The climate change conundrum

Climate change is having real consequences on humanity (and on other life forms on the planet)

June 2016 was the hottest ever month recorded since 1880; it was then overtaken on that measure by July; and August tied with July. Photo: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters
June 2016 was the hottest ever month recorded since 1880; it was then overtaken on that measure by July; and August tied with July. Photo: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters

The climate change crisis is intensifying. 2015 was the hottest ever year recorded in the 135-year history of temperature records. Before 2015, and including that year, 15 of the previous 16 years were the hottest ever to have been recorded. Moreover, climate scientists are 99% certain that 2016 will be the worst of them all.

New records are being broken on an almost monthly basis. Consider that June 2016 was the hottest ever month recorded since 1880; it was then overtaken on that measure by July; and August tied with July. All one after the other.

These are worrying signals. Climate science is no longer limited to academic papers and discussions rendered by data points on x-y graphs and plotlines. This crisis is having real consequences on humanity (and on other life forms on the planet). Researchers have in fact observed that the trend of warming temperatures may have caused an extreme drought in Syria between 2006 and 2010; that drought resulted in large-scale crop failure that displaced millions to urban areas; and the mass-migration set the political stage for the ongoing civil war.

Granted that the civil war has been caused by a multitude of other factors, but if it is true that a changing climate led to the factors that created the fertile ground for one of the worst civil wars in recent human history, then we must think about and act upon a concrete solution before it gets too late.

And therein lies the challenge. To work on solutions, we need to know full well what the problem is. The challenge with climate science is that it is both complex and uncertain; and that makes it difficult to pinpoint what specific action caused an effect as well as predict how a potential solution will impact the problem area in actuality. As a clean-tech entrepreneur, I myself cannot tell you how the work that my industry is doing will exactly improve the health of the planet—except that in broad and general terms, it will.

Think of it this way, it is relatively straightforward for a doctor or a computer programmer to diagnose a bug because human bodies and computers are “closed” systems with limited variables. The relatively small number of possibilities of how something may have gone wrong make the problem-solving process direct. Once you know why something went wrong, you can go to the root cause and mend it in targeted ways to eliminate the bug.

The opposite is true for climate science. There are a whole range of variables that make it difficult to differentiate between correlation and causation.

For example, was it human industrial activity that caused the drought in Syria? We can only look at observational data and build simplified computer models to make sense out of what is happening to the environment. The lack of clarity on what specific activity caused the drought in Syria—whether it was the burning of coal in China, over-fishing in Japan, or the use of gas-guzzling vehicles in the US—makes it difficult to arrive at a specific diagnosis. Without specificity in the diagnosis, a solid prognosis cannot follow. And without the right prognosis, solutions cannot be implemented.

This is also what is happening at the international negotiating table around this issue. Developing countries rightly ask of the developed world, “Why should we forego our economic development for something that we are not directly responsible for, and that may or may not improve the health of the planet, but will surely impede our economic growth?”

In India’s case, too, it is difficult for our politicians to navigate this crucial trade-off. Can we afford to hold back millions of poor people in our country today by not giving them access to industrial tools? All so that climate change-related problems do not affect people two-three generations later in Angola, Costa Rica, or Polynesia?

To be sure, a recent paper published in the respectable Institute of Physics journal found that anywhere between 90% and 100% of scientists who study climate science agree that industrial activity is very likely causing the climate to change. There is also broad consensus that the impacts of this change will be disastrous for the world. In our country alone, public infrastructure in the cities of Mumbai and Kolkata valued in the trillions of dollars, as well as the lives of the millions of people who reside there, are at risk if the sea-level was to rise—a likely outcome as rising temperatures cause the volume of water in the oceans to expand; and the ice-shelves in the poles to melt.

Ordinary citizens are concerned, too. Tellingly, a detailed research effort carried out by Yale University surveyors in India in 2011 revealed that 72% of Indians thought that the climate was indeed warming up; 64% did not feel confident in their ability to withstand a severe flood or drought; and a majority thought that the government should undertake large-scale efforts to solve the problem.

The latter is easier said than done—the ambiguity around who in the world is exactly responsible for rising temperatures, to what degree are they responsible, and what corrective action can guarantee to solve the problem, paralyse decision-making around the issue. Despite all the awareness; despite all the concerns; and despite all the scientific assessments. And that is the climate change conundrum.

Sumant Sinha is chief executive of ReNew Power. Silent Spring will appear every fortnight and look at issues related to the environment, climate change, and renewable energy.