becoming drier and seeing unprecedented floods at the same time.

Late last year, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia were hit by massive rainfall that caused devastating flooding. More than 300 people lost their lives and millions were displaced. Our study found climate change doubled the intensity of the rainfall. Those rains followed a drought that lasted for two and a half years in the same region. Crop failures left tens of millions of people facing food shortages. We found that climate change made the drought at least 100 times more intense and much more intense.

It’s not unusual for one region to be affected by back-to-back extreme weather events of this nature. In many regions of the world, summers are becoming much hotter, increasing the risk of heatwaves, fires and droughts, as winters become much wetter, increasing the risk of devastating floods.

We have seen 10 straight months of record temperatures globally. Did we also see a rise in extreme weather events during this period?

There aren’t universal definitions or thresholds for different types of extreme weather, or a study looking into the number of extreme weather events in the last year or so. However, the world has almost certainly seen an increase in the number of extreme weather events in the last year, simply because it was the hottest year on record. High temperatures have greatly increased the likelihood of heatwaves, droughts, wildfire and heavy rainfall occurring.

We are likely to breach the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold of the Paris Agreement in next few years. How should the world prepare for the climate extremes?

It is important to note that the 1.5°C target is a political target. Yes, at 1.5°C of warming, extreme weather events and other impacts of climate change, for example, glacier melt, will be worse than now, or at 1.3°C or 1.4°C. But at the same time, the world won’t end if we do pass 1.5°C of warming for a sustained length of time. What we do know is that even fraction of a degree of warming will make life on earth much more dangerous, expensive and unpredictable.

Keeping warming to 1.5, 1.6 or 1.7°C will be so much safer than say, 2°C. So, people shouldn’t feel as if life on earth is doomed if we do pass 1.5°C but instead try hard to not surpass it and maybe end up at 1.6, rather than sticking their head in the sand and continue to do very little and end up at 3°C.

The world is incredibly vulnerable to climate extremes. We know this because so many people continue to die in heatwaves, floods, fires and storms. Buildings continued to be destroyed. Farms continue to be wiped out. It’s clear that we haven’t adapted to climate change quickly enough. So, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the world also needs to become more resilient to extreme weather.

We know that emissions are continuing to rise instead of reduction of 43% by 2030 as recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to achieve the Paris pact goals. What would be your message to the international community, which is busy with war and other geopolitical matters?

Climate change doesn’t stop during war. Climate change is not an additional problem to the cost-of-living crisis. It is totally intertwined with these other crises and stopping the climate crisis from getting worse will help, not hinder the solutions to the other crisis and make live cheaper, healthier and safer for all. As an existential risk to humanity, climate change must stay on top of world’s to-do list. It is a long-term problem that requires long-term solutions.

The most important thing to world needs to do is stop burning fossil fuels and replace them with renewable sources of energy. If we continue burning oil, gas and coal, the world’s temperatures will continue to rise, extreme weather events will continue to intensify, and vulnerable people will continue to die, while food prices will continue to increase dramatically for all.

How vulnerable is India to climate extremes? What adaptation measures are needed for the most vulnerable and by when?

With millions of people living in poverty and extremely hot summers, heat is a massive challenge for India. Heatwaves are the deadliest type of extreme weather there is. They’re often referred to as silent killers. Unlike fires or floods, the effects of heatwaves aren’t visible, and heat-related death statistics aren’t routinely recorded.

In April last year, an intense humid heatwave hit India. While the total number of deaths related to that heatwave is unknown, its likely hundreds or even thousands of people would have died. In Europe, which is less hot and has a less exposed population, 70,000 deaths were linked to high temperatures heat in a single year. In India, our study found that human-caused climate change made heatwave at least 30 times more likely and at least 2°C hotter. Similar heatwaves with temperatures well above 40°C will become hotter and hotter in India as the climate warms, so India needs to prepare.

Heat action plans are extremely effective at reducing heat-related deaths. Heat action plans set out the actions that can be taken before and during dangerous high temperatures. These include developing early warning systems and awareness campaigns, re- scheduling working hours for vulnerable workers, changing the timing of schools and setting up temporary stations where the public can access drinking water and first aid. Heat action plans have been developed in parts of India. In Ahmedabad and Odisha, the implementation of heat action plans has led to decreases in heat-related fatalities. Every city and every region that is affected by extreme heat in India should develop a heat action plan.

You said last week that Dubai’s unprecedented rainfall on April 15 was not caused by cloud seeding but an impact of climate change. Why?

The heaviest rainfall in Dubai in 75 years didn’t happen because of cloud seeding. It happened because of a big rainfall system that formed over the Arabian sea that led to the extreme rainfall. When we talk about heavy rainfall, we need to talk about climate change. Focusing on cloud seeding is misleading. Rainfall is becoming much heavier around the world as the climate warms because a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture.

Cloud seeding can’t create clouds from nothing, and it cannot change small clouds into massive thunderstorms. It can only encourage water that is already in the sky to condense faster and drop water in certain places. So first, you need moisture. Without it, there would be no clouds.

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