As the Conference of Parties 28 or COP28 winds down in Dubai, one of the sources of contention has been about whether fossil fuels should be phased down or phased out. These COPs have now become big lobby-fests with many governments, non-governmental organisations, industries, and corporations congregating to fight for their interests.
Not surprisingly, West Asian countries and other fossil fuel producers are busy arguing that they care about climate change as much as anybody else, but it is not time yet to phase down fossil fuels.
As the Saudi Arabian Minister is supposed to have quipped once, the Stone Age did not end because they ran out of stones. Fossil fuels cannot simply be phased out since alternative solutions are not in place yet. Not if we want to continue with the economic growth and our energy-intensive lifestyles. Fossil fuels should be seen as the transition vehicles to decarbonising the global economy.
But the tunnel vision on carbon also misses the realities of global warming patterns and their cascades. The likely consequences to the already climate-vulnerable countries that are clustered together in their destiny under climate change cannot be wished away with all the talk about global warming targets.
West Asia and South Asia are prime examples of such a region of inseparable climate destinies.
West Asia warming drives extreme heat and rain over Indian subcontinent
The desert regions of West Asia have supported enormous populations and economic growth thanks to their fossil fuel incomes. These oil sources have also made them a magnet for international interests and have been the cause of proxy wars in the region. The historical religious mix has managed to keep the region teetering on the edge of instability through modern times.
The climate story is that the deserts warm rapidly during the day because sand has a very low heat capacity. This heat is lost during the night since the dry, cloudless atmosphere allows the thermal heat from the surface to escape directly to space. With increasing greenhouse gases, the warm and thirsty atmosphere begins to build up humidity. Water vapour is a powerful greenhouse gas. The reduced thermal energy loss due to a humidifying atmosphere has created the fastest warming land region of the planet over West Asia. This warming has driven some dangerous climate impacts over parts of the Indian subcontinent.
New threats invading India and the subcontinent from the West
The Indian subcontinent has historically faced invasions from the Northwest which makes one wonder what would have happened if a great wall was built to block this passage. The Arabian Sea has also been an open frontier bringing trade and colonisation from the West. More recently, India remains on high guard because many national security threats arrive on the western front via land, sea, and air.
Heatwaves and massive floods have been hammering Northwest India and Pakistan over the last few decades. As it turns out, this rapidly evolving jeopardy has its roots in the fastest land warming in West Asia.
These climate risks are posing a serious threat to the subcontinent’s food, water, energy, infrastructure, and health securities. This has all the potential to exacerbate national security concerns via climate vulnerabilities and risks. Considering the recent near-collapse of the economies in the region and their relationship to the climate drivers, no country in the region can afford to snooze on this looming threat.
Climate invasion and the emerging threats
This climate invasion is occurring via the rise in cyclones over the Arabian Sea as well as heatwaves over the northern Western Ghats, Northwest India, and Pakistan during the pre- and post-monsoon seasons. The monsoon over these regions is also bringing increasing extreme rainfall events. Pakistan has faced devastating floods every year since 2010.
These climate threats are driven by the warming over the northern Arabian Sea in recent decades. The curious and challenging aspect of this climate invasion is that it is being driven by the rapid warming over West Asia. A study just published in Nature Communications, where I am a co-author, explains the cascade of climate processes from West Asia into the Indian subcontinent via the western frontier.
West Asia warming creates climate chaos over Indian subcontinent
The West Asia warming makes it a low sea level pressure centre during the spring as the sun migrates back into the Northern Hemisphere. This not only hastens the evolution of the south-westerly winds over the Arabian Sea, but also pulls them well north of their normal position. These wind changes result in the heating up of the Arabian Sea which then persists throughout the year. The warm Arabian Sea is able to fuel increased cyclonic activity during pre- and post-monsoons as well as bring heatwaves with increased humidity into parts of India as well as into Pakistan. Monsoon extremes are energised by the warm ocean pumping in more moisture. Recent episodes of October heat and pollution over Mumbai are also directly related to this chain of events.
Climate impacts of Arabian Sea warming now seen in all seasons
The worst impacts of ocean warming and the wind shifts are seen as debilitating monsoon floods in Pakistan every year for over a decade. Northwest India and cities like Mumbai have also seen heavy rains and flooding while crop damage from heatwaves, unseasonal pre-monsoon rains, and heavy monsoon rains have become routine occurrences in Punjab, the breadbasket of India. Even events such as the Himachal landslides are explained by the increasing warm air and moisture invading India from the western frontier.
The wind shifts over the Arabian Sea have been dragging the atmospheric river from the Sea northward resulting in a drying trend over the southern Western Ghats and western Peninsular India. The socioeconomic impacts of these cascades play out as battles between States as seen by the dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over Kaveri river waters and the conflict between Andhra Pradesh and Telangana over Krishna river waters.
Food security issues arise not only from crop damages, from heavy rain and heatwaves, but also from the heat and droughts over the northeastern parts of India which are losing their monsoon moisture to northwest India and Pakistan, thanks to the shifts in winds caused by the West Asia warming.
The Arabian Sea warming’s impact on the winter season remains to be fully elicited. Winter is complicated in terms of the supply of moisture from the West by the western disturbances and the complex mountain terrain. The cold air tends to arrive from the northwest during El Niño and from the north during La Niña. But the trends in western disturbances, low-pressure systems, and winter precipitation are all negative over the western parts of the Himalaya.
Ways forward in dealing with the climate invaders from the West
Heatwaves, cyclones, extreme monsoon rain, and deficit winter precipitation interspersed with floods, droughts, landslides, and crop damages over the subcontinent can only serve to create a dangerous mix of natural hazards compounding food, water, energy, and health securities. As one of the most geopolitically sensitive corners of the world with very high climate vulnerabilities, the region’s destiny is intimately tied to regional climate action; especially adaptations to the hazards that are already here and are accelerating.
Alignments between countries based purely on political expediency or miscalculations are likely to cause irreversible economic disasters at country-levels.
India has shown leadership in the region by investing massively in improving weather and climate forecasts and early warning systems as well as sharing these products with its neighbours. Local adaptations are critical based on location-specific climate risks to mitigate the impacts on food, water, energy, health, transportation, and infrastructure.
India’s dream of sustaining its impressive economic growth will not come true without mainstreaming effective and efficient adaptation strategies into fiscal policies and budget processes at the State and Central levels. India’s climate community needs to focus on producing information about the local risks, whereby adaptation projects are prioritised and implemented.
India cannot afford purely academic climate research alone. Teamwork and solution-oriented research and PhD thesis projects are the way ahead to map out a safe trajectory for India and its volatile neighbourhood.
Phasing out fossil fuels may expand the regions under mistrust and conflict
Returning to COP28 and any talk of phasing down or phasing out fossil fuels must be considered in the context of this unique climate bridge from West Asia to the Indian subcontinent. Religious tensions stretch from the subcontinent into West Asia already, in explicit and implicit ways. But what will be the consequence of continued warming over West Asia if fossil fuels are indeed phased down, let alone phased out?
It is unclear if all the countries in West Asia will be able to or willing to transition to other economies driven by renewable energy, hydrogen, etc. Saudi Arabia appears to be strategising along these lines, but other countries may be too preoccupied with managing climate impacts and geopolitical hegemonies.
It is abundantly clear that a narrow-minded view of the importance of global warming targets, emission reductions, and the fate of fossil fuels may lead to unintended consequences that may be much worse than exceeding the global warming thresholds.
Raghu Murtugudde is Professor, IIT Bombay, and Emeritus Professor, University of Maryland, US.