Climate change made simpler

The banquet hall was full of well-meaning employees of a child rights organization. The point of discussion was climate change and its impacts on children and communities. They not only wished that every child survives, but also adapts and is 'climate smart'. This is welcome, but also worrisome because these resourceful people seemed to not comprehend well either climate change or the issues thereof. They were planning to respond nevertheless. Outcomes of their effort are likely to be suboptimal. People like Doug Ford would rejoice. They do not find it rational to incur expenditure either on climate mitigation or adaptation. Although evidence to the contrary is available, and lack of well-planned investment lays at risk the gains already made.

Why bother about Doug Ford? Ford is a provincial politician from Ontario but could influence Canada's climate policy and investments. Ford and the like argue that even if all the signatories to the Paris Agreement deliver on their commitments, the world's average temperature would be 3°C higher by the end of the century. True! Adaptation investments, therefore, have to be made such that the outcomes are not suboptimal. Ford and his ilk must be denied the 'I told you so' moment.

An attempt to clarify climate change and related issues is thus in order.

In India, the concept of climate is relatively easier to comprehend. Look up the wardrobe of a person from a coastal area and that of a person from the hills. These would be significantly different; but what one wears on a particular day irrespective of location is in response to weather. John Lawrence understood this well. Lawrence came to India in 1829 to serve in the civil-administration wing of the East India Company. He served mostly in northern and northwestern India and returned to Britain in 1859, only to be sent back in 1863 to head the British Indian Government. He was the governor-general of India until 1869. The colonial capital was Calcutta, warm and humid. Governor-general Lawrence periodically shifted the capital to Simla. Those were the days when one had to change locations to experience a different climate; now a changing climate is coming to our locations.

The climate has been changing over thousands of years. Ice core data from Greenland for the last 100,000 years bear evidence of this. Only in the last 12,000 years or so has the climate been fairly uniform and predictable - the Holocene - making rapid strides by humans possible. During the Holocene, the global average temperature has varied up or down by about 1°C compared to more than 10°C during the preceding 90,000 years or so.

Because of anthropogenic activities Industrial Revolution onward, particularly after World War II, the phase known as the Great Acceleration, it is fairly certain that the calm and predictable climate of the Holocene is past us. We are likely in the Anthropocene. Since the Holocene epoch is the only state of the earth system that supports contemporary human societies, moving away from such conditions makes us vulnerable. This vulnerability has the potential of compromising the well-being of human societies, ecosystems and species.

Vulnerability depends on who is the 'target' of interest, where is the target located, and what does the target do? The target could be specific plants, dinoflagellates, or landless peasants. The effect of a particular changed climate parameter may or may not be adverse on the target depending on its traits/endowments - its adaptive capacity in other words. For example, if the dinoflagellate is in warm acidic waters, it can expect to be expelled by its host coral, compromising the well-being of the coral reef.

For human systems, some places are more prone to impacts of climate change, like low-lying, densely-populated coastal areas where sea-level rise and storm surge would have adverse effects on infrastructure and communities. If people in low-lying coastal areas are agriculturists, salt-water incursion/inundation would render agriculture impossible, whereas city dwellers would be faced with a different set of challenges.

Adaptation to climate change is a set of actions to reduce vulnerability to actual and anticipated changes in climate. The set of actions would be different for different targets, and at different locations even for the same target. This would require an understanding of the potential impacts of climate change; of what needs to be done differently in the future and which existing strategies and activities continue to make sense. A little more complicated is the decision regarding whom to support - the most vulnerable or the most viable, or a combination of the two. Depending on the desired outcomes, the adaptation approach could be to build resistance to climate-related stressors, to enhance resilience for accommodating and weathering changes, or even anticipating and facilitating transitions. Essentially, the aim is to ensure that the well-being of the target remains uncompromised.


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