One cannot go anywhere in the world without being bombarded with information about climate change, extreme events, and other disasters. Ever scarier sound bites about how much worse things will get in the coming years have begun to induce serious climate anxiety among many, especially the youth. It is unclear if ramping up the volume on global warming will help to engage humanity more in climate action.
This year the anxiety has reached a fever pitch, thanks to the additional heat being released from the tropical Pacific Ocean in the form of an evolving El Nino. The tropical Pacific gathers heat during normal and La Nina years and releases it every few years during El Nino events causing a mini global warming. This year is indeed a warning sign of how such superimpositions of El Nino and global warming may cause widespread heatwaves, floods, wildfires, and other climate extremes.
But we cannot say with any reliable skill how next year may behave or when such a confluence may happen again and whether it will play out similarly to this yea. While climate change is a serious challenge, it is also an opportunity to guide the system towards decarbonisation.
Is there a climate crisis?
Climate crisis is a much-bandied-about phrase which gives the impression that the world is heading straight into climate hell. One question every climate scientist needs to ask is whether the term “climate crisis” makes sense even in the context of their own everyday lives.
Have I been living my life as if there is a crisis? The honest answer is that my life is mostly normal. I talk about climate change, climate impacts, climate solutions, and so on—that is my job and my passion. But I also worry about my bank account, my vacations, and my retirement plans while tracking my carbon footprint. What is daily life supposed to look like in a climate crisis anyway?
It may be a good time to realise that this descriptor has no value in terms of the climate scientists leading by example.
IPCC priests: Power by consent to tributary power
The general public has a right to ask, “Who will deliver us from the climate crisis? Will it be the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with its priests spread out across the globe?”
I think not. All global warming is local. And countries must adapt to these local impacts and evolving risks. IPCC, unfortunately, is not shedding any light on local climate impacts and risks. It is likely to continue producing reports along with governments, which are still too technical and too long for the general public to digest.
A large number of natural and social scientists are selected as authors from across the world to meet the requirements of geographical and gender balance. They synthesise published literature to pull together these assessment reports; the last one being Assessment Report 6, released during 2021-2023. IPCC authors thus receive power by consent when they are selected to represent their country in the IPCC process.
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A magical transformation happens after the IPCC report is released. Since the general public needs help to understand it, the authors begin to act as the “priests” who interpret the “sacred” text. Most of them do not necessarily have a 360-degree view of the climate change problem. But they can parrot the IPCC message relentlessly because power by consent becomes a tributary power, thanks to the media.
Climate change is not just a natural science problem. It is a social, economic, geopolitical, and national security problem, besides being an ethical and justice issue. The consequences of each statement must be weighed carefully for their impacts in all these dimensions.
An example of an unintended consequence could be the negative economic impact on a particular region when a guesstimate is pronounced that the probability of a particular weather event, such as a heatwave, in that place was doubled by climate change. Investments may drop further, and businesses may exit the region.
Climate change messaging for the developing world
We also need to ask if a country like India or the developing world at large needs scary messages without regional and local contexts. Climate models did not tell us about the hike in tomato prices that blindsided us this season. Early warnings have not been efficient for the floods and landslides that have crippled many regions. It definitely does not help people’s morale to follow up on the disasters by telling them that such disasters will only get worse.
The shrill messaging about El Nino and global warming have very little meaning when they have no relevance to what people are experiencing in their lives every day. We need to be able to say what global warming means not only for India but also for every State, town, and village in India. We are not sure what new extremes, if any, may occur when the global mean temperature crosses the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold. Proclamations of irreversible changes on crossing 1.5°C are not scientific and are heuristic guesses at best.
Uncertainties of climate projections
Another key question is whether countries like India can afford the computational, financial, and human resources needed to fund efforts that are focussed both on near-term early warnings and monsoon forecasts and on long-term projections that do not yet have the fine-grain information needed to guide risk adaptation or build future resilience.
Some hard decisions have to be taken on focussing resources to produce the most relevant, useful, and usable climate information at requisite scales in space and time. Weather and climate forecasts must deliver not only early warnings for food, water, energy, health, and transportation, but also longer-term predictions at societally relevant timescales of a few years to a decade. India’s dream of continued economic growth cannot be achieved without climate tools to navigate the future.
Soft information from hard sciences, hard decisions from soft sciences
As such, climate projections are produced by the so-called hard sciences (physics, maths, chemistry, biology). And they are based on future socioeconomic and technology scenarios that determine future emission levels. These projections have many uncertainties and depend on assumed future technologies, populations, and socioeconomic choices in energy, diet, transportation, and so on.
The climate mitigation scenario developments have thus far been dominated by the Western world. It is critical that India take a lead to ensure that these choices do not exacerbate its vulnerabilities and risks. Even the vulnerabilities of India’s neighbours are India’s vulnerabilities.
