Tag Archives | Climate Change

The Unhistoric US-China Climate Deal

China and the United States of America inked a climate pact this month and this has been lauded by various corners as landmark and historic. Vasudevan Mukunth quoted me in his article for Scroll.

Here is the full text of my comments to Scroll.

The history of the global negotiations on climate change negotiations has so far shown two things:

One, big emitters have typically employed salami slicing tactics, where they inch up the emission levels they are willing to go down to. Changing the base years and letting the reduction targets slide are commonplace.

Two, any penalty measures used to enforce emission reduction targets have been repeatedly flouted – including by countries like Canada – with no direct consequences.

I remain skeptical of this deal because the size of the Chinese emissions ‘peak’ remains unknown. That gives a lot of wiggle room for China. Secondly, there is no tangible enforcement mechanism presented, nor does one seem feasible. At best, this is a gentlemen’s agreement between the United States and China, and there are no gentlemen in international relations.

Implications for India and other developing countries:

India has routinely done a poor job of defending its record in global climate change negotiations, though it has done far better in substance than the likes of China. There is a risk that India will be painted into a corner, in spite of being a low carbon emitter on a per capita basis, and in spite of significant efforts at home to promote renewables.

Further, India’s more immediate focus must be on climate adaptation, but international financing and promotion of mitigation efforts serve to distract domestic policy. For India to get back to high economic growth, India must be willing and able to use all forms of energy — from coal to natural gas to nuclear power and renewables, and use the growth to provide better public goods and build resilient infrastructure.

This deal and its seeming historicity makes it a harder challenge for India to make its case convincing for a global audience.

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Surveying Opinions on Scientific Issues

Last week, I wrote a short post on how someone’s combined views on climate change, nuclear safety and GMOs are a good indicator of their scientific temper and ideological biases. Subsequently, my colleague and fellow blogger Karthik Shashidhar ran a short online survey on the same three questions to solicit responses. Survey participants were given five choices ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Karthik has analysed the survey results on the RQ blog that I would urge all readers to check out.

Firstly, we will look at the individual responses to each of the three questions:

…this shows that opinion in favour of global warming is fairly strong.

While a majority of the people believe that health risks from nuclear power have been exaggerated, the opinion is not as overwhelming as it is on the global warming front. There still exist a significant number of doubters of safety of nuclear energy.

When it comes to GM crops, however, public opinion is largely divided. As many people agree that GM crops are safe, as do people who believe they are unsafe. [RQ on INI]

The survey was designed to be quick and dirty – participants were largely those who found the survey on Twitter and Facebook and essentially selected themselves into entering the survey. Ergo, there are no claims made here that these responses are representative of any ‘universal’ population.

Taking a venn-diagram approach to analysing the survey responses, I was able to generate the chart below. I divided the 5 options for each questions into two categories: neutral or disagree, versus agree or strongly agree. Therefore, all those who have either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that 20th century climate change is anthropogenic come under the orange coloured ellipse, and all those who haven’t come outside of it. Note that the ellipses in the venn diagram have been drawn in proportion to the number of respondents who fall under that category.

Scientific Temper

The largest set of respondents (29 percent) are those who, according to my metrics, can be classified as “left wing”, those only agreeing to the climate change question while disagreeing with nuclear or GMO safety. The second largest (23 percent) is a curious set: they do not think that GMOs are safe, but agree both on nuclear safety and climate change. Without commenting on ideological biases, it is possible to look at this set as a people who are “climate change realists” – people who understand that we do not have the option to burn dirty fossil fuels endlessly, and that nuclear power has a role to play in reducing our fossil fuel dependence.

Some 19 percent of the respondents are those I would consider as being most sensitive to scientific evidence, but readers can feel free to disagree with me on that. About 10 percent of the respondents are classically right wing – the notion that ‘most environmental fears are overblown’ can explain their stance on all three questions.

About 9% agree that climate change is anthropogenic and that GMOs are safe – but are not convinced about nuclear safety. They form a subset that I find rather curious. In a sense, there is indeed a connection between the two topics. GMOs form an essential tool in retaining and improving agricultural productivity in the face of climate change and uncertainty – not just in creating drought and flood-resistant varieties, but also in converting C3 plants into C4 plants, the latter of which are far superior at tolerating high temperatures and making use of increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. It is difficult to comment, however, that  this knowledge indeed informs their opinions.

