Climate change: Are we ready to weather more headwinds in 2020?

The Conference of Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change met for the 25 th time in Madrid, Spain, to negotiate the fate of our planet. And for the 25 th year in a row, economics trumped science and profits prevailed over people. Many experts have dubbed the Madrid COP as not just a failure but a regression on the achievements made at the Paris COP in 2015.

This is bad news, especially when, natural and man-made disasters in the first half of 2019 alone have cost an estimated $73 billion in economic losses. Flooding and severe weather were the top drivers followed by tropical cyclones and droughts. Of the 163 recorded events worldwide, 17 were so-called billion dollar events. The Iranian floods and the tropical cyclone Fani that hit India and Bangladesh topped the list at $8.3 billion and $8.1 billion, respectively.

According to an assessment by ReliefWeb, the Iranian floods affected an estimated 10 million people, killed 78 persons and destroyed/damaged 1,79,000 homes. The category 4 tropical storm Fani became the strongest one to hit the Indian coast since the 1999 Odisha supercyclone. Prior to its landfall, Odisha and Bangladesh evacuated over 2 million people making it one of the largest disaster related migrations in history. Despite this, Fani claimed 89 lives. Between 1970 and 2012, Asia suffered 2,681 natural disasters, which claimed over 9 lakh lives. And cyclonic storms were responsible for 76 per cent of all deaths caused by natural disasters in the region.

It might be hard to predict the nature, intensity and magnitude of extreme weather events that will shape 2020 and beyond, but the fact that they will happen is indisputable. In that, the Madrid COP was a wasted opportunity, the social and financial costs of which will devolve on future generations. While the reasoning behind such widespread political inaction is inexplicable, the hope that our elected representatives will do our bidding remains scant. The metaphorical million-dollar question then is – what are we to do?

Extreme weather events have always been part of earth’s natural processes – in fact, they are inextricably linked to survival. For instance, tropical storms oxygenate near surface waters, which is important for the survival and diversity of marine life. They provide a global heat balance, thus protecting the equator and the poles from temperature extremes and they replenish inland plant life by bringing in fresh nutrients, which eventually leads to growth in animal life.

Similarly, floods return nutrients to the soil, prevent erosion and replenish ground water. In fact, ancient civilizations owe their existence to the annual flood cycles that ensured a constant supply of food.

The term “natural disaster” was coined when the modern society began disassociating with nature and building cities and infrastructure in blatant indifference to the planet’s natural processes. Human-induced climate change has only amplified this activity and exposed our unprepared infrastructure to extreme risk or disasters.

While political inaction holds us to ransom, the challenge before us is to deepen our understanding of earth’s systems and accordingly reassess our civilizational aspirations. Resilience, adaptation and self-reliance are the few fundamentals that need to be embedded into our growth model.

With ever-increasing climate induced rural distress, cities will have to become water and food secure on their own. Rainwater harvesting, restoration of abused water bodies and rooftop farming have to be as essential as public transport. Similarly, rising sea levels and frequent tropical storms will continue to batter our coastal areas. It is important to protect mangroves, wetlands and sand dunes which provide natural resilience from the vagaries of extreme weather.

Floods and heatwaves are now a recurring phenomenon across the sub-continent. India has experienced 15 extreme flooding events during 2007-18. In August 2019 alone, Indian rivers crossed highest flood level 25 times. On the other hand, heat stress during summer months remains the leading cause of death in the country. According to the Heat Stress Index for India, mortality burden attributable to heat stress was 18.2 percent of total deaths due to natural cause in 2015. Adjusting to this new reality will be a predominant challenge for citizens, urban planners and policy makers.

Adapting to the changing climate, building resilience and developing self-reliance is the way ahead and requires a deeper investigation into the larger politics of environmental destruction. Ultimately, it is incumbent on citizens to proactively participate in environmental decision-making and demand protection of our natural capital.

Dharmesh Shah is a Kerala-based public policy analyst. Twitter: @dshah1983.Views are personal.Get access to India’s fastest growing financial subscriptions service Moneycontrol Pro for as little as Rs 599 for first year. Use the code “GETPRO”. Moneycontrol Pro offers you all the information you need for wealth creation including actionable investment ideas, independent research and insights & analysis For more information, check out the Moneycontrol website or mobile app.

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