Navroz Dubash: Climate change is really a here and now problem

Rihan Najib | Updated on December 06, 2019

Floating on hope With the onset of glacial melt in the Himalayas, the flow of rivers in the Indo-Gangetic plain is expected to be disrupted in unpredictable ways   -  Sandipani Chattopadhyay

A new volume of essays examines the multidimensional impact of climate change on India, and why development need not be at odds with a low carbon future

In November, Oxford Dictionaries declared ‘climate emergency’ the word of the year, following an estimated 10,796 per cent increase in its usage. The alarming popularity of the phrase underpins the anxiety of living on a warming planet, subject to escalating and unpredictable climatic variations.

India is among the most vulnerable countries to climate change, which is exacerbated by the fact that its vision for accelerated economic development is perennially at odds with the steep cost of environmental degradation. These trade-offs and debates form the core of India in a Warming World: Integrating Climate Change and Development, a volume of essays edited by Navroz K Dubash, a professor at the Delhi-based think tank, Centre for Policy Research.

India in a Warming World: Integrating Climate Change and Development Navroz K Dubash Oxford University Press Non-fiction ₹1,696


Dubash has long been invested in studying India’s response to the challenges of climate variations; he was the first international coordinator of the civil society organisation Climate Action Network in 1990. Currently, he is a coordinating lead author for the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The former associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, was part of India’s Expert Committee on Low Carbon Strategies for Inclusive Growth, and other national committees on energy policy.

Navroz Dubash: For every one degree rise in temperature we will need 10 per cent more irrigation


BLink met Dubash at his office when Delhi’s pre-winter smog was at its peak; providing a grim, and particularly apt, setting for a conversation on the long road ahead for contending with the effects of climate change. Edited excerpts:

Since your earlier work Handbook on Climate Change and India came out in 2012, what changes have you observed in India's approach towards climate change?

The idea of the Handbook was to bring together diverse voices in what was beginning to be a national conversation on climate change. At the time, the question was about ‘whether’ India should engage with climate change at all. Since then, the policy landscape has changed dramatically. First, international frameworks recognise that countries will decide what they are able to do about climate change given their national circumstances. This helps to put to rest or at least partially allays some of the fears that developing nations have of an unfair burden placed upon them. Second, renewable energy is a lot cheaper now, which means we can meet our energy needs at lower costs in ways that are environmentally friendly. Third, the science and awareness of climate impacts have acquired greater refinement. Earlier, it was hard to know conclusively if extreme weather events were due to climate change, but thanks to something called attribution science, we are able to determine the statistical likelihood of such an event occurring with and without a climate signal. Critically, we’re seeing a lot of ferment in the governance of climate change. We have a national action plan with eight missions, along with 28-odd state action plans — these haven’t done all that much, but they are governance frameworks in which people are thinking and working. There are also new actors in this landscape — a lot of citizens’ groups and young people in cities. So we are beginning to see — if not a smoking gun, then at least some puffs of smoke — and that’s also important.

This year alone, India saw an array of extreme weather events — from reservoirs drying up to multiple states affected by floods or cyclones. What do you make of it?

I think it’s very important to not swing from an interpretation that says ‘it has nothing to do with climate change’ to ‘it has everything to do with climate change’. We have to be careful in how we talk about this. The reason the chapter on attribution science is important is because it notes that the likelihood of these events happening is going to grow over time because of climate change. The evidence suggests that the kind of devastation we see with the Kerala floods, for instance, is going to be the battle of the future. But climate change can’t be a reason to ignore local environmental issues and contests. The way to think about this is — in every situation, there are multiple stressors. Take the case of Uttarakhand, a state made very vulnerable because of land-use changes that were driven by local forces — deforestation, patterns of urbanisation and so on. It’s also likely that the flash floods were more intense because of a climate signal. These things operate together.

Could you discuss this further with findings from the book?

