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27 July 2022, Gateway House

Climate Change, the convenient culprit

Unusual rains or snow? Flooding? Drought? It seems that climate change alone is to blame for any anomaly taking place anywhere in the world, be it hydrometeorological or anthropogenic. It’s a convenient culprit for besieged leaders seeking to escape responsibility towards their citizens, and it undermines the scientific evidence of climate change.

Fellow, Climate Change

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On 5th June[1], 40 people were massacred in the church of St Francis in the Owo district of Nigeria. Leveraging the religious links between Ireland and the Church in question, President Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, suggested that climate change was to be blamed, warning against “any attempt to scapegoat pastoral peoples who are among the foremost victims of the consequences of climate change.”

This is not the only instance where climate change was apparently singularly at fault. Be it the deaths due heat waves in central India, floods in north-eastern India and the delta plains of Bangladesh, or landslides and other calamities, climate change is often the only culprit. It seems to be responsible for any anomaly taking place anywhere in the world, be it hydro-meteorological, anthropogenic – or even massacres. Besieged leaders feel they can safely lay the blame for all problems at the door of climate change and escape responsibility towards their citizens.

Of course, they can’t. The Nigerians were furious with Higgins. “Comments associating banditry, kidnapping and gruesome attacks on innocent and harmless citizens of Nigeria with issues concerning climate change and food securities are deflections from the truth,” said the Bishop of Ondo diocese, Jude Ayodeji Arogundade, responding to Higgins.

Certainly, climate change is a good term to encompass several of nature’s crises. Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy, most populous country, and blessed with abundant natural resources. Like many regions around the world, it is experiencing drought and declining rainfall, desertification, rising temperatures, which hinder agricultural production and fishing, and reduce food security. In turn it has negative implications for the health and nutrition of its citizens[2].

However, hasty attributions of every weather anomaly only to climate change, without addressing the underlying factors that exacerbate the impact, is a disservice to climate science itself. It allows poor infrastructure, political apathy towards climate-vulnerable communities and lax public governance to continue with impunity. Such ascription degrades the scientific credibility of climate change, which is proven and evidence-based.

In the post-truth world, the scientific facts must be indisputable. Citizens must be able to discern climate change impact from normal weather irregularities now more than ever. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines climate change as “a state of the climate that can be identified by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer”[3]. It refers to any change in climate over a period, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity. Importantly, it relies on long-term consistency of climatic variability for attributing such effects to climate change.

The term ‘climate’ is ‘long-term average of the weather in a given place’. While the weather varies in minutes or hours, a change in climate is something that develops over longer periods of decades to centuries. Climate is often expressed by average temperature and precipitation as well as the type, frequency, duration, and intensity of heat waves, cold spells, storms, floods, and droughts and other weather events[4]. Climate science is real.

All such typologies of climate will undergo variations due to rising greenhouse gas emissions. But just as climate cannot be understood in isolation, its impact too cannot be separated from the socio-economic and political context within which it occurs. Human interventions in riverbeds and flood plains, changes in land use, poor and inadequate policymaking for the welfare of citizens, lack of urban planning are also driving factors which exacerbate climate calamity. Any extreme weather event will also wreak havoc within a similar physical setting.

IPCC estimates that with every degree rise in temperature, the water-holding capacity of the atmosphere increases by 7 per cent. In South Asia, it will inevitably result in increased precipitation, flooding, and other disasters[5]. According to the Ministry of Earth Sciences, India lost 35,000 people in the decade starting 2010, to extreme weather events such as floods, landslides and other hydro-meteorological incidents[6]. One-fifth of global deaths due to floods occur in India.

In the decade of the 1990s, its northern neighbour China witnessed an annual average death toll of 1,000 due to floods alone, a number that often rose to 3,000 during that time.  The Chinese people and government are, however, starting to take precautionary measures such as construction of embankments, communicating targeted warnings to local communities and timely resettlements. This has helped, and the death toll is now abating, crossing a four-figure mark only twice since 2011[7]. Although official Chinese data can be taken with a pinch of salt, the decline in lives lost cannot be ignored.

India, the founding member of the multilateral Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure[8], can improve its record in this decade by developing resilient infrastructure, increasing pervious surfaces in urban areas, resorting to nature-based solutions to climate adaptation and reducing response time to disasters.

Unfortunately, despite so many developments being alluded to climate change, progress towards the Paris Agreement is painfully slow. The on-going Ukraine conflict has set back climate action by at least five years. Now world leaders have put climate on the back burner, despite their public pledges

Conveniently, once a calamity strikes, the favourite culprit is often invoked. There is enough expertise available for world leaders to conduct attribution assessments[9] before blaming climate change for calamities. Or rope in citizens to to drive participatory climate action. As for President Higgins, he can make up for his outburst by immediately ensuring his government pays its fair share of climate finance to save the livelihoods of the very pastoral communities he set out to defend.[10]

Damodar Pujari is the Fellow for Climate Change Studies Programme, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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