India Must Lead Climate Action In The Region For Its Own National Security

05/11/2016 11:23 AM IST | Updated 07/11/2016 8:54 AM IST
Amit Dave / Reuters

India is a signatory to the latest climate action treaty under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the so-called Paris Agreement. India has taken some bold steps in putting forth its commitment to climate action via its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) to carbon reduction. Being a legitimate player in the global issue of climate change is not only a wise move for India in terms of its role in the future of global geopolitics and economic development, but also in terms of ensuring the wellbeing of its vast population.

However, what is not getting sufficient attention in India is the potential for its vulnerability to climate change becoming a serious national security threat. Even worse, the high climate vulnerability and climate change risk of its neighbours in the region are bound to become stress-multipliers for the ongoing regional tensions.

While climate change is never a proximal cause, it is an ultimate trigger in many civil and armed conflicts.

India is in an unenviable position on many fronts—air quality, population pressures, issues in the water-food-energy-health nexus. The overriding factor that is already making things worse in all aspects is the downward trend in the summer monsoon which itself may be related to pollution. Increasing weather extremes such as heatwaves and floods are beginning to combine with the rising sea levels and cyclones to enhance the vulnerability of many rural communities and urban centres.

The context for climate change in national security can only be made by outlining the complexity of impacts of climate change. Let me start with water as an example.

The two back-to-back droughts over the subcontinent during 2014-2015 were preceded by several other such dry spells in the new millennium, the previous one being as recent as 2012. The expected bountiful monsoon during 2016 never materialized in many states thanks to the unexpected weakening of La Niña. The consequences are obvious in terms of the tensions over water-sharing not only between India and Pakistan but also between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Such natural climate variability is not only conflating with global warming but also with a lack of policy actions as seen by the severe drought over Sri Lanka. This tiny island nation receives over 1200mm of rain per year during normal years and should not be facing a drought even with a 20% reduction in rainfall if proper policy tools and infrastructure are in place. Moves by the neighbours (such as China) to secure their own water resources always create international tensions. In addition, even internal water-sharing issues need careful planning for self-sufficiency in this essential ingredient for the very existence of life.

Water issues are intimately tied to food and energy production and human health. The typical burden of contagious diseases that plague tropical countries such as India is now being made more disastrous by chronic disease morbidity. As for water, the uncertainties in future projections of rainfall under global warming are a serious concern. But the temperature projections tend to be quite reliable. And the news is scary as far as the Indian subcontinent and its neighbourhood is concerned. The increased weather extremes are riding on top of warming temperatures and this will only continue into the foreseeable future. Cleaning up the atmosphere may in fact make temperatures warmer by removing the solar dimming caused by pollution. The news is much worse for the desert regions of the Middle East. The turmoil of the region can only get much worse with warmer temperatures, dwindling oil revenues and growing population. No country will be immune from this potential chaos. But close neighbours like India can expect a bigger share of this human burden especially considering the religious mix of the region.

The largely arid and semi-arid belt extending from the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan faces severe threat of further desiccation under global warming. [This] is a national security threat to India...

The growing economy of India will continue to increase the demand for more calories from meat and fish which are worse for the environment than a vegetarian diet. As the temperatures get warmer, the demand for air conditioning will also grow even more rapidly considering that barely 5% of the Indian population has air conditioners. India has a different target to meet compared to developed countries in terms of phasing out the use of HFCs. The current replacements for HFCs are not all considered safe so India can in fact ramp up its research efforts to grab the future market for climate-friendly refrigerants.

Considering all the regional climate vulnerabilities and climate change risks, India can hardly afford to focus on its internal problem alone or live under the assumption that the vulnerability and risk faced by its neighbours will not affect its national security. Sea level rise is a serious threat to Bangladesh and with increasing cyclones India can expect mass migrations or humanitarian disasters brewing right across the border. While climate change is never a proximal cause, it is an ultimate trigger in many civil and armed conflicts. The largely arid and semi-arid belt extending from the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan faces severe threat of further desiccation under global warming. The heightened risk of these neighbours is very much a national security threat to India, and will only become more imminent each year.

India has been fortunate in having an essentially stable democracy since its independence despite all the seemingly unresolvable internal issues. It has also invested wisely in education and research which has allowed it to make a serious dent in the hunger problem with the Green Revolution and then follow it up with a consistent economic growth trajectory by fully exploiting the globalization boom. The good news of India becoming part of the elite economic superpowers is fraught with many caveats. But the severe threat to its economic development and national security from global warming impacts, within and without its own borders, can be ignored only at great peril.

Climate does not care about walls and climate change crosses borders without permission.

India has an imperative to build on its internal efforts on climate and agricultural research, predictions and projections and the vast and growing investments in renewable energy. It must create international institutions to share this expertise and information with the neighbours in the region to make the entire neighborhood less vulnerable and more resilient to global warming. The odds seem insurmountable in terms of establishing trusting relations but the bold leadership shown in signing onto global climate treaties must translate to regional leadership on climate action both in terms of climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Standing on the wall with guns is necessary as long as a national security threats persist. But choices can be made now that can lead to at least climbing down from the wall if not tearing it down in the future. Because climate does not care about walls and climate change crosses borders without permission.

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