Let’s take the case of water. We know that we are polluting much of India’s rivers and groundwater because of our agricultural needs, industrial patterns, weak environmental governance and so on. These things are not going away. Now we also know that with the onset of glacial melt in the Himalayas, we are expecting the flow of rivers in the Indo-Gangetic plain to be disrupted in unpredictable ways. This will affect water supply and irrigation further. One of the chapters by KS Kavi Kumar and Brinda Viswanathan on mainstreaming climate change adaptation in agriculture estimates that for every one degree rise in temperature, we will need 10 per cent more irrigation in arid and semi arid regions. A 10 per cent increase in irrigation at a time when water supply is already stressed means that it’s really a cause for concern. So we need to investigate the ways in which climate change interacts with existing patterns of environmental forces, industrialisation and behaviours.

What does this mean for climate governance in India?

Our governance structure, both environmental and otherwise, does not promote an all things considered approach. Since climate change isn’t a single thing, governing it is complicated. It demands conversations about land use patterns, planning and zoning, transport networks and water supply. We need to have mechanisms that allow us to think of the future, while also encouraging conversations across departments in governments.

The state action plans on climate change are meant to do that, but in our study of these plans, we have found that they tend to work in silos. That’s also because these plans were designed to be implementation mechanisms, rather than conceptualisation and planning instruments. We need to think about climate change as a ‘multiple stressor’ problem — it has different stressors acting at the same time. At the same time, solving it has multiple objectives and outcomes for the stakeholders involved. We know that in a democracy like India, the government machinery has to respond to what people perceive as their problems. Climate change is usually not at the top of that list and probably will not be. That’s partly because we have many more pressing issues. So even though climate change will exacerbate many existing problems and has clearly reached crisis proportions, we tend to underplay its impact. One way forward is that, where climate variation has a direct impact on issues of political salience — agrarian distress, for instance — we should work harder to make the link to climate change.

We’re witnessing the rise of outright climate change denial, even as the evidence for it is in plain view. The US announced its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017, for instance. Do you encounter such attitudes in Indian policy circles?

Increasingly, there is the sense that India has less to lose and more to gain by taking climate change seriously. If we wait for the West to act, that may not be in our national interest. The short-term cost in development causes understandable hesitation for the government, but many of the directions of development that we want to take are low carbon anyway.

At the same time, we have two decades of a negotiating history which says that there is a zero sum nature to this. The more we scale back on our emissions, the more we’re letting the West off the hook. I think the key difference between India and the US is that the US has already built their infrastructure. Their economies are locked into high-carbon pathways. We have a lot that is yet unbuilt. Our energy systems and cities are still evolving, so in that sense, the opportunities are greater for us. In the West, they would have to face higher costs in switching to a more environmentally sustainable system.

In Europe in particular, we see citizens saying that this is something we have to do and we’re willing to pay some of the costs. In the US, it’s much less so. This is also the case because there has been a deliberate campaign in the US to make the costs look higher than they would otherwise be. I think it’s now well documented how certain industries have lobbied disinformation to derail efforts to switch to a low-carbon economy. We haven’t seen that quite as much in India; as a matter of fact, corporate India is increasingly coming on board with this agenda, and we don’t see the same kind of pushback.

There is a greater appetite to think about sustainability; there is a sense that we cannot go on as we are doing now but there is also confusion about how to approach it. I think the challenge is going to be for medium and small industries, which are much more vulnerable to short term downturns and are understandably less willing to take risks.

What frustrates you the most as a climate policy researcher?

It is a little counter intuitive, but ironically what frustrates me the most is that climate change is an urgent problem and we need to be much more aware about it — but at the same time, the best way of dealing with it may not be to see it as a single problem. Rather, we need to think of it as a set of decisions we make about our lives, our futures and our behaviours.

I think we would make much more headway if we thought about climate change as something to come to terms with in the context of other urban challenges — what kind of cities we want to live in, what kind of livelihoods we would like to have, what kind of diet we follow, what clothes we wear, what our consumption patterns are. You’re not going to solve climate challenges if you think of it as remote from the decisions we make as consumers and citizens. So when we talk about about climate urgency and the need for action, it becomes incumbent on us to reflect on these day to day choices and think about the shape of our country and communities.

Internalising that is ultimately a more long-term sustainable way to deal with climate change than waiting for some external silver bullet from, say, the UN. It’s really a here and now problem, and it’s a problem that is salient to how we live our lives.

Rihan Najib

Published on December 06, 2019

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