The initial hypothesis was that asking for opinions on anthropogenic climate change, nuclear safety and GMO safety would broadly give us three categories of respondents: left wing, right wing and those “biased to evidence”. When tested, it gave us four or five major categories of people, including those who disagree only with nuclear safety, or only with GMO safety.

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Bias to scientific reason

Issues of scientific complexity occupy a lot of space in public affairs – be it the extraction of shale gas, the effectiveness of alternative medicine or the alleged dangers from cell phone tower radiation. A strong position on many of these issues is often tied to a political ideology rather than a deference to scientific reasoning and evidence.

So what is the easiest way to figure out if someone defers to scientific reason above and beyond ideologies?

I say that you can do it by understanding their positions on three cardinal topics of today: anthropogenic climate change, the safety of nuclear power generation, and the safety of genetically modified foods. Broadly, people leaning towards the left of the political spectrum agree only with the first, and those leaning right agree only with the last two – be it with evidence or not. Ascertaining people’s views on all three is a good barometer of their deference to scientific evidence.

It is important, however, to note the core arguments that define these issues:

The core argument in climate change is that the earth’s surface warmed significantly in the 20th century due to human-linked emissions of greenhouse gases.

The argument with nuclear safety is that health risks from nuclear power generation, both chronic and acute, have been grossly exaggerated and that due to an obsession with nuclear safety for the past 6 decades, nuclear power is now safer than most other sources of energy.

The argument with genetically modified crops is that they are just as safe as other crops, both for growing and for consumption. Additionally, crop modification through targeted molecular biology techniques is in fact less genetically invasive than conventional hybridisation techniques.

All three arguments have overwhelming scientific evidence on their side, and the nature of the scientific debate is very different from the public and political discussions regarding the same.

Together, anyone’s views on all three topics – nuclear safety, GMOs and climate change – can be very illuminating. The discussion is moot, however, if people start questioning evolution.

Addendum. Subsequent to this post, we ran a short survey of opinions on these three issues and analysed the results.

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We are still vulnerable to climate variability

Samanth Subramaniam writes in UAE’s The National on the floods in Uttarakhand and quotes me on the link between flooding and climate change.

But Pavan Srinath, a policy researcher at the Chennai-based Takshashila Institution, who has written extensively about climate change, told The National that cause and effect were difficult to establish in such situations.

“Theoretically, if you mess around in mountain systems, you can increase chances of landslides or floods, yes,” Mr Srinath said. “The question is: How much does the risk go up? We don’t know that yet.”

Similarly, Mr Srinath hesitated to draw a link between global climate change patterns and the early monsoon rain that triggered Uttarakhand’s floods.

“One of the theories is that global warming increases the intensity of the monsoon rains,” Mr Srinath said. He acknowledged that climate change was causing “extreme weather events” but argued that it was difficult to conclusively prove that these floods were one such event.

“I would say, instead, that our towns haven’t even adapted to regular variations in climates, let alone climate change-induced ones,” Mr Srinath said. “Really, that’s the conversation we should be having.”
[Samanth Subramaniam, The National]

I cannot stress the last point enough. The sad truth is, even without climate change, our towns, cities and villages are deeply vulnerable to the natural variability in climate. Be it droughts that hit parts of India like clockwork every few years, or how Assam or Orissa get inundated by floods regularly – we see constant evidence that we aren’t even resilient to what we ought to be. We should be talking about adapting to local climes, to variability and finally to climate change. Talking excessively of climate change alone shifts the focus instead to mitigation, to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and a host of other issues that serve as distractions.

For a nation that is one-sixth of the world’s population, we have but contributed to 3% of greenhouse gases emitted globally since the industrial revolution. Our most important goals need to be of climate adaptation, and building disaster resilience and good emergency services.

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Not every disaster is man-made

Uttarakhand has been a scene of unfolding horror for the past four days, and is a human tragedy occuring at a scale that is staggering. For many people in India, it is also a disaster that hits home as millions have visited Uttarakhand on pilgrimage and have seen the places that we now see on the television with dread.

