Climate Justice

Birds falling out of the sky

For decades droughts and floods have been an annual feature, but this time the heatwave and rain have arrived well before time, are far more frequent and intense. An analysis by Satya Sivaraman.

It is peak summer in the Indian capital New Delhi as I write this article. It is not easy to be in this city right now – the day temperature here touched 49 degrees Celsius a few days ago and averaged 41 degrees for the last several weeks.

Delhi’s peak temperatures this April and May are the hottest in over a century or since when records have been kept[1]. The heat has been exacerbated by the complete lack of rainfall in the months of March and April, also very unusual.

There are reports of birds falling out of the sky in western India due to dehydration[2]. The hot sun and dry air has also wilted crops in Punjab, the northern Indian state considered to be the country’s granary.

Due to the intense heat farmers expect a 40 percent drop in production, forcing the Indian government to panic and abruptly ban wheat exports in mid-May. Just a week before that India had claimed it had enough stocks of the commodity to ‘feed the world’, in the face of global shortages expected due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Meanwhile, in north-eastern India, continuously heavy rains have resulted in floods and landslides killing 14 people and affecting almost a million in the states of Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Assam witnessed 719 mm of rainfall between March 1 and May 20, a record for the month of May[3]. The natural calamity has fully damaged over 6,200 houses while more than 36,000 houses are partially damaged[4].

Due to its diverse geography there is nothing unusual about India witnessing severe drought-like conditions and floods at the same time. For decades it has been an annual feature, but this time the heatwave and rain have arrived well before time, are far more frequent and intense.

The reason for all this is of course climate change, which according to experts is likely to hit densely-populated countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh the hardest. A recent study by the UK Met Office found that climate change will make heat waves in India and Pakistan over 100 times more likely, and also increase their frequency[5].

One obvious consequence of rising temperatures will be the melting of glaciers in the Himalayan mountain ranges, which has the biggest reserves of water in the form of ice and snow outside the polar regions and is the source of ten of the largest rivers in Asia, mostly in South Asia[6].

The receding of glaciers at an average rate of 10–15 meters per year, already underway, is expected to affect millions of South Asian farmers downstream, who are partly dependent on glacial meltwater for cultivating their crops[7]. As per a new study climate change will impact the way different water sources , such as meltwater, rainwater, groundwater are used by farmers[8].

“Global warming causes glaciers to start melting earlier in the year, just when crops are being sown. This is initially favourable, but later in the year, when crops need the most water, there is less meltwater. Climate change also makes rainfall more irregular, so farmers have to pump more groundwater later in the year to compensate for a shortage of rain and meltwater” says the study published by researchers at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

The implications of water shortages for agriculture in countries like India, with big and already impoverished populations, are scary. According to a new assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) India’s rice production may decrease 30 per cent instead of 10 per cent if global warming over pre-industrial levels rises to 4°C from 1°C. Maize production will decrease 70 per cent instead of 25 per cent in this scenario[9].

Even a 2°C rise in the world’s average temperatures will make India’s summer monsoon highly unpredictable according to a World Bank study[10]. At 4°C warming, an extremely wet monsoon that currently has a chance of occurring only once in 100 years, is projected to occur every 10 years by the end of the century. An abrupt change in the monsoon could precipitate a major crisis, triggering more frequent droughts as well as greater flooding in large parts of India.

Another major impact of climate change on India is expected to be displacement of coastal populations – particularly urban ones – due to sea level rise. Being close to the equator, the sub-continent would see much higher rises in sea levels than higher latitudes. Sea-level rise and storm surges in turn would lead to saltwater intrusion in the coastal areas, impacting agriculture, degrading groundwater quality, contaminating drinking water. Kolkata and Mumbai, both densely populated cities, are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of sea-level rise, tropical cyclones, and riverine flooding.

So given all these phenomenal threats ahead to its own population and national security what has been India’s position on reducing its own global contributions to factors driving climate change?

Though India had the world’s third highest carbon emissions in 2019, its scale of emissions, at 2.88 CO2 gigatonnes (Gt) are much smaller compared to the highest polluter (China at 10.6 Gt) and second highest (United States at 5 Gt)[11]. India has also not been a historical contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions — from 1870 to 2019, its emissions have added up to a miniscule 4 per cent of the global total.

