HSBC’s 2018 assessment of India being the country the most vulnerable to climate change is of great significance. However, against scientific warnings, carbon emissions continue to rise in China, the U.S. and India, three of the biggest emitters.
Brazil, under its President Jair Bolsonaro, is encouraging — under the false pretext of promoting economic growth — unprecedented deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. As forest fires worsen global warming, the hardest hit by the resulting floods, storms, heatwaves and droughts will be in India.
Amidst this dangerous setting, global leadership must act with far greater urgency, and countries, including India, ought to switch rapidly from polluting fossil fuels to cleaner renewable energy, while building much stronger coastal and inland defences against climatic damage. Brazil must reverse course on the mindless destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
Brazil is not alone in mistakenly thinking that slashing environmental regulations would raise economic growth. The U.S., India and others are following this prescription to varying degrees. To be sure, cutting hurdles to investment can boost short-term growth and benefit interest groups. But damaging the environment in this way would be self defeating in today’s fragile ecology, as it would impact long-term growth and well-being.
HSBC’s index and other such measures relating to the climate risk consider the exposure or sensitivity of countries to climate impacts on the one side, and their ability to cope on the other. Add to these two factors the intensity of the climate hazard itself and we can see how India’s ranking on the index is, in all likelihood, worsening each year.
A number of Indian States have experienced extreme heatwaves in the past three years, and the nation’s capital recently recorded a temperature of 48°C, its hottest day in 21 years. India’s exposure to climate hazards is heightened by the location of its vast coastline in the eye of the storm, across the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. It also has a high population density located in harm’s way. For instance, Kerala, which experienced intense floods and landslides in 2018 and 2019, is among the States with the highest density.
How badly this exposure will affect lives and livelihoods depends both on the degrees of vulnerability and resilience to climate impacts. Increasing temperatures and changing seasonal rainfall patterns are aggravating droughts and hurting agriculture across the country. Extreme storms like the one that hit Odisha this year and the floods that swept Chennai in 2015 are the new normal. These events become more damaging when infrastructure is not resilient.
In the face of such danger, India is not doing enough to boost its coastal and inland defences. It also needs to do more to build resilience in the sectors of agriculture, fisheries, manufacturing, energy, transport, health, and education. The priority for spending at the national and State levels for disaster management needs to rise. Adequate resources must also be allocated for implementing climate action plans that most States have now prepared.
Indeed, India should be alarmed at ecological destruction even in faraway places like Amazon. As the country that is most at risk for climate damage, it should lead in pressing the global community to take sweeping climate action. Meanwhile, the nation must reinforce its infrastructure and adapt its agriculture and industry. Equally, it also needs to replace urgently its fossil fuels with renewable energy.
The writer is a visiting professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore
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