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Climate Shock: Businessworld

Written By mediavigil on Friday, April 25, 2008 | 7:47 AM

India must act before climate change becomes a national security threat

Imagine that rising temperatures and erratic rainfall have destroyed 20 per cent of India’s food stock. Cities and towns along India’s 7,000-km-long coast are flooded by the sea. Malaria, cholera and dengue have become more virulent and widespread than ever before. Riots rage on across India because people lack access to basic resources, like food and water. And Bangladesh, China and Pakistan all threaten a war over access to shared rivers.

Admittedly, this is India’s worst-case scenario with respect to climate change. But it is precisely for this reason that last April, Margaret Beckett, then Britain’s foreign secretary, initiated a first-ever debate in the United Nations Security Council on the links between climate change and security. “What makes wars start?” Beckett asked rhetorically at the debate in which 50 countries participated. “Fights over water; fights over food production, land use….”

Ironically, when it was India’s turn to speak, permanent representative Nirupam Sen sided with the group of 77 nations, then led by Pakistan. He refuted Beckett’s argument with a reference to UN rules. “To make an uncertain long-term prospect a security threat amounts to an informal amendment of the Charter,” Sen argued. He added that climate change should only be seen as a sustainable development problem.

Shifting Paradigms
Beckett, however, is not alone. One day before the landmark UNSC debate, a group of retired American generals and admirals released a report on the security implications of climate change. “The predicted effects of climate change… have the potential to disrupt our way of life and to force changes in the way we keep ourselves safe and secure,” they stated.

Nitin Desai, a former UN under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs says, “The risks of climate change, especially for South Asia, are quite severe.” Desai helped organise the Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg summits on sustainable development — the very concept that Sen believes is central to climate change. Yet, he differs with Sen, “We are vulnerable on virtually all parameters, so tackling climate change is in our national interest.”

In 2003, a year after the Johannesburg summit, American scenario planning experts Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall presented a report to the US Department of Defense outlining the impact of climate change on security. “It seems undeniable that severe environmental problems are likely to escalate the degree of global conflict,” they wrote. “Military confrontation may be triggered by the desperate need for natural resources such as energy, food and water.”

Climate worries have already put the Pacific island of Tuvalu on red alert. A few years ago, it started negotiating migration rights with New Zealand in case rising sea levels submerged the island. Thirty million Bangladeshis face a similar prospect. But, whether India accords them environmental refugee status may be more a political decision than a humanitarian one.


The invasion of Normandy during World War II was an achievement of military planning and cooperation. As many as 165,000 soldiers from eight countries smashed through beaches in Northern France. The action marked the beginning of the end of what had been mankind’s bloodiest period of conflict.

World War II and climate change share many parallels, including how widespread the disruption could be. But the most important similarity is that climate change will also require the effort and coordination of many different groups of people to be beaten.

At least 1 billion people in Asia risk starvation from a drop in agricultural production potential. Half a billion people in India and China alone could lose fresh water supplies if Himalayan glaciers melt. Mass-migration and conflict will become endemic because of increased stresses over the disappearance of food and water supplies and of habitable land. Floods, droughts, soil erosion and severe storms could wipe out upto 30 per cent of all known species.
“What we take for granted might not be here for our children,” says Al Gore in his award-winning documentary, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’.

Until now, high-level debate on climate change has been mostly driven by linguists and legal experts who argue over commas and misplaced clauses. That will have to end. In 2009, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen to craft a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol. What eventually forms part of that treaty will be up for negotiation. That it should be bold and demanding is not. Too many lives are at stake.

A Disaster Awaits
For India, climate change will hit what are already the country’s most vulnerable natural resources — water, agriculture and public health. “Climate change will adversely impact access to such vital resources and so, will be disruptive to peace,” says Ashok Jaitly, a former IAS official and now a distinguished fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) in Delhi. He feels that access to water will be the worst-off.

According to The Stern Review, a report compiled by former World Bank chief economist, Sir Nicholas Stern, in 2006, fast-melting Himalayan glaciers and snowfields, which today provide India 85 per cent of its dry-season river flow, will contribute only 30 per cent of these levels by 2050. Reduced river flow will affect hydropower generation, currently 5 per cent of India’s energy mix, and will also hit agricultural production.

Coastal flooding will damage all coastal fresh water aquifers and nearby agricultural land. It will also flood cities such as Kolkata and Mumbai, where parts of the business district lie on land reclaimed from the sea.

A report authored by Jaitly says that Kolkata already faces a 30 per cent water shortage, Mumbai 25 per cent and Delhi 22 per cent. He says that water-related riots have already broken out in Rajasthan, and that some have even led to deaths.

Groups such as the US’ Central Intelligence Agency and the UK’s Ministry of Defence predict that water wars will be common in the future. One such war could take place between India and Pakistan over rivers originating in Kashmir. There may also be conflicts with Bangladesh over the Farakka Barrage and with Nepal over the Mahakali river.

According to Jaitly, India’s biggest problem is that water is a state subject and, therefore, is poorly governed as a common resource.

Food And Agriculture
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that 22 per cent of the world’s people are engaged in agriculture. In India, this figure is well above 60 per cent. A vast majority of them are low-income farmers, who depend on rainfall and ground water for a successful harvest. According to Kevin Watkins, director of the UN Human Development Report Office, India’s ground water levels are falling so quickly that up to 20 per cent of agricultural production is under threat. The FAO projects that India’s cereal production could fall by 18 per cent or 125 million tonnes, from temperature changes alone. This will severely impact food supplies and agricultural activity. One Indian wheat variety, PBW-343, is already under threat from higher temperatures, according to scientists at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. PBW-343 is used on 25 per cent of land currently under wheat production.