Based on this record, India and several other countries in the developing world have argued that they should not be subject to stringent carbon emission controls as they have to ensure the basic energy needs of their population are met. Environmentalists based in the Global South have also argued for long that the people who contributed least to the problem of global warming should not be made to bear its cost.

Further, according to them centuries of colonization and resource extraction that have made people more vulnerable to higher temperatures and less equipped to adapt to increasing climate risks. They have insisted that the richer countries, which have far higher per capita carbon emissions, make the biggest sacrifices first.

Their point of view is supported by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change AR6 WG1 report, released in August 2021 that highlights the deep inequalities and injustice that mark the way climate change is being addressed by the world.

The report calculates how much more CO2 can be released into the atmosphere globally without pushing global warming above 1.5°C and estimates it to be only 400 billion tonnes CO2 from the start of 2020. Currently global CO2 emissions stands at about 36 billion tonnes per year and the global carbon budget for 1.5°C is therefore expected to run out at the end of 2030.

Given the huge differences between the rich and poor nations, the globe’s entire carbon budget is likely to be consumed mainly by the former. For example, for a high polluting country such as the UK, with CO2 emissions of 10 tonnes per person per year, the carbon budget will run out by the end of 2024, i.e. in 3 years, the report says.

On the ground, in day to day terms, these kind of inequalities at the macro-level translate into the ability or inability to survive the dire consequences of global warming.  For example, the most effective way to deal with heat waves in countries like India or Pakistan is air-conditioning. The most vulnerable typically do not own air-conditioning units or have the money to pay for the electricity to run them. On average in India, air conditioners can cost between $260 and $500 and only 8 percent of Indian households own them[12].

While on one hand countries like India are being asked to reduce their carbon emissions drastically, there is no global mechanism to provide them the resources to save their citizens from catastrophic climate change. Treating the United States, Britain and Australia, on par with developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America amounts to, in the words of one observer, giving those most responsible for climate change a “get out of jail free” card[13].

According to the IPCC report "The next few years are probably the most important in our history". However, if human history offers any evidence, without mobilisation to assert their rights and resistance to inequality both globally as well within countries, a bulk of humanity is destined to suffer immensely.

The need of the times may be a repeat of the French Revolution, with the addition of ‘Climate Justice’ to the old motto of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’.


[1]www.news9live.com/india/india-records-warmest-march-in-122-years-northwest-central-india-to-see-intense-heatwave-conditions-in-april-says-imd-166847

[2]www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/5/12/dehydrated-birds-falling-from-sky-in-india-amid-record-heatwave

[3] Weather.com. weather.com/en-IN/india/news/news/2022-05-20-heavy-rains-to-continue-in-assam-meghalaya-arunachal-till-may-22

[4] Live Mint, 23 May 2022. www.livemint.com/news/india/assam-flood-2022-14-dead-7-missing-32-districts-affected-so-far-11653120344464.html

[5] Climate change making heatwaves more intense. Grahame Madge. 18 May ’22.

 UK Met Office. www.metoffice.gov.uk/about-us/press-office/news/weather-and-climate/2022/southern-asian-heatwave-attribution-study-2022

[6] Günter Oskar Dyhrenfurth, To the Third Pole-The History of the High Himalaya (Nielsen Press, 2011)

[7]www.dni.gov/files/documents/climate2030_india.pdf

[8]www.icimod.org/press-release/effects-of-melting-glaciers-on-food-production-in-south-asia/

[9]www.downtoearth.org.in/news/climate-change/climate-change-induced-droughts-major-driver-of-food-insecurity-ipcc-report-81741.

[10]www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2013/06/19/india-climate-change-impacts

[11]www.downtoearth.org.in/news/climate-change/the-numbers-behind-climate-change-79868

[12]ozonecell.nic.in/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/INDIA-COOLING-ACTION-PLAN-e-circulation-version080319.pdf

[13]www.nytimes.com/2022/05/24/opinion/india-heat-wave-climate-change.html

Published: 31. May 2022

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