“Extreme weather events” is the new global warming
mantra. Scientists feel it is the best short-term evidence that the planetary
climate is settling into a new equilibrium, the cue for countries to start
taking action. By a coincidence this year has been full of them, from
unprecedented heatwaves in Europe, to floods in Japan.
The Japanese case is striking because it takes something extraordinary, given its preparedness, to cause hundreds of deaths at one stroke. Early July saw the heaviest rainfall in decades in Japan, with floods and landslides killing 225 people. Tens of thousands had to leave their homes. Then, in a double blow, an “unprecedented heat wave” sent 35,000 people to hospital. Thirty died. Even the Arctic Circle was not spared. Normal summer temperatures peak around 210C. In parts of Sweden they crossed 320C, sparking dozens of wildfires.
In California, US, more than 5,500 wildfires have burned across over 4,000 sq km. In Greece, dozens of people were killed in forest fires sparked by the heat. Day temperatures in Portugal and Spain crossed 45C. Indeed the first half of 2018 is the hottest ever recorded without an El Nino event.
In India, lightning strikes killed over 200 people in April-May in the northern states, an exceptionally high toll. On April 26, 40,000 lightning bolts struck Andhra Pradesh in the space of 13 hours—more than in the entire month of May. Thunderstorms and clusters of deadly dust storms swept across the north in May, and the monsoon just added to the woes. About 1,000 people are dead so far and lakhs have been flooded out of their homes or marooned by rising waters. In Kerala alone over 350 people died in an epically wet August.
Scientists see this as “the face of climate change”. One of the world’s most eminent climate researchers, Prof Michael Mann, at Penn State University says, “We are seeing them [impacts] play out in real time and what is happening this summer is a perfect example of that.”
Climate change is “unfolding before our eyes”, says Prof Rowan Sutton at the University of Reading. “The logic that climate change will do this [heat waves] is inescapable,” says Friederike Otto at the University of Oxford. Everyone is scrambling to produce analysis that supports the thesis of climate change in real time, but for most Indians it is not even a question. A greater priority: what is the state doing to minimise their misery?
We are no strangers to natural calamity. But with few exceptions, the state’s reaction has a set pattern. It turns out the military and other emergency forces for rescue or provides handouts to tide over the immediate misery. Once the worst is over, inertia returns until a new cycle begins. Long-term solutions seem to be unfashionable. For instance, it is two years since Delhi’s air became unbreathable but there is no sign of a plan other than episodic knee-jerk incoherence. The same is true of city flooding, whether in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai or Delhi. Three years after the Chennai deluge the storm drain network is still incomplete.
The government of India accepts climate change and is committed to tackling it. Dramatic increases in solar and wind power are proof of its resolve. But the annual floods in Assam, drought in Bombay-Karnatak or death from seasonal disease in east UP are still treated as part of an arc of inevitable suffering. These problems need systemic answers and the tools are available, but neither the Centre nor the states see it. For example, porous concrete for pavements would recharge local aquifers and reduce the chances of city flooding. It has been around since the 19th century but we have not caught up. Densely populated areas dominated by impermeable surfaces could benefit greatly from it.
The point is that climate change is bound to cause greater disequilibrium but we could reduce the scale of disruptions by addressing the constant annual toll from water, wind, heat and seasonal disease. Right now it is treated as inevitable, an act of God, but we have the means to improve things. Fighting global warming is good and right, but the smaller details are equally important. They make local systems more robust. Water harvesting, for instance, has made a world of difference to Chennai. We need to take the retail more seriously, make communities better capable of handling stress if we are to make any headway in the battle against climate change. What is happening now is the exact opposite.