The scale of damage due to floods is not yet known but is certainly immense. The loss of human lives above all, and the destruction of public and private property will likely haunt the residents for many years. The loss of lives is currently estimated in the hundreds and can go up to the thousands or even more, given the large number of people currently reported as missing. A disaster such as this requires rapid, thorough rescue and relief operations. By most accounts, the army and the state officials are doing an admirable job of it. Afterwards comes the time for rebuilding and sombre reflection, as well as thorough investigations into the causes for the disaster, the amplifiers, and the role of human error, malfeasance and failures.

What do we have instead? Loud war cries that the disaster in Uttarakhand was man-made, and that political parties gave in to various mafias and increased the scale of destruction unleashed upon much of Uttarakhand.

One human factor that can be brought into this discussion as a causative agent is climate change, but only with great care. While anthropogenic climate change has been established as a very likely cause for the increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in India and elsewhere in the world, there are two strong caveats to this link. First, it is impossible to say whether an individual event has a greenhouse gas or a warm climate footprint. This is the case for everything from Hurricane Sandy to the cloudburst over Uttarakhand. Second, empirical evidence for the relationship between the monsoon and climate change is still very limited. There are many theories on what climate change is likely to do to the Indian summer monsoon, but much of it is still unknown. While the summer monsoon hit the coast of Kerala around the usual date this year, its march over the long leagues from Kanya Kumari to the Himalayas was exceptionally quick. The most honest, if uncomfortable, statement is that we don’t know if climate change caused the cloudburst over Uttarakhand, nor do we know that climate change could make such events more frequent or intense.

The reasons for declaring the disaster as man-made were given in a Down to Earth home page feature as the increase in hydel projects in the state, roads and infrastructure destabilising the mountains, and development increasing the frequency and intensity of landslides.

Is any of this true? On the first count of hydroelectric power projects and excessive dam-building in Uttarakhand, the reality is far from the rhetoric. While it is true that there are ambitious plans for dam construction in the state, especially on the Ganga and its tributaries, very few projects have actually been implemented and are operational. The map below from SANDRP shows that on the Ganga, only 16 hydel projects had been commissioned, 13 were under construction, and 54 were proposed as of a year or two ago. The picture has not changed rapidly since then. We can do better than blaming widespread floods on paper dams.

Map_of_Hydroelectric_Projects_in_Bhagirathi_and_Alaknanda_Basin

Source: http://sandrp.in/basin_maps/

On all other counts of “development” causing or worsening the disaster, the litmus test is the impact at Kedarnath. The holy pilgrimage site of Kedarnath is a valley on the banks of the river Mandakini that lies high above much of the upper Gangetic basin at 3600 metres above sea-level [See Kedarnath on Google Maps]. Above it is wildnerness and  inhabitable mountains, and motorable roads are yet to reach the place. Pilgrims drive up to Gauri Kund, and trek up the last 14 kilometres, climbing some six thousand feet in the process. There are no roads, bridges or extensive artificial interventions around Kedarnath, except for the temple and surrounding hotels and housing that has sprung up.

In spite of this, Kedarnath has been among the worst hit areas in this disaster. Floodwaters swept into the settlement, bringing with them vast amounts of debris and cutting off access for about 8,000 people from the rest of the region.

We have to live in an evidence-free world to say that the horrific natural disaster that struck Kedarnath was man-made. Kedarnath, as the map below shows, lies high above even proposed dams and has only the most minimal amounts of development. It is the benchmark by which one can say that the flooding in Uttarakhand has been more prolific than any other in living memory, above and beyond any “man-made” effects.

Mandakini150411

Source: http://sandrp.in/basin_maps/

All this has been said in full recognition of the fact that Uttarakhand has always been profoundly vulnerable to flooding, and that there has always been a high risk of natural disasters. The notion that such floods could happen some day was far from unknown. The hope that it may not happen to us or in our lifetimes was as free of evidence as some of the claims mentioned above. Places between Rudraprayag and Rishikesh on the Ganga have evidently not built any resilience against an event such as this.

Unfortunately, the value for human life in India still remains disturbingly low. It is specious to singularly blame governments for this, without also pointing fingers to all of us as a society. And it is certainly better to reflect on how we can build resilience to natural disasters than to think in terms of false choices such as “Is it just another flash flood or is it a man made disaster?“.

Update:
Read this article in Kannada, translated by Vikas Argod.
I subsequently participated in a show of We The People on NDTV making similar points. Do take a look.

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