The Stern Review estimates that a 3 degree rise in temperature will drop crop yields, placing 550 million people globally at risk of hunger. This figure excludes the 800 million who currently go without regular meals.

“Climate change will produce an agricultural crisis of a nature that has never been witnessed before,” says Gopal Krishna, an environment and health policy researcher at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. But he assures there are solutions. These include creating crop varieties more resistant to climate variances and also creating lean and efficient supply chains linking farmers’ fields to the consumers.

Health And Disease
Even a one degree rise in average temperatures could kill more than 300,000 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. For India, a tropical country, whose health indicators are already among the world’s worst, this is worrying.

Atanu Sarkar, a physician who specialises in social and environmental epidemiology and is part of Teri’s visiting faculty, explains some of the impacts. “There will be increased incidence of vector-borne diseases, water-borne diseases, heat stress and even mental stress due to a combination of external environmental factors.”

Usually, humans build natural tolerance and behavioural, cultural and technological responses against diseases that prevail in the environments they live in. But, according to a 2006 report from the British medical journal The Lancet, extreme events resulting from climate change could stress us beyond these normal adaptation capabilities.

Higher temperatures will lengthen the life cycle of mosquitoes, which will lead to more breeding - and biting. Sarkar adds that rising temperatures have already spread malaria to places, such as Haldwani and Almora.

Water-related diseases, such as cholera, diarrhea and gastroenteritis, will also proliferate. A 2005 study quoted in The Stern Review states that gastroenteritis cases increased by 25 per cent when slum-dwellers in Delhi were forced to drink contaminated water during a heat wave. Sarkar says that a disease like diarrhea alone could cost rural India upwards of Rs 7,000 crore in treatment costs and wage losses.

Communities may also be forced to relocate when their present habitats become unlivable due to floods or other climate-related disasters. This could further spread diseases.

A health crisis may yet be averted. The 2008-09 budget boosted health spending to Rs 16,534 crore, a 15 per cent increase. Additionally, 4,62,000 associated social health activists and link workers are in place, as are 177,924 village health and sanitation committees. However, with 600,000 villages in the country, this isn’t nearly enough. Sarkar also sees a problem with the level of privatisation in the urban health sector. He feels this will exclude a number of urban poor in case of an epidemic. “Private hospitals and institutions must also be brought under an epidemic and disaster management system,” he says.

The Risk Of Inaction
No one really knows what South Block thinks of climate change. This year, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram’s budget promised an institutional mechanism to review appropriate responses to climate change. Last year, a similar announcement created the high-level Prime Ministers’ council on climate change. But this group has yet to finalise it’s first official report. Such inconsistencies prompted Jeffery Sachs, the director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, to remark that India’s position was perceived as “ambiguous” by other countries.

The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) says that Indian businesses face many risks from climate change. In a report entitled Building A Low-Carbon Indian Economy, it outlines some of these. For one, industries that rely on water or agriculture as raw materials will be hit hard. If energy costs rise further, inefficient production methods will become big cost-centers for companies. Additionally, consumers and investors may start to turn away from businesses that do not address environmental responsibilities. Finally, businesses could even face lawsuits for factories that emit greenhouse gases. In one such case, an Alaskan village recently filed a suit against several companies for $22 million, for damage to its environment.

A Business-like Response
Scenario planning expert Peter Schwartz believes that such reasons are enough for businesses to start acting before moods of the government, investor and customer change. “While the decision to be an early adapter is a gamble, there are significant opportunities to lead, to innovate, and to profit,” he says. Home-grown Suzlon already profits as one of the world’s leading wind-turbine makers. Venture capitalists such as John Doerr and Vinod Khosla are pouring millions of dollars into research on bio-fuels, solar energy, advanced materials and efficiency improvements. Even serial entrepreneur Richard Branson has announced a $25 million prize for breakthroughs in green technology.

Preparing for climate-related disasters has already yielded benefits. According to The Stern Review, the $3.15 billion that China spent to control floods between 1960 and 2000 has prevented losses worth at least $12 billon. Similar projects in Andhra Pradesh have yielded an even higher cost-benefit ratio of 1:13.4.

Guiding Principles
While technology will provide many answers, enabling policy will help create breakthroughs even faster. To be fair, India’s government has already done well with legislations, such as the Electricity Act of 2001, which encourages renewable energy generation, and the 2001 Energy Conservation Act.

The Finance Minister’s proposed institutional mechanism on climate change will review clean technology products, fuel emission and efficiency standards, the setting up of an emissions trading platform and the building of sustainable, greenfield cities. Excise duties on hybrid cars and electric vehicles have also been cut. Still, some of these duties are higher than those of regular petrol-driven cars. So, while Chidambaram’s intentions are good, his results simply won’t be enough.

An Umbrella Proposal
JNU researcher Krishna believes that access to vital resources can be perpetuated through a natural resources management plan (NRMP). This plan, he says should be the foundation of every other law governing the use of natural resources, such as forests, land, water, agriculture, environmental policies, mining and minerals and energy and power policies. The problem, however, is that the NRMP would require a wide-scale revision of several laws, including some parts of the Constitution itself; several items that Krishna feels should fall under an NRMP are presently state subjects.

Last year, the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former US vice president Al Gore for their work on climate change, inextricably linked climate change to global peace and security. The upside is that with the right investments and policies, we may not face the day when that link is proven beyond all doubt. “We can beat climate change, but we will need to be sincere about it,” says Krishna. Mindsets in South Block and in industry must change if real progress must be made.


Source:(Businessworld issue 11-17 March 2008)
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