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India Has Much To Gain From Enhancing Climate Change Awareness And Risk Perception

And it all starts with education.

08/02/2017 7:01 AM IST | Updated 13/02/2017 8:50 AM IST
Punit Paranjpe / Reuters

An extensive near-global survey of the public awareness of climate change and perception of the associated risks has some good news for India. While less than 40% of India's population is aware of climate change, nearly 80% of those who are aware perceive climate change as a serious threat. The biggest predictor of awareness for India is, of course, the education levels of the respondents. This offers another strong motivation for the country as a whole as well as each for each state to invest heavily in education. Clearly, in addition to the continued focus on K-through-12 and autonomous institutes like IITs, IISERs and Central Universities, a serious and concerted effort is needed on lifting the local universities to much higher standards undergraduate and postgraduate education as well as basic and applied research.

For a country such as India, with its sights set on continuing economic growth, the perils of underestimating or ignoring climate risks are high.

The push for sustainable development by the UN has typically relied on national-level indicators such as per capita income or the Human Development Index (HDI includes life expectancy at birth, education level and per capital income). The climate awareness study finds no direct relation between such gross indices and climate awareness. This can easily be seen in the way per capita carbon emission is reported as well. India's emission rates are just under 2 tonnes per person per year which is grossly misleading since the wealthy tend to have a carbon footprint that is about as high as the Western World, viz., about 16 tonnes per capita per person. The average per capita thus rides on the backs of the vast population which hardly emits any carbon. The key question then is whether climate adaptation and mitigation strategies are better accomplished by rapid increases in literacy and climate awareness or by focusing on gross national-level indices which can be misleading. India has the additional complexity in terms of the cultural heterogeneities among states which are obvious in the regional HDIs—with Kerala enjoying higher HDI than the BIMARU states, for example. The upward movement in India's HDI ranking in the last decade has thus come from an HDI increase in a handful of states which again corresponded to increased literacy. Considering the range of climate vulnerability across the subcontinent, climate vulnerability and resilience also vary from state-to-state and can be exacerbated by varying education levels.

India will thus need region-specific strategies that account for the uniqueness of each state when it comes to ensuring that education leads not only to higher HDIs but also to increased climate change awareness and risk perception. Specific attention needs to be paid to educating the female population since there are indications that climate vulnerability is reduced significantly when women are aware of natural and socio-economic hazards. Combine this nugget of information with the fact that female literacy leads to a natural drop in birth rates and voila, we have a multiplier effect in terms of advancing education levels, climate awareness and risk perception while also driving down population growth. India has a tremendous advantage in achieving higher education levels considering that nearly 25% of its population is under 25 years of age. Adult literacy can easily be combined with education from K-through-12 and higher to bring the entire nation to become among the most climate-aware country in the world. Fortunately, India does not suffer from the politicisation of the global warming issue as rich countries like the US and Australia do.

A focus on education is a no-brainer—it's imperative to exploit its multiplier effect on advancing climate change awareness, risk perception and climate adaptation and mitigation goals.

A recent report from the World Economic Forum—an international non-profit agency of public-private partnership that has a stated mission of improving the state of the world—summarises the top five global risks in terms of likelihood as well as in terms of impacts.

The top five most likely risks are weather extremes, large-scale migrations, natural disasters, terrorist attacks and data breaches. The top five risks in terms of high impact are weapons of mass destruction, weather extremes, water crises, natural disasters and failure of climate adaptation and mitigation. Needless to say that India is vulnerable to each one of these. But these challenges are also a grand opportunity to set long term goals on not just mitigating climate risks but also the risks of other natural and socio-economic hazards via education, climate awareness and increased risk perception.

For a country such as India, with its sights set on continuing economic growth, the perils of underestimating or ignoring climate risks are high. Fortunately, the goals for mitigating climate risks are also consistent with economic growth in terms of investing in green economy and aiming to capture the global green markets while the rich countries dilly-dally based on the politics of climate denial. The strategies to accomplish these goals include investment in education as the foremost requirement which also should place India at the forefront of knowledge economy of the future. A cashless economy and corruption-less governance should lead to a smooth ride into a bright future we all dream of for our great country. A focus on education is thus a no-brainer—it's imperative to exploit its multiplier effect on advancing climate change awareness, risk perception and climate adaptation and mitigation goals.

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