Thinking About Climate Change: An Interactive

Thinking About Climate Change:
An Interactive

How to Use This Interactive

Spin the earth to view the topics. Click on each topic to read a short introduction and explore more through the list of articles that follow. Navigate between the topics either by clicking the button on top or on the earth.

How to Use This Interactive

Spin the earth and hover to view the topics. Click on the highlighted segment to read a short introduction and explore more through the list of articles. Navigate between the topics either by clicking on the earth or on the “explore” button at the end of the text.

The earth’s climate has been undergoing change—for example, glacial advances and retreat—for millennia. However, the current warming trend is seen by scientists to be linked to unprecedented human activity since the middle of the 20th century. The average surface temperature of the earth has risen about 0.9 degrees celsius since the late 19th century, largely due to increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.

The warming of the earth has resulted in the melting of polar ice caps, leading to a rise in sea and ocean levels. At the same time, as oceans absorb most of the increased heat, they lead to the melting of ice shelves. Glaciers across the world are retreating, snow is melting faster, and extreme weather events (particular high temperature and intense rainfall) are becoming common due to warmer, wetter air.

Projected climate change by mid-21st century is likely to result in negative impacts on marine ecosystems, fisheries, agriculture, groundwater resources, renewable surface water, posing a huge risk to food security, particularly in tropical and temperate climate zones. Populations that are infrastructurally disadvantaged, particularly in the developing world, are likely to be most at risk of disease, displacement, and hunger.

While these climate change risks will manifest themselves over a multi-decade period, countries are expected to implement risk mitigation and adaptation programmes as agreed upon under international accords like the Paris Agreement of 2015.

Debates around climate change at the climate summits have often taken either of the two sides—that the only solution/response to climate can be to adapt oneself to live within natural boundaries, constraining resource use and consumption or that resource use is essential to human survival, but science and technology can be utilised to control resource exploitation as well as to mitigate the ill effects of climate change.

This debate kit aims to provide a glimpse into the major concepts and themes in scholarship from the EPW, pertaining to climate change. It is intended for curious readers looking for a quick overview of the topic as well as experts looking who are seeking a repository of accessible information and articles on climate change.

Acknowledgement: We thank Dunu Roy for his invaluable comments.

Curated by Sohnee Harshey [​sohnee@epw.in] and Vishnupriya Bhandaram [​vishnupriya@epw.in]

Illustrated by Parimal Chahande [​parimal@epw.in]

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Disaster Management

  • extreme weather
  • disaster management
  • disaster relief
  • drought
  • earthquakes
  • landslides

According to the Global Climate Change and Vulnerability Index 2011, India ranks as the second “extreme risk” country in the world after Bangladesh, vulnerable to natural and climate change hazards. High incidence of poverty coupled with rapid urban growth in India further increases the population’s vulnerability to the impact of natural hazards and climatic changes.

The Indian government has formulated several guidelines and procedures, such as the National Action Plan on Climate Change and the Disaster Management Act, 2005 to address increasing vulnerabilities. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is a key nodal agency for coordinating hazard relief and mitigation activities, in conjunction with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMAs), the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF).

The two key approaches to disaster risk reduction are mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation refers to all action that is taken to bring down the effects of climate change. For example, reducing emissions, phasing out fossil fuels, increasing focus on developing renewable energy sources, and switching to low carbon energy sources. However, it is also important to adapt to unavoidable climate change, in order to minimise risk to lives and livelihoods.

As a response to natural disasters and occurrences, such as erosion, the government’s response has focused on massive structural interventions like dams, dredging of rivers, and porcupine structures. On the other hand, evidence shows that dams tend to get silted quickly, especially in the mountains. Often, to save the dams, water has to be released downstream, which can cause flooding. Embankments, which are created as “safe areas”, also have to live in the fear that it could be breached. In light of this, scholars suggest that an important normative shift must occur which enables the government to see that floods/disasters are a natural phenomenon, changing the discourse from disaster protection to disaster governance. India should do away with one-off relief measures as norm, and instead, it should put in efforts to strengthen institutional mechanisms for disaster prevention.

