Climate change: Focus on saving lives till now, time to save livelihood as well

According to a Climate Central map, hundreds of cities on India’s eastern coast will be under water by 2050. CEEW says more than 80% of India’s population is vulnerable to “extreme climate risks”

A map of cities that will be underwater by 2050
A map of cities that will be underwater by 2050

Garima Sadhwani

How many headlines and news articles did you come across in the last month that told you the condition of the climate is deteriorating? That a big chunk of our lives will be lost battling global warming in the next few decades? It’s no secret that climate change is impacting lives every single day, but let’s take a look at how it has been affecting us and what we can do to change its course.

According to a map created by Climate Central, hundreds of cities on the eastern coast of India will be under water by the year 2050. Over 27 states and union territories in India and more than 80% of the country’s population are vulnerable to “extreme climate risks”, says a report by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water.

These statistics show that the lives of many communities are put in danger due to climate change, and that a significant number of them lose their livelihood to it as well. Ritayan Mukherjee, a photojournalist, shares that while covering the pastoral nomads in the Himalayas, he came across the Changpa community who take their yak and sheep to grazing grounds that are 10,000-11,000 feet above the sea level. “The livelihood of these people is directly dependent on nature, because they move with their herd from one place to another,” says he.

Mukherjee shares that because of global warming, rising temperatures and the winter months getting shorter, the pastoralists have to take their herds to even higher grazing grounds. A report that Mukherjee worked on for the People’s Archive of Rural India said that the yak population in Leh fell about 57% between 1991-2010, according to the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying. A lot of these pastoralists don’t just depend on yak for their economic incomes, but they also use the yak-wool to build traditional tents, called Rebos. However, Mukherjee shares that these residential tents have disappeared over the past few years for reasons that can be attributed to climate change.

Mukherjee shares another instance from the Sundarbans mangrove forest of West Bengal. The Sundarbans has very fertile land because it’s the meeting point of several rivers, and a lot of people are dependent on it for paddy farming. But the recent cyclones that the state has seen have caused trouble to the farmers. “People are losing agricultural land because saline water from the sea comes through the river and waterlogging happens across the delta,” says Mukherjee. A lot of people have had to leave their farms there and find jobs elsewhere. He questions if you’d call these people migrant workers or climate refugees.

Aatreyee Dhar, a freelance journalist from Assam, agrees with Mukherjee. She says that owing to several droughts and floods, there are climate refugees in Assam, who need rehabilitation, for which climate finance comes in.

Climate finance is a term used for the global or national allocation of money that would be used towards the environment. Abinash Mohanty, a researcher at CEEW, says that since over 75% of the districts in India are extreme hotspots, the only way to soften the impact of climate change is to restore and create natural ecosystems. And for that around $170 billion is required every year, says he.

Dhar feels that everything that happens in Assam, be it NRC, evictions or any conflict, all of it is linked to climate change in some way or the other. She says that the landscape has changed tremendously over the past 10-14 years with floods in some regions, and droughts in others. There’s a need to focus on climate finance, says Dhar, because the lives and livelihoods of a lot of people are affected due to climate change.

Bhasker Tripathi, who has been working on climate policy for several years now, nods. He says, “Extreme weather affects the poorest of the poor, and people who have low incomes are usually the most vulnerable to climate change. And India has millions of such people. And they haven’t done anything to cause this. You need to take care of these communities.”

But to prevent the migration of climate refugees, adaptation to climate finance isn’t enough. The other thing that needs to be done is climate proofing the infrastructure of vulnerable areas. “So far, we have been able to save lives, but not livelihoods,” says Mohanty.

Climate proofing essentially means that if you live in an area that is prone to floods, you build your house at a higher level, and use construction materials that can withstand extreme climate events. And in case you live in an area prone to droughts, you need to limit the temperature rise by increasing the forest cover, using fertilisers to make the soil grip stronger, installing rainwater harvesting and traditional water management practices.

Mohanty insists on the importance of climate proofing, by citing the example of airports. He says, “India is a big country and we have a lot of airports. But what if a small island nation just has one airport and that is inaccessible because of a cyclone or tsunami? You’ll be cut off from the whole world.”

And proofing isn’t just about infrastructure. If you’re a farmer residing in a vulnerable place, you need to plant crops that are climate resilient. But Mohanty feels that since a huge chunk of the human-induced climate change is due to urban planning and encroachment of forest cover and mangroves, the least that can be done is climate proofing.

Mukherjee agrees. He shares that the existence of the Dongria Kondh community in Odisha was threatened when Vedanta wanted to mine their lands for mica, and caused a ton of environmental damage to the place.

Dhar also feels that in the garb of preventing climate change, and working towards sustainable and renewable energy, you cannot put human rights at stake. She says, “For electric vehicles, you need to mine cobalt, which in itself is a sector that thrives on exploitation, and that can’t be the solution.”

What is the solution then? What should individuals do? Mohanty feels that as propagated in this year’s COP26, switching to a sustainable lifestyle might just be the answer. He says, “Till last year, we didn’t know how to live during a pandemic, but then we learnt and adapted. And we need to adapt now, because when climate extremes come in, there’s no talking, but a clear demonstration that will directly impact all our lives.”

Mohanty does have a few questions though. What happens if you go to your office and there’s no water? What happens when vulnerable communities are inundated by sea level rise? What happens when you go on a trip and you’re stuck on a highway for hours because there’s a landslide? All of this has happened, and yet Mohanty’s searching for an answer as to why so many individuals haven’t started taking climate change seriously yet.

Not exactly an answer, but there’s an explanation for Mohanty’s questions. Mukherjee says that while we tend to think of climate change as some global phenomenon that we read about in the news or in books, we often tend to forget that the impacts of climate change are seen on the ground level every single day, and often give rise to conflicts in nature. Such as cold-blooded reptiles who are a bit averse to higher temperatures face issues with their winter cycles getting shorter. Or the many species of bees whose population in India has dropped by nearly 80%.

Mukherjee says, “A lot of the bee species are not found anywhere in India now except the Himalayan region. There is an economic dependence on bees.” Another example is that of the Marwari sheep in Saurashtra which almost went extinct because of heavy rainfall.

There’s another thing that bothers these people. Mukherjee feels that the developed countries are trying to put the burden of guilt on the developing and third-world nations. Tripathi couldn’t agree more. “When Europe and US say that we shouldn’t be using coal anymore, they say that because they’ve already used it. But the developing countries still need that resource, and are dependent on it. You can’t just push the burden on developing countries to do more, when the developed world has caused climate change,” says he.

Mohanty says that India’s promise of net-zero carbon emissions is quite achievable if we focus on climate finance and climate proofing, and the usage can drop by 99% by the year 2060, and that is our best bet at preventing the rise in temperatures. Tripathi has a little something to add to this. He says that a lot of people who are direct victims of climate change might not have the vocabulary to talk about it, but that doesn’t make them any less knowledgeable. So, he adds, maybe start listening and learning from them more, because their lived experiences might teach you more about climate change than most research papers.

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