The Human Face of Climate Change and Extreme Weather in the Developing World- Up Close and Personal

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Can Paris Bridge the Gulf before More Drown in it?

001 Raj Rajan- ProfileRaj V. Rajan [Power Circle Member and Board of Directors, Fresh Energy]

As Fresh Energy continues to lead the transition to clean energy in Minnesota, our Science Policy Director J. Drake Hamilton is in Paris for the global climate talks.  Her latest update is that, after 11 days of intense negotiations, the talks – now less than 36 hours from their deadline – still have to resolve major issues.  It appears that the substantive gulf between the positions of developed and developing countries has not narrowed enough.

The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change noted that the largest share of cumulative global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions originated in developed countries, while recognizing that per capita emissions in developing countries remained relatively low.  But, we’re not in Kansas anymore.  As a result of the relocation of substantial heavy manufacturing to [and the resulting improved standards of living in] developing countries, the center of gravity of global cumulative GHG emissions has and continues to significantly shift towards developing countries.

President Obama noted in his opening COP21 comments in Paris that “the USA not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.”  Let’s look at the historic roles of the haves and have-nots in contributing to climate change.  From the start of the industrial revolution through 1960, fossil fuel use and cement production in the US, UK, Germany and France accounted for 60% of cumulative global GHG emissions.  During the same period, Russia, China, India and Brazil accounted for 10% of cumulative GHG emissions.  By 2010, the share of cumulative emissions from the four developed countries dropped to 40%, while the share of the four developing countries rose to 25%.  Today, developed countries recognize that any GHG mitigation efforts on their end can be wiped out by increasing GHG emissions from developing countries; on the other hand, developing countries do not want to see their right to grow limited by the ‘shrinking carbon headroom’.

Meanwhile, the 2015 El Niño [warmer than average waters in the eastern tropical belt of the Pacific Ocean] continues to intensify and is expected to be the strongest ever, affecting weather patterns around the world.  This, combined with the warmest year on record and the hottest ever Indian Ocean temperatures in October 2015, has led to South Asia experiencing its worst ever deluge from the northeast monsoons.  As of December 1st, over 1.8 million people have been displaced and over 3 million have been cut off from basic services in southern India.

Flooded Roads in Chennai- Indian Air Force

Flooded Roads in Chennai- Indian Air Force

While negotiators at COP21 in Paris are arguing about how to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, Chennai—my birthplace [where my parents now live] and the fourth largest city in India—is trying to recover from the worst flooding in its recorded history.  The heaviest rains of 2015 in southern India began in early November, with the coastal city of Neyveli receiving 19 inches on November 9th.  Flooding in Chennai began with 10 inches of rain on November 15th, and on December 1st, the skies over Chennai opened up again, dumping up to 19 inches of rain on parts of the city over 24 hours.  Over 60% of the city lost power and running water for several days and most major hospitals lost back-up power, as their generators drowned in floodwaters.

Submerged Chennai International Airport- Indian Air Force

Submerged Chennai International Airport- Indian Air Force

The Chennai International Airport, both major rail stations and major national highways to and from the city were completely cut off or shutdown.   At about the same time, Indian Prime Minister Modi appears to have drawn the battle lines clearly, with his opening COP21 remarks in Paris- “It is not just a question of historical responsibility, they [developed countries] also have the most room to make the cuts and make the strongest impact.  And climate justice demands that with the little carbon space we still have, developing countries have enough room to grow”.

Contrary to being the “it’s your fault” stance, this sounds like a reasonable “let’s look at the current situation” stance.  While developed countries still own about half of the historic responsibility for cumulative GHG emissions, the developing world is projected to endure the most of climate change’s adverse impacts.