Developing countries are likely to experience heavier impacts of climate change and also suffer from a lack of resources to cope in times of disaster. This makes such countries more vulnerable and prone to poverty and marginalisation. The systems and processes of mitigating disasters cannot be left out of the climate change’s economic agenda.

Scholars have suggested that climate change adaptation should be built by taking into account the vast nature of vulnerabilities that we face, through an approach that looks at solutions across sectors, tackling deficiencies/threats on multiple levels.

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˅

Agriculture

  • global warming
  • farmers
  • livestock
  • agriculture
  • weather forecast
  • drought
  • sustainability

Agriculture has been widely recognised as a sector that is most vulnerable to climate change given its dependence on environmental conditions. Agriculture contributes only 14% to India’s gross domestic product, but it provides a source of livelihood for at least 57% of its people, most of whom live in rural areas. With over 60% of agriculture relying on rainfall, farming in India is a high-risk gamble dependent upon the vagaries of the monsoons and local meteorological conditions. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate change is likely to reduce net cereal production in South Asian countries by 4%–10% by 2100.

In India, there is an agricultural crisis: farmers find that their income has not improved substantially, but cultivation costs have escalated. This is linked closely to the cropping patterns introduced by the Green Revolution as well as the subsequent rise in credit rates, and price of inputs like tools, tractors, fertilisers, and pesticides. Coupled with this, major changes in weather patterns (heatwaves, shortage in normal rainfall, untimely rain, and hailstorms) have had adverse impacts on agricultural productivity. The availability of fodder is also affected by changes in temperature and rainfall. This has a huge implication for livestock, especially during the dry summer months often leading to high livestock mortality. The worsening climate across the world is crippling a number of economies and failing agriculture has led to large-scale migration. This has also led to a situation of skewed regional development, economic stagnation, and consistent migration.

Agriculture itself contributes significantly to climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and land cover changes. For instance, paddy fields are known to be one of the significant contributors to atmospheric methane. Practices like burning of farm waste also contribute to particulate matter in the air.

Advancement in research and planned implementation of new technology along with enhancing weather prediction capabilities seem to offer a way forward. Traditional knowledge and coping practices of farming communities need to be supplemented with science-based adaptive and risk mitigation information in order to enable farmers to protect their crops and livestock and increase productivity. Public research institutions must work to develop genetically modified crop varieties that withstand climate change. Options such as cloud seeding may be explored to fulfil precipitation needs.

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˅

Natural Resource Management

  • natural resources
  • green economy
  • resource exploitation
  • local communities
  • empowerment
  • development
  • sustainable agriculture

With the consistent rise in human population, natural resources are under immense stress. Our heavy dependence on natural resources, such as water, land, coal, petroleum, and forests, increases our vulnerability to climate change. The finitude of these resources is one of the key concerns of the climate change discourse and, as a result, an important approach to mitigating climate change is that of responsible use and management of natural resources.

While the “finitude” of natural resources is a concern, the mismanagement of resources in the form of exploitation, overuse, and unplanned use poses a greater problem. Having limited resources also requires the development of new technology to harness hitherto untapped resources and to develop alternative ways of using existing resources. However, one of the major concerns remains that of carrying capacity, that is, the ability to sustain a population without environmental degradation. Another concern is regarding the adverse effects of economic activities which exceed resource extraction.

One of the important aspects of the natural resource management discourse is the involvement of local communities in managing common property resources and their involvement in planning and decision-making regarding the same. Communities that have been effective “caretakers of the environment” for generations can add value to the knowledge of mitigating the adverse effects of climate change. Involvement of rural communities—which tend to be at the receiving end of exploitation of big industries—in climate dialogue is central to the efforts of building sustainable development.

