Climate Change

'Climate catastrophe' and not 'Climate change'

Even as a major British newspaper changes its terms for climate change, it is imperative that India, suffering the most from it, builds a groundswell of opinion in favour of real action to prevent climate catastrophe

By Chandra Bhushan
Published: Friday 24 May 2019
Illustration: Tarique Aziz Laskar
Illustration: Tarique Aziz Laskar Illustration: Tarique Aziz Laskar

The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, has decided to change the language it uses for climate change. It will replace the term “climate change” with terms like “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and it will favour “global heating” instead of “global warming”.

Explaining this change, Editor-in-chief Katherine Viner stated, “The phrase ‘climate change’, for example sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.” The Guardian is not the only one that has decided to change its language and approach to climate change.

Across the world, there is a groundswell of opinion that we have to do something drastic to avert the climate catastrophe. This all started with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, which gave just 12 years to limit warming to less than 1.5°C and avoid climate catastrophe. Since then, all the scientific reports that have been published indicate that we are moving to the precipice.

The latest report published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and

Ecosystem Services (IPBES), shows that the health of ecosystems on which our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life depend, is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. Around one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history and global warming is playing a significant role in this, finds the report. 

Taking the cue from these dire predictions, slowly, a grassroots movement is emerging in the developed world that is demanding drastic emissions cuts. Led by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish school girl demanding immediate action on climate change, thousands of school pupils in Europe have started abandoning classrooms since late last year, for a day every month, to protest against climate change. Extinction Rebellion, an international movement demanding radical changes, locked-down central London for ten days. Their protest forced the United Kingdom parliament to declare a national climate emergency.

Activists are now working with governments — from local to national — to declare climate emergency and come out with plans to end the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that is heating the planet. Scotland has already declared a climate emergency and is setting targets to reduce GHG emissions to net-zero by 2045. The New Zealand parliament is likely to vote soon on this issue.

But what about India? Is there a groundswell of public opinion in favour of drastic action on climate emergency? Unfortunately, no. There is a little recognition of climate emergency itself.  The environmental non-profits and think tanks are stuck in the politics of developed vs. developing countries and are busy in the blame game. The bureaucracy likes nothing better than status quo and our political masters have a little understanding of the issue. Their level of seriousness can be gauged by the fact that during the entire 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign, the term “climate change” was not even uttered by one of our top political leaders.

But there is a climate emergency and it is better we recognise this quickly. Just look at the extreme weather conditions in the last one month in different parts of India:

  • The east coast was hit by Cyclone Fani in beginning of May. Because of the exceptionally good predictions by the India Meteorological Department (IMD), we saved thousands of lives. But the economic loss caused by Fani in Odisha is estimated to be in excess of Rs 50,000 crore. It will take Odisha many years to reconstruct and bring back people out of poverty.
  • Maharashtra and Karnataka are reeling under drought, with 80 per cent of the districts in Karnataka and 72 per cent in Maharashtra suffering from water scarcity and crop failure.
  • Heatwave gripped different parts of the country and claimed lives in states like Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Telangana and Maharashtra.
  • Dust and thunderstorms swept through west, central and north India as a major weather disturbance pummeled the region, claiming the lives of at least 64 people (the same number as Cyclone Fani), a majority of them in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

These are going to get worse as the global temperature rise inches towards 1.5°C in a few years.   As I have written before, India is going to be the worst sufferer of the climate catastrophe. It is, therefore, in our interest to take the lead in reducing emissions and in building resilience in our economy, infrastructure and ecosystems to withstand the onslaught of the changing climate and its extreme impacts.

As a new government takes office in the next few days, it is imperative that it recognises the climate emergency and takes serious measures to address it. These are some of the key actions that the new government must take if it wants to seriously address the climate emergency:

  1. Move to electricity: Electricity currently meet less than 20 per cent of our final energy consumption. The remaining 80 per cent is met by direct burning of fuels, mostly fossil fuels, in industry, transport and for cooking food. We must put a roadmap to meet at least 80 per cent of our final energy needs in the form of electricity. This will mean that we will have to shift industry, transport and cooking to electricity. This has an added benefit of reducing air pollution significantly.
  2. De-carbonise the electricity sector: The electricity sector is at a critical juncture. The falling cost of renewable power and grid-scale storage point us to the fact that a 100 per cent renewable-based electricity supply is technically and economically feasible in the not-too-distant future. The country needs an ambitious goal to generate 100 per cent electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2050.
  3. Protect ecosystems: Our protection lies in the protection of all ecosystems. A healthy and vibrant ecosystem — from mangroves to forests to floodplains to rivers to land — will build our resilience to withstand the worst impacts of climate catastrophe.
  4. Institute safety nets: Millions of people will lose their crops, homes and businesses every year because of extreme weather events. There is an urgent need to put affordable and effective safety nets to save them from total ruins. For this, safety nets like agriculture insurance, home and business insurance or other compensation programmes must be strengthen.
  5. Monitor, Forecast and Warn: The changing weather pattern will require massive investments in forecasting and warning systems. From agro-meteorological advisory to warn farmers about inclement weather to predicting cyclones and extreme rainfalls, forecasting and warning systems will go a long way in saving lives and building resilience in our economy.

Lastly, but most importantly, let us recognise that climate emergency is real and happening and let us take this message to all and build a groundswell of opinion in favour of real action to prevent climate catastrophe.

Chandra Bhushan is Deputy Director General, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.