This is due to a combination of the geographical realities of Vulnerability and the socio-economic and political realities of Readiness.  Nothing illustrates this combination of high vulnerability and low preparedness better than the Global Adaptation Index (GAIN), developed with data from the World Bank and currently supported by the University of Notre Dame.  While many developing countries continue to improve on their GAIN scores from the 1995 baseline to 2014, almost all the countries in the High Vulnerability-Low Readiness GAIN quadrant are in Africa, south/southeast/southwest Asia and a few in central/south America.  Australia, New Zealand, countries in North America, Europe, and much of South America fall in the Low Vulnerability-High Readiness GAIN quadrant.

Global Adaptation Country Index – gain.org

GAIN defines Vulnerability as “a country’s exposure, sensitivity and capacity to adapt to the negative effects of climate change.”  One can examine the three components of Vulnerability to climate change [Exposure, Sensitivity, and Adaptive Capacity] specifically through a comparison between India, the United States [the largest economy in the world today], China [the most populous country in the world today] and Nigeria [projected to be the third most populous country by 2050].  GAIN considered thirty-six key indicators from six life-supporting sectors [Food, Water, Health, Ecosystem Services, Human Habitat, and Infrastructure] that are grouped into these three Vulnerability components.  In practically every vulnerability component, sector and indicator, India is more vulnerable to climate change impacts than not just the United States, but also China.  Compared to Nigeria, India’s exposure to climate change vulnerability is higher, sensitivity is about the same and adaptive capacity is better.

Let’s now consider the issue of Readiness, defined by GAIN as the measure of “a country’s ability to leverage investments and convert them to adaptation actions.”  Similar to Vulnerability, Readiness is broken down into three primary components—Economic, Governance and Social Readiness—and nine indicators.  In every readiness component and indicator measured, India is less prepared to tackle the impacts of climate change than not just the United States, but also China.  Compared to Nigeria, India’s economic, governance and social readiness scores are better.

Flooded Train Tracks- Press Trust of India

Projections are that India will be the world’s most populous country by 2050, with its population stabilizing at 1.7 billion [18%].  Considering India’s high vulnerability and low readiness to tackle the impacts of climate change, the Indian government- in the interests of the well-being of its citizens- clearly has to do all it can to mitigate climate change, irrespective of what other major current contributors to global GHG emissions do.  Fortunately, thanks to innovations in clean power, incremental costs of mitigation are becoming less of a concern. When it comes to adaptation, incremental costs and the affordability of investing in preparedness could continue to pose big challenges.

There is a reasonably strong correlation between GAIN score and GDP, reinforcing the notion that vulnerability and preparedness are not just based on geography and history, but a function of economic clout.  To account for this, GAIN has also published GDP-adjusted GAIN scores and resulting rankings signify how far along a country is, relative to expectation from the GAIN score – GDP correlation.  A rational assumption would be that nations that move up a lot in rankings, with this GDP adjustment [like Argentina, which moves up from a GAIN score ranking of #82 to #1], could reasonably claim that their high vulnerability or low preparedness can indeed be attributed to their lack of economic clout.  These countries could make a strong case for external financial support to reduce their vulnerabilities or boost their preparedness.  However, India slips, its GAIN score ranking falling to #125 from #120. This indicates that more could be expected of India, based on its current economic clout. The same is true for Nigeria, which slipped from #147 to #159.  Following this GDP adjustment to GAIN scores, the UAE dropped from a ranking of #41 to #155 and Saudi Arabia from #55 to #164.  Considering where Saudi Arabia and the UAE map out today [low vulnerability and high readiness], they can better afford the luxury of doing little with their current economic clout and as such may continue to neglect reducing vulnerabilities and boosting preparedness.  India and Nigeria cannot.

Trying to Rescue Vehicles- Press Trust of India

While much of the rhetoric around the inequities of climate change impacts appears to imply that solving this environmental issue is incompatible with social justice, one should note that this is an argument that is often made to slow down environmental protection efforts.  As Oxfam outlined in an analysis on this subject, “moving into this space demands far greater equity—within and between countries—in the use of natural resources and far greater efficiency in transforming those resources to meet human needs.”   While countries like India and Nigeria can and should push for the former [i.e. equity], they have little choice but to step up and accelerate the latter [i.e. efficiency].