Global capitalism is consistently increasing the demand for resources, which in turn puts the planet at risk. While there is debate and discussion on having “green economies,” clear principles of international cooperation and frameworks for action have not been laid out. Even green energy companies have been known to display exploitative behaviour towards local populations and have failed to adhere to best practices.

Environmental governance is a rapidly emerging and increasingly relevant aspect which deals with issues of natural resource management at the national, global and local levels. In the conversation on development and conservation, it is also pertinent to remember that the real conflict is not between conservation and development, but between environment and the reckless exploitation of human labour and the earth in the name of efficiency. Existing ecological limits pose a central question: How much of the world’s resources does any one nation or individual have a right to for their well-being?

Over the years, there has been a slow but steady evolution in thinking about natural resources and the environment. Strategies have mainly included monitoring use of resources, building resilience among people in order to tackle poverty, and deprivation and inequity that is likely to stem from climate change.

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Industrialisation and Urbanisation

  • urbanisation
  • population
  • consumption
  • resource use
  • ecology
  • risk

India has witnessed rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in the late 20th and early 21st century. Projections indicate that the total population of the country will increase by 2050; urban population is expected to grow by 404 million people, but the number of rural residents is expected to only decline by 52 million. The increase in population and migration has resulted in pressure on limited natural resources.

Rapid urbanisation has often come at the cost of the environment. Industrialisation, deforestation for changing land use, mining and quarrying, diversion and pollution of waterbodies, infrastructure development, increase in vehicular traffic, along with the rise in consumption of resources and generation of waste have been some of the major changes driven by a growing population and expanding human settlements. In ecologically sensitive zones, such as the Himalayan region, development projects like dams and unchecked road construction to promote tourism, have resulted in soil erosion, water run-off, destabilising of mountain slopes, frequent landslides, and floods.

Climate change is projected to increase risks for people, for assets, economies and ecosystems. This includes risks owing to extreme weather events such as heatwaves and storms, landslides, air and water pollution, depleting ground water and increased incidence of droughts, and flooding in coastal areas. Urbanisation can also be catalysed by climate change, especially through the mechanism of drought and environmental disaster-induced migration from rural areas. Regions that have been historically disadvantaged in terms of industrial and infrastructural development, namely the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and South America are the most vulnerable when it comes to adapting to or mitigating the effects of climate change. Cycles of poverty in these regions are likely to be exacerbated by new poverty traps created by climate-induced vulnerabilities.

There are no easily implementable long-term solutions to this problem. Some of the ways to address the problem could be through urban climate adaptation plans spearheaded by urban local bodies which recommend appropriate housing and urban development, locally appropriate urban waste management and recycling solutions, and town planning and infrastructure legislation to integrate disaster and climate change concerns into urban planning and development. These would also focus on hazard modification by repairing and strengthening strategic flood, storm surge, and coastal defences. At the same time, they would ensure that new construction meets climate vulnerability norms. Disincentivising consumption and resource use through increasing prices may be a possible solution, but its efficacy needs to be tested.

Keeping India's Economic Engine Going: Climate Change and the Urbanisation Question

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Greenhouse Gas Emissions

  • carbon
  • greenhouse gases
  • emissions
  • carbon markets
  • carbon credit
  • carbon tax
  • low carbon pathways

Putting a price on carbon has become a necessity in order for countries to modify their consumption and innovation practices to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. To do so, economic instruments, such as carbon trading and carbon tax, have been developed in climate change negotiations. Given that industrialisation and consumption are major sites of GHG emissions, the energy sector is often at the centre of the debate on carbon. The basic agreement in climate change negotiations has been that the industrialised countries (because they have historically contributed the most to emissions) must reduce their emissions and support sustainable development projects in industrialising countries.

There are three ways in which CO2 emission reduction can work: one, by setting a limit on the amount of emissions a nation or business can produce; two, by introducing a tax on the amount of CO2 generated; and three, by enabling nations and businesses to trade “the right to pollute.”

