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Ancient Indian mythology is replete with stories about the Mahapralayam—a Sanskrit word that translates to cataclysmic deluge, dissolution, or annihilation. Temples, like those at Thirucherai in Tamil Nadu, Varkala in Kerala and Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh, have specific sthalapuranas or location stories that foretell such destruction. As explained in the mythology of Sivapurana (Chapter 2:1:6), “At the time of the mahapralayam, when all mobile and immobile objects of the world are dissolved, everything gets enveloped in darkness. The whole firmament is one complete void, devoid of the elements of life." Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first report of its Sixth Assessment—a fiery report by the working group tasked with studying the science of climate change. United Nations secretary general António Guterres described it as “Code Red for Humanity". The report hints of a steady descent towards the mythological mahapralayam.

The report opens with the lines, “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred." And it goes on to posit many things with far greater confidence than before, such as “in 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years, and concentrations of CH4 and N2O were higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years", and this means that the “global mean sea level has risen faster since 1900 than over any preceding century in at least the last 3,000 years". Epochal statements with such a degree of certainty have not been put out before.

Believers insist that the report is overdue and a wake-up call for humanity. Naysayers speak of “climate extremism" and “unnecessarily alarmist tones". As evidence of climate change piles up, the world is sorting itself into three groups: 1) climate change deniers; 2) climate prophets; and 3) wizards. The deniers are now a small group and represent a motley collection of conspiracy theorists—no amount of evidence or persuasion will likely change their stance. The prophets and wizards, so coined by author Charles Mann, come at this from differing perspectives. Climate prophets believe that we must shout about the crisis and only a citizen’s movement of restraint that comes from demagoguery-like advocacy will generate the political will to change. Climate wizards believe that human ingenuity will rise to the occasion and innovate its way out of the problem. For evidence, the wizards submit the post-Malthusian Industrial Revolution and recent mRNA vaccine development as positive human responses to adverse global events.

So how do you cool the planet? Wizards would pursue projects like injecting the stratosphere with radiation-reflecting particles, use of artificial intelligence for pollution and waste management, and the use of the Internet of Things for energy management. Prophets would pound on about the dangers of global warming and fall back upon afforestation, renewable energy sources, veganism (primarily to reduce methane) and a restraint on consumerism.

For something as complex, long-ranging and non-linear as climate change, the real answers will have to come from both sides. One solution that is going to be with us for the next several decades is to put all energy use on the electricity grid, and then decarbonize the sources. This means that nuclear and renewable sources of energy will have to rise dramatically while the internal combustion engine gives way to the electrical motors for transportation. The latest IPCC report has accelerated the timeline for this transformation by a decade.

For India, the carbon paved path to middle-income-hood has been rudely interrupted. What appeared to be a postponable decision is fast becoming a Hobson’s choice. Intransigence on faster carbon reduction is no longer an option because the impact of global warming falls disproportionately on the less well-off. An accelerated path to carbon neutrality requires significant investment from depleted post-pandemic coffers. The only way to unlock this is a combination of restraint and efficiency on one hand, combined with frugal green innovation on the other. The Indian government and corporate sector have not shown sufficient signs of awareness of this new predicament, leave alone demonstrated the imagination to help find solutions. The IPCC report’s warnings for India are particularly dire. Immediate steps that India needs to take are in terms of adaptation and resilience to extreme weather events—heatwaves and pluvial floods, for instance. Afforestation, switching to electric vehicles and renewable energy must accelerate during this decade. Frugal innovation can begin with an efficiency focus, reducing inputs needed for the same output, but must progress to carbon substitution. Even as the CoP-26 team visits India this week, we must seek quicker and more effective transfer of technology in return for faster decarbonization.

There is a silver lining to the mahapralayam myth—the annihilation of the planet at the end of Kali Yug, about 400,000 years from now, is followed by a righteous rising led by Lord Vishnu taking the form of a white horse with wings (no relative of the Greek Pegasus).

P.S: “There is no planet B," said Richard Branson, a pioneer of space tourism.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

 

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