Social justice issues are just underneath the surface of most, if not all, environmental issues.   Examples from around the world also extend into renewables – like the dislocation of rural populations in millions for hydroelectric projects primarily to benefit urban industrial interests in China or India.  National governments have to focus on environmental justice within their own borders and inter-governmental agencies have to come to terms with cross-border environmental justice.  In both cases, the have-nots end up paying most of the price- when the activities causing environmental degradation are perpetrated and while living with the long-term consequences of the same.

The Daily Commute in the Floods – Press Trust of India

I started my comments with the analysis of cumulative historic GHG contributions of North America and Western Europe.  Many of us are aware that the per capita GDP today is $1,600 in India and $3,200 in Nigeria [compared to $7,600 in China and $55,000 in the United States].  Many of us are also aware that the share of global GDP, adjusted for purchasing power parity, is less than 7% for India and less than 1% for Nigeria [compared to over 16% each for China and the United States].  What many of us are not aware of are details of the transfer of wealth from Africa, South Asia and Latin America to Europe and North America, during and subsequent to the colonial period.

In 2005, former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—also an Oxford educated Economist—articulated the implications of this historic fact specifically to India, in an editorial titled Of Oxford, Economics, Empire, and Freedom. He states: “As the painstaking statistical work of the Cambridge historian Angus Maddison has shown, India’s share of world income collapsed from 22.6% in 1700, almost equal to Europe’s share of 23.3% at that time, to as low as 3.8% in 1952. Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century, “the brightest jewel in the British Crown” was the poorest country in the world in terms of per capita income.”  Before we jump to any conclusion about population growth, Angus Maddison also noted in the The World Economy: Historical Statistics that India and China accounted for 27% and 23% of the world’s population in 1700 [compared to 17% and 19% today].

Knee Deep in the Floods with Man’s Best Friend- Press Trust of India

This brings me back to my birthplace—the only South Asian city to be listed in the New York Times’ “52 Places to Go”—and its historic connections to my home for over three decades, the United States.  The historic location of an active fishing village for centuries, Chennai—called Madras, until 1996—was founded in 1644 by The English East India Company, the same folks who’s tea was dumped in Boston Harbor in 1773. Elihu Yale, a New England merchant, was Governor of the East India Company and President of Madras from 1687 to 1692.  He donated most of the wealth he accumulated there to the Collegiate School in the Colony of Connecticut, which was subsequently named Yale College. Charles Cornwallis, the British General who was defeated in the American War of Independence in 1776, was knighted and sent to India as the Governor General and Commander in Chief for the East India Company’s armies in 1786.

Floating on a Mattress with Belongings in Chennai- Press Trust of India

Today, in the land where Catamarans originated with fishermen [the word in my native tongue means “logs tied together”], locals have taken to boating like fish to water.  One cannot ignore the irony of the images from Chennai, with floodwaters drowning cellphones in almost every hand and MRIs in almost every hospital.  At the same time, nations are negotiating for a solution to the challenges of climate change in Paris.  Actually, it is not nations, but humans who represent these nations.  We need to understand that the human ‘delegates’ from developing countries might not let go of emotional reactions to historical injustices and current inequities.  We also need to understand that delegates from developed nations might not support solutions that endanger their high standards of living or their current economic clout.  We can only hope that parties on both ends of this spectrum will consider the implications of inaction on their own disadvantaged masses.

Flooded MRI at Chennai Hospital- Dinamalar

Because, after all, if elected leaders don’t stand up for the citizens of Beijing and New Delhi who can barely breathe the air, or the flooded residents of Chennai trying to salvage their meager belongings today, who will?  If nothing else, we will learn if it is a blessing or a curse that the parties at the two ends of this spectrum represent the world’s oldest democracy [The United States] and the world’s largest democracy [India]!

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