Carbon offsets refer to actions taken by countries in order to compensate for carbon dioxide that is emitted into the atmosphere as a result of industrial or human activity. There are two kinds of markets for carbon offsets: the compliance market and the voluntary market. In the former, companies, governments, and other entities buy carbon offsets in order to comply with the limits (caps under the climate change conventions) on the amount of CO2 they are allowed to emit. Voluntary offset markets allow companies, individuals, and governments to purchase carbon credits on a voluntary basis to “neutralise” their carbon footprint. The basic idea behind both is to enable producers and consumers to internalise the economic and social cost of pollution they create and choose a low carbon pathway.

Newly industrialised countries, such as China and India, argue that they should have the same opportunity to grow as the West did. On their side, the oil exporting countries, such as Colombia, as well as the coal exporting countries do not want to hear about the enhanced greenhouse effect because a cap on emissions would mean lowering the demand for fossil fuels, and thus their incomes. While the Kyoto Protocol allowed for emission offsets in developing countries, the Paris Agreement creates an opportunity to extend the reach and deepen the integration of carbon markets.

Even if carbon trading is a cost-effective way of complying with emission commitments, it is not necessarily seen to be a cost-effective way to mitigate climate change. The price paid for carbon credits can be several times the price that it would actually cost to reduce emissions in some cases. Moreover, even though CO2 is by far the principal gas causing the climate to change, most GHG offset projects target non-CO2 gases. Carbon offset instruments have also been criticised because of the negative impact they have on local communities in the form of displacement and conflict. Low prices give very little incentive for investment in clean energy production. As far as energy is concerned, compared to oil, coal is cheaper and more readily available but it is socially and environmentally “a dirty business.” Nuclear power promises immense potential, but high economic costs and doubts regarding the safety of nuclear plants as well as the future of spent nuclear fuel limit its development. The potential for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power is also underutilised due to high investments and slow returns. Forests are often ignored as potential avenues for carbon sequestration projects because quantification of their benefits on the balance sheets of nations is difficult. At the same time, the costs involved in carbon capture projects, such as underground reservoirs, are very high and their feasibility for climate change mitigation is still being contested. The developing countries have a difficult path ahead in terms of developing new low-carbon pathways of development without the additional burden of carbon offsets.

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Climate Policy in India

  • co-benefits approach
  • NAPCC
  • development
  • mitigation
  • emissions reduction
  • adaptation

India is in a unique position where there is a sizeable section of its population living without electricity, similar to other low-income countries, but India also has wasteful urban lifestyles similar to middle-income countries like Malaysia. Given these two sides, how should India formulate its policy responses to climate change, both domestically and internationally?

Through the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), India has formally taken on the co-benefits approach. This approach is one where development objectives and climate change objectives are more aligned and there is some degree of flexibility on mitigation targets. For example, a co-benefits approach would tackle both development issues like lack of access to clean energy and fuel as well as climate challenges such as air pollution. However, many scholars have argued that India’s co-benefits approach is “more than an ad hoc and often ex post justification for business-as-usual policies.”

At the Rio Summit in 1992, the principle of common but differentiated responsibility was enshrined. This meant that all states must take collective responsibility towards the environment, however, countries with varying levels of development would contribute based on their capacity. Since 1992, various countries, including India, have changed their position on this. India started off by protecting its path towards socio-economic development and pushed for developed economies to shoulder more of the climate change burden. Later in the 1990s, India moved away from a strict differentiation between developed and developing countries and began to lead negotiations towards a loosely differentiated regime. This shift can be attributed to India’s growing pragmatism in foreign policy.

India has participated in global climate change negotiations for over two decades and has consistently moved towards the centre of the debate by being a wary participant. However, it cannot hope to shape equitable climate governance by treating the symptoms (temperature goals and reduced emissions) without putting human well-being within global ecological limits at the centre of the issue.

Some scholars argue that as a late developer, India’s national policies on energy should align with global objectives. However, global consensus must also take into account the needs of countries where emissions are yet to peak and it must ensure high quality sustainable living for all, irrespective of their geographical location.

