'Mumbai has to think about its future in a warming world'
The editor of a collection of essays on climate change in India, tells it like it is-climate change is irreversible. All you can do is prepare for rising sea levels, and reduce emissions
The morning we connect with Navroz K Dubash on his new collection of essays, India in a Warming World (Oxford University Press), we have coincidentally read an alarming study published on the front page of a national daily. It speaks of parts of the island city of Mumbai and its suburbs at the risk of annual flooding due to sea level rising by 2050. By 2100, they would be completely inundated.
Dubash, professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, who has been at the helm of this conversation for nearly 30 years, isn't surprised. The last book he edited, Handbook of Climate Change and India, attempted to provide "a comprehensive review of the climate negotiations and domestic politics and policy". The new book, which has contributions from nearly 40 experts, including scientists, policy makers and negotiators, examines why India can no longer ignore the climate problem.
"The science of climate change is such that even if you turned off the cap on greenhouse gases tomorrow, we will still be locked into a certain degree of warming, because these gases are in the atmosphere already," says Dubash.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
In the introduction to the essays, you say climate change has been less than a priority in India.
Climate change is not in the top 10 issues that drive the political lists in India.The reason for this is that in the developing world, we have immediate issues to deal with, like education, finding jobs and ensuring healthcare. But this is also why we need to take it [environment change] seriously. Climate change will start having an impact on how we can achieve these development goals. The weather events will lead to decline in crop yields, and therefore impact our food security. Development that is innocent of climate change, is no longer possible.
India is also in a curious position, because while it is as vulnerable as other countries, it is also the third largest emitter in the world. So, there is increased pressure for India to do more.
Several studies, including the recent one by US-based Climate Central, have pointed out how Mumbai is at high risk due to rising sea levels. What can mitigate this?
It's in the nature of climate change that any individual city or country, can't do anything. Even the largest emitters like China and the US cannot stop this. India has two options, both of which it will have to pursue. One, we have to prepare our cities, and other low-lying areas for some degree of sea level rise. But we can't adapt if the risks are going to be catastrophic. Therefore, we have to also reduce our emissions. Globally too, India needs to be part of the group that calls for more serious action. We have not put out our voice aggressively, asking for more global action. I don't think we have signalled that we are taking this seriously.
At last month's Climate Action Summit in the US, Narendra Modi spoke about the need to act on climate change.
In the areas of renewable and solar energy, we are doing a lot, and that is useful, commendable and sincere. But, are we using all the opportunities to become more climate change-resilient, or to transition to low carbon? Part of the reason why not is that we have very limited capacity, within the government and outside. More work and research needs to be undertaken across sectors.
Do you think there has been a shift in the conversation around climate change?
In 1990, it was a diplomatic problem and our job was to make sure that we don't get stampeded into doing things [related to climate policies]. If you fast forward to 2010, we were under a lot of international pressure and the policy establishment had started to think about it [India released its National Action Plan on Climate Change in 2008]. Now in 2019, the public has started to think about it. They are able to make the everyday connections between their lived experiences and climate change. For example, the Kerala floods. There is also better science now that allows you to track a particular weather episode, and tell you how much this is likely to have been caused by climate change.
The National Action Plan on Climate Change was launched with great promise, but it seems to have fizzled.
It was undertaken under global pressure, and that's how it is in most countries. We built this infrastructure and it led to some useful things, particularly on energy efficiency and solar power, mostly because there were enterprising individuals who took it forward. There has been a let up since then, partly because globally, many countries are falling down on their obligations. [Donald] Trump is taking the US backwards. Australia and Brazil are doing the same, so there is less pressure on India to perform for an international audience. But that's the larger point. We have to perform for our own sake, because this is going to impact our development.
How can individuals make a change?
Through the choices we make. Turning off your lights, having more energy-efficient light bulbs, walking rather than driving, using public transport, thinking very hard about your holidays, because air travel is a big issue. There is another angle—we need to start demanding change politically. It has to become part of our voting patterns. In Delhi, for instance, air pollution is likely to become an issue, because the public is saying we are concerned about this. As consumers, and citizens, we have to start internalising climate concerns.
If sincere efforts are made, is climate change reversible?
We are now, unfortunately, at a stage where we have to ask a different question, i.e. to what extent can we limit climate change? Unless we make effort to suck the greenhouse gases out, which is expensive and environmentally destructive, it is irreversible. A city like Mumbai has to think about its future in a warming world. Otherwise, these impacts are going to become harder to deal with, and the more we emit, the more we will be locked into emissions in the future. It's like a truck or super tanker that takes a long time to stop. You turn the wheel now, but it's not going to turn for a while.
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