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Meeting the challenge of new climate normal

We need to boost research in climate science to gain further insights. At the same time, action to save lives and property needs to be taken now. This is better done by fine-tuning weather forecasting and dovetailing forecast with administrative and community action on the ground. We need to review all relevant policies and take corrective action.

Meeting the challenge of new climate normal

Vital: Reduce the impact of extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and floods. PTI



Dinesh C Sharma

Science Commentator

The images of incessant rain, floods, landslides and rockfalls going viral on social media platforms these days may appear straight from a movie or a sci-fi novel on the apocalypse. Unfortunately, they are real climate disasters hitting different parts of India, and many other countries across the world. Heatwaves in North America, devastating cyclones in the pre-monsoon weeks and extreme rainfall events in India, massive floods in China and floods in parts of Germany are all part of the same larger story — a change in the global weather patterns.

Scientific bodies like the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change have been warning of the catastrophic impacts of global warming for decades. All these warnings are not only turning into reality but also hitting us harder with each passing year.

The impact of such extreme weather events gets exacerbated due to manmade causes like faulty planning and public policies. Extreme weather has become the new normal, to use a cliché. We need to seriously ponder on how we are going to adjust our lives to this new climate normal.

First, recognise the intrinsic connection between climate change and extreme weather events. The public discourse on climate change often focuses on future projections of temperature rise under different emission scenarios. This leads to the wrong perception among policymakers and the general public that climate change is still a few decades away. While projections serve a purpose, we have enough observed data that establishes that the global temperature is rising and weather patterns are fast changing.

The Indian monsoon has seen definite deviations — an overall weakening of the monsoon circulation, longer dry spells, higher frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall and reduction in the total rainfall in the June-to-September season. Indian scientists such as Roxy Mathew Koll have also reported the reasons for this — the warming of the Indian Ocean due to carbon emissions, notably in the western Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

Such warming is not only affecting the monsoon circulation but also increasing the frequency, intensity and duration of cyclones and causing extreme rainfall wherever local meteorological conditions are favourable. The tropical cyclone Tauktae that hit the Gujarat coast in the pre-monsoon weeks remained active even 24 hours after its landfall, indicating the increase in the duration of tropical cyclones, along with bigger intensity.

We need to boost research in climate science to gain further insights. At the same time, action to save lives and property needs to be taken now. This is better done by fine-tuning weather forecasting and dovetailing forecast with administrative and community action on the ground. In the recent past, the precision and accuracy of forecasts from the India Meteorological Department have vastly improved. In addition to regular bulletins and warnings, the department has begun issuing an ‘impact forecast’ that covers the likely outcome of predictions in a given area, taking into account its topography and other parameters.

For instance, when heavy rainfall is predicted in a particular district, people can be warned if it will lead to flooding. Such forecasting should be extended to all disaster-prone districts and efforts made to involve communities in the dissemination of the warnings. This can save lives, as demonstrated by the accurate prediction of cyclones and administrative action to evacuate people to safer places. The change is visible in Odisha which used to witness a heavy loss of life in the 1990s. In the same way, an early warning system for landslides and other steps are taken to reduce risk in identified locations.

Simultaneously, we need to review all relevant policies and take corrective action to reduce the impact of extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and resulting floods. This is the most difficult and tricky part. Evacuation should not be the only option every time a cyclone is to hit the coast. A long-term solution would be to redrawing city plans, wherever they exist, to restoring lakes and natural drainage systems, building stormwater systems and so on.

All cities on our coasts — Mumbai, Chennai, Visakhapatnam etc. — need to be climate-resilient or prepared for extreme rainfall events as well as sea-level rise and storm surges. Key infrastructure installations are located in coastal areas. Villages in the coastal areas that are witnessing coastal erosion also need to be better prepared through measures like protection and regeneration of mangroves.

Climate concerns should be kept in mind while building large infrastructure projects and industries. The construction of hydro-power projects and growing urbanisation in fragile hilly regions needs to be checked. The Environment Impact Assessment framework should be made more stringent rather than be diluted.

At the same time, our engagement with the global community in climate talks under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change should continue. Climate diplomats are still engaged in the crucial issues of climate finance, emission reduction and the target of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, as committed under the Paris Agreement. Now there is talk of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

All these are long-term goals and ambitions, with little impact on the situation on the ground. Hopefully, the series of extreme events in different countries will inject a new sense of urgency into climate negotiations.

As an obligation under the global climate framework, India came up with the national climate action plan in 2008, with several missions for different sectors such as energy, food, biodiversity, Himalayan ecology etc. The states were told to formulate state-level climate action plans and also designate nodal agencies for climate change. A national climate adaptation fund was also created subsequently. Scientists have prepared district-wise climate vulnerability maps based on state-level climate trends and socio-economic factors. It was done first for the north-eastern states and then for the rest of the country.

So, we have climate science telling us that the temperature is rising and how the monsoon is getting affected, and the Met office is coming up with better predictions, Central and state governments have prepared climate plans and we also know of the more vulnerable districts. Only one piece in the climate puzzle is missing — action.


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