Feb 03, 2012
Policies must address the vulnerability of existing infrastructure to climate variability, says Shiv Someshwar, Director of Climate Policy, Earth Institute, in close conversation with OneWorld South Asia.
When people talk about adaptation or mitigation to respond to climate change, there is a sense that only climate is dynamic and changing and we need to focus only on climate.
That's not the case! There are many other changes that are happening – population growth, resource intensification with rising per capita consumption. Also, large scale changes in economy are leading to resurgence in some sectors and collapse of others, in India. So there is a socio-economic dynamic on top of which, now, we have the climate impacting.
By climate impact, I mean both due to climate (natural) variability and the anthropogenic change forcing. By anthropogenic, I mean green house gases due to human activity - such as from industry and agriculture.
Too often, in conferences on climate change, a sense you get is that climate is the only changing dynamic. That's absolutely not the case.
From a policy making perspective, on the other hand, many uncertainties are managed on a regular basis. For example, we understand what should be the population that we need to plan for an urban water supply system of a city in a developing country. Or, for example, what would the food stocks need to provide food security for a growing population, as well as due to a changing consumer taste base, say ten years from now.
Both of these examples requires us to plan ahead -- infrastructure, regional investments or to incentivise private sector.
To that dynamic of policy making, we need to now pay more focussed attention on climate issues. That's because infrastructure planning, over long-time horizon, has traditionally been undertaken using "climatology" data. Climatology, by WMO definition, are the average climate conditions of the last thirty years. Unfortunately, climate is, increasingly, not stationary, both due to long term low-frequency natural variability and anthropogenic impacts.
So, our understanding of past now needs to be complemented by a good understanding of what's likely to happen ten to thirty years ahead (for the case of infrastructure planning). That's where global climate models come in.
Each climate model is unique, and one needs to combine the outputs from different models to get a g. So you have different trajectories of what is likely to happen to get a good sense of what's likely to happen. Depending on the outputs of only one climate model, is simple not good science.
Utilizing the outputs of the different global climate models also gives a sense of how they agree and where they disagree. In addition, it gives us a sense of the spread of uncertainty -- say of temperature or precipitation, 30 years from now. That information is important for the policy maker. It will give a sense of the resiliency that we need to build for this probabilistic range of climate phenomenon. Some scientists instead, mistakenly, use simple statistical averaging. That's possibly the most hopeless way of going about -- you lose the range of future possible climate conditions and instead offer up what's essentially a "deterministic" measure -- "this is what climate is going to be". Policymakers and infrastructure planners who use this single measure, assume wrongly that they have built climate resiliency.
To complement what is happening with the Prime Minister’s missions on climate change, it is extremely important to include a parallel set of activities to critically examine the vulnerability of the existing infrastructure to climatic variability. This may mean, for example, how resilient the irrigation and urban water systems are to climate extremes. Using data from the past 100 years, we can test the resiliency of current infrastructure systems to the range of climate extremes. We are indeed fortunate that in India such long term data is available.
Such an exercise will give us a sense of how vulnerable the population is. Over and above that, we can apply the range of likely climate conditions, say thirty years from now. This will provide us a measure of resiliency of the current agricultural (or urban) system to say, a drought. And it'll also provide us information on what additional efforts are needed in order to create climate resiliency. If we project population growth and likely per capita consumption expected over the next 30 years, we would be able to consider impacts from a changing climate as well as from socio-economic dynamic. That will give a good picture of the kinds of risks and vulnerabilities of critical infrastructures.
Coming to Rio+20, there's going to be a focus on sustainable development goals. Given its impact, climate is going to be a lead theme.
Some developing countries are already quite nervous. They are mistakenly thinking that industrialised countries are going to evade responsibility and the agreed to "common but differentiated responsibility" principle that's very much a part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreement. But, to my thinking, the SDGs are a very powerful metric to be used by developing countries to pressure the industrialized ones for resource transfers, including technology transfer and capacity building measures. Use of SDGs will result in enhanced investment in development in the developing and least developed countries.
The three pillars of the sustainable development, the environment, social equity and economic growth, can no longer be ignored. Sustainable development should not be seen as an attempt by industrialized countries to "green wash" development, nor to deflect focus away from poverty alleviation and economic growth in developing countries.
People everywhere aspire for a better and happier lives -- more healthy, better educated, better living environment, for themselves and their children. That's why, I am strongly of the view that sustainable development goals can force the industrialised countries to do good on their pledges, which otherwise are quite meaningless.
As told to Bijoy Patro