Commit to a decade of climate resilience
India’s vulnerability to climate risks, growing experience with handling disasters, and new initiatives to strengthen infrastructure position it at the forefront for an adaptation action agenda
What is common to Cuttack in Odisha, Guntur in Andhra Pradesh and Paschim Champaran in Bihar? In the past half-century, these districts (among many others) have witnessed a switch from being flood-prone to becoming drought-prone. Conversely, Nagaur in Rajasthan, Surendranagar in Gujarat and Aurangabad in Maharashtra are among the districts where the reverse has been observed.
Administrative attention currently is focused on vaccine delivery and economic recovery. But the next economic crisis could be set off by a series of climate shocks. Between 1999 and 2018, the world faced at least 12,000 extreme weather events, resulting in losses of $3.54 trillion (in purchasing power parity terms).
The planet is in trouble. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (at 417 parts per million) are as high as they were four million years ago, with temperatures being 2-4 degrees Celsius warmer and sea levels 10-25 metres higher. In the worst-case scenario, by 2100, CO2 concentrations could reach levels last seen more than 50 million years ago. This rate of change does not give time for many organisms to adapt to a warmer climate. Human civilisation has never experienced warming of this kind.
Despite the marginal and temporary fall in emissions due to the pandemic, 2020 was the warmest year ever recorded (tied with 2016). Temperatures could have been higher had it not been for the cooling impact of the La Niña event (a cool band of water forming in the Pacific Ocean every few years).
India is witnessing severe pressures. Between 1970 and 2005, there were 250 extreme climate events; but there have been 310 such since 2005 alone. In that period, at least 55 districts have endured extreme floods and 79 districts have faced extreme drought annually. This means that every year, floods and droughts are affecting 97.5 million and 140 million people, respectively.
Mitigating emissions has always tended to overshadow the climate agenda. But the Climate Adaptation Summit being planned for January 25-26 in the Netherlands can begin to reshape the conversation. Summit organisers plan to introduce an adaptation action agenda, allowing actors from different regions and sectors to propose adaptation initiatives. India could lead the world in committing to a decade of climate resilience, by proposing and promoting actions that investigate, inform and invest against risks and build resilience. Episodic and myopic approaches to disaster management will fall short unless buttressed by efforts to investigate extreme events in detail. We need to analyse their causes, their shifting frequency, the impact of climate crisis on their possible recurrence and the vulnerability of specific regions.
This is why a climate risk atlas becomes necessary, connecting past trends to future scenarios by overlaying data on extreme events with climate modelling. This does not exist anywhere in the developing world, in effect forcing governments to fly blind. India can demonstrate how a detailed assessment of localised climate risks can lay the foundation for informed climate plans at national, state, district and city levels, preparing for extreme events, and accordingly identify the gaps in administrative capacity to respond.
Second, climate risks need to be communicated to households and communities. A particularly grim drought or flash flood, with hundreds of thousands affected, might attract headlines for a few days or weeks. But how does a community prepare itself for climate variability? Like Chennai or Mahbubnagar, 40% of India’s districts have switched from being flood-prone to drought-prone and vice-versa. Information on climate risks needs to be salient and easily understood by households. Advance warnings, giving real-time information as disasters unfold, connecting people and businesses for post-disaster recovery are ways in which communities can become co-participants in a unified emergency response framework.
Third, India must be at the vanguard of investing in cost-effective resilient infrastructure. Developing countries do not have the luxury of spending billions of additional dollars on climate-proof infrastructure. On paper, the incremental investments pay back when they avoid far greater losses from extreme events. But high upfront costs of already expensive capital assets make climate resilience a secondary priority. This is why India’s leadership of the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) — with its focus on transport, power and telecom infrastructure — is noteworthy. The Climate Adaptation Summit can extend CDRI’s work on research, advocacy and technical support and include resilience financing. This would reduce the cost of finance by setting off investment in resilient infrastructure against avoided future losses.
Building resilience is both prevention and cure. By 2030, the world has to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, fulfil promises made under the Paris Agreement, and adhere to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. A common thread of resilience could tie their agendas together. India’s vulnerability to climate risks, growing experience with handling disasters, and new initiatives to strengthen infrastructure position it at the forefront for an adaptation action agenda.
Arunabha Ghosh is CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water
The views expressed are personal