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Climate Change Negotiations

  • Conference of the Parties
  • Paris Agreement
  • Stockholm Declaration
  • Kyoto Protocol
  • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
  • United Nations
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Climate change negotiations help drive policy and provide a platform for nations across the board to present their concerns, especially when “development levels” vary vastly. Since there cannot be a “one size fits all” approach towards dealing with climate change, negotiations become a way to reformulate strategies that benefit the world at large.

The international conversation on climate change has moved from the larger objective of preventing dangerous man-made interference with the global climate system to include concepts of equity, ethical conduct, differentiated responsibility, and sustainability, and climate summits have become platforms to allot equitable targets to nations. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted by various government representatives in May 1992, and came into force in 1994. Since then, discussions at the summit have included issues of adapting to climate change, combating desertification, maintaining biological diversity, curbing GHG emissions, investing in low carbon pathways among others. Debates at these summits have also led to the question: When does historical responsibility start? The beginning of the industrial revolution? Or from the date that industrial emissions began to overwhelm the earth’s sinks?

Climate change negotiations have now been going on for at least two decades. However, given that these have largely been governed by international politics, they have continued to uphold the old positions between the global North and South. There remains a divide, and industrialised countries are more or less unwilling to shoulder the burden of cutting down on emissions. Beyond the question of responsibility and blame, climate summits perhaps should increasingly move towards discussing how late developers can respond and to reframe the design and implementation of the climate regime.

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Climate Finance and Climate Technologies

  • Climate Finance
  • Climate Fund
  • Transfer of technology
  • Mitigation
  • Adaptation
  • Responsibility
  • Capability
  • Emissions

Climate finance, in simple terms, refers to the financial resources generated or contributed by nations, international, and regional organisations for efforts towards reducing the adverse impacts of climate change and for enabling communities to adapt to climate change. This can take the form of direct financial aid for mitigation and adaptation as well as transfer of technology and intellectual resources for research and climate resilient growth. Climate finance is based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and the respective capabilities of nations. The stabilisation goal for countries is to restrict the global average temperature rise to 2˚C.

Climate technologies are those that can aid countries in mitigating climate change, for example, renewable energy alternatives like solar, wind, and hydel power, and those that help in adapting to climate change, for example, storm warning systems, drought resistant crops, etc.

At the 15th Conference of the Parties (CoP) meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Copenhagen in 2009, developed countries pledged to collectively mobilise new and additional funds to the tune of $100 billion annually by 2020 to enable developing countries reduce GHG emissions and adapt to the various impacts of climate change. In subsequent meetings in Cancun (2010) and Durban (2011), the developed countries reaffirmed this commitment and also recommended the setting up of Green Climate Fund to channel a portion of the amount they pledged in Copenhagen. In 2010, the COP established the Technology Mechanism with the aim of accelerating and enhancing climate technology development and transfer.

Multilateral climate funds that are managed by several nations together are an important channel of disbursing climate finance. Climate finance operates on voluntary pledges by different countries and each country offers what it deems fit in terms of climate action and financial support. The efforts to control climate change also hold enormous commercial opportunities for private players, but they also present certain risks and costs, especially in terms of new and untested technology, high investment, and a long incubation period before profitability.

A number of questions remain regarding the operation of climate finance as well as transfer of technologies. Most countries have lagged behind in fulfilling these commitments so far. The commitment to mobilise $100 billion per year by 2020 does not say anything about which nations should pay or in what proportion. It also does not say what percentage of it will constitute public fund as against private funds. Other concerns include the possibility of performance-based allocation of funds, designated implementing agency in recipient countries, and incremental needs of nations. The larger concern is, what will happen if the pledged $100 billion do not materialise by 2020 and the funds mobilised are much less than the promised amount? Similarly, there remain questions regarding the extent to which intellectual property rights affect the transfer of new environmentally sound technologies to developing countries. Also, at what stage will the “development” of countries come to an end and adaptation to climate change begin?

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