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The aftermath of COVID-19 and the impact of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine tell us how difficult it is to predict the future of socioeconomics, geopolitics, hegemonies, and market dynamics. The assumption is that IPCC models span all such eventualities, but this still leaves us with the uncertainties rising from changes in local climate and their impacts and risks.
On the other hand, all the decisions needed in terms of local adaptation are problems of social science, socioeconomics, policy, and political science. These sciences are referred to as soft sciences. Soft information from the hard sciences tries to guide hard decisions that rely on soft sciences. India needs to worry about tunnel vision on global warming targets.
Will global warming targets really be achieved?
Climate mitigation efforts are supposed to help us stay below the magical global warming thresholds of 2°C and 1.5°C above the pre-industrial levels. The hard reality is that the technologies needed to accomplish these goals are not yet in place at the needed levels in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases that need to be captured and put away safely or the renewable energies that can afford us the luxury of leaving fossil fuels buried in the ground.
How the developing world will fare even if these global warming targets are met in terms of local climate impacts is anything but clear.
We should mention in passing that these thresholds have not been derived scientifically. The 2°C threshold came from the Economics Nobel laureate William Nordhaus in the 1970s merely as a cautious guess of a dangerous level of global warming. It became politically popular in Europe more than a decade later and was eventually enshrined in the Paris agreement. The 1.5°C target followed immediately due to the demand by the Alliance of Small Island Developing States, which considered 2°C to be too unsafe for them.
Many criticisms have been levelled against the IPCC for bending the socioeconomic models beyond their limits to produce the feasibility scenarios for these externally defined global warming targets. Reasonable questions have been raised about the ability of the models to quantify the impacts of a 2°C warming, especially at local scales. It is also unclear if the models are capable of distinguishing between the impacts of 2°C warming versus a 1.5°C warming.
Without such region-specific information, countries are severely handicapped in planning and executing adaptation measures to manage the unavoidable risks they may face in agriculture, water resources, energy needs, health impacts and such.
Emissions reductions vs decarbonising
Meanwhile, it is critical to remember that the system is entirely carbon-based and no one has found a way to simply become carbon neutral. This is critical to remember. The negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change can be considered a grand success since nearly the entire world is at the table trying to agree upon many intricate and thorny issues to reduce emissions. But therein lies the rub. Despite more than two decades of negotiations, greenhouse gas emissions show no sign of slowing down!
There are many guidelines on how individuals can do their bit to reduce emissions. But if reducing travel is good for emissions, is it good for cultural exchanges or employment from tourism? Humans have evolved to explore the planet, the solar system, and beyond. A vegetarian driving an SUV can have a smaller carbon footprint than a bicycle rider who eats a lot of meat! Can a single mother or a poor person track their carbon footprint all day?
Decarbonisation of the entire system can offer a more hopeful vision of the future. The most critical step is to rapidly phase out the implicit and explicit subsidies and fundings for fossil-fuel based technologies. It is particularly critical to avoid all investments in systems that perpetuate fossil fuel dependence and thus ensure their early sunset. The deployment of renewables and electric vehicles, and the electrification of all systems has to further accelerate. Co-benefits such as improved air quality should be counted as returns on investments in decarbonisation since premature deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases are over 30 per cent while those due to natural disasters are less than 1 per cent. High-visibility weather events garner much attention while chronic stressors that kill tend to get normalised as a part of life.
Imagine a future where the system is fully decarbonised so that people can live without worrying about the world coming to an end because they want to travel to a new place. More mental and renewable energy can be spent on decarbonising the system than on painting scary pictures of the future.
It is not clear if the technological promises assumed for achieving global warming targets will materialise or not. IPCC would be better off focussing on the detailed local consequences of warming beyond these targets. All countries can focus on generating their own vulnerability and risk maps for sectors, regions, and communities down to town and village levels.
IPCC has been incredibly successful at producing armies of climate pathologists who have done a great job of diagnosing all that ails the planet due to human activities. It is time to evolve a framework that will train armies of earth system doctors who will work across borders to nurse ourselves and our host back to health. These earth system doctors can turn us from a cancerous virus to a healthy gut microbiome for Mother Earth.
India is in a great position to leapfrog the IPCC projection enterprise and focus on participating in the Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update project under the World Meteorological Organization. The investments made in improving weather, climate, and cyclone forecasts have yielded valuable skill improvements.
This paradigm can be extended to improving the annual to decadal climate updates for India at the granularity needed to manage its climate and economic future as well as that of its neighbourhood.
Raghu Murtugudde is Visiting Professor, IIT Bombay, and Emeritus Professor, University of Maryland.