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Why Climate Change Needs to Be an Election Issue in India

India is among the worst hit by climate change, however it has not featured prominently as an election issue. This has to change, say scientists.
Representative image of a heat wave. Photo: Eric/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0

Palakkad: With hotter climes, recurring heat waves and rapidly melting glaciers, Asia is the most disaster-prone region in the world, as per the ‘State of Climate in Asia 2023’ report released on April 23 by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). Floods and storms caused the highest number of reported casualties and economic losses in Asia during 2023. At the same time, the impact of heatwaves also became more severe, according to the new report.

India features prominently in the list of countries impacted by climate change in Asia: from the heatwaves that swept across the country killing more than 100 people, to the bursting of the Teesta III dam in Sikkim. The report’s main take-aways therefore make the environmental election demands put forward recently by environmentalist, social and rights groups in the light of climate change even more pertinent.

But even though climate change is directly impacting India and its people, it is still not an election issue. This needs to change, climate scientists say.

As glaciers melt, water hazards threaten millions 

With human-induced climate change, the year that passed was the warmest ever in the history of the world. For parts of Asia too, this held true, as per the ‘State of Climate in Asia 2023’ report released on April 23 by WMO.

In 2023, the mean temperature over Asia was almost a whole degree Celsius – 0.91 °C – higher than the 1991–2020 reference period, the second highest ever for the region. Several countries in Asia experienced extreme heat events that year. 

India was one of them. 

The severe heat waves that swept across north and central India in April and June last year, for instance, killed 110 people, the WMO report noted. And science predicts that it’s only going to get worse. In May last year, climate scientists part of the World Weather Attribution group found that human-induced climate change made the April heat wave across India and Bangladesh 30 times more likely. 

As per a report released by the India Meteorological Department in April last year, the duration of heatwaves in India has increased by about 2.5 days between 1961 and 2021 due to global warming. The warming in Asia is consistent with what last year’s WMO State of the Climate in Asia report found: that Asia is warming up faster than the rest of the world. The warming trend in Asia in 1991-2022 was almost double the warming trend during the 1961-1990 period, and much larger than the trends of the previous 30 years.

A rapidly warming Asia is bad news for its glaciers. During 2022-23, 20 out of 22 glaciers that scientists observed in the High Mountain Asia region showed continued negative mass changes, the latest WMO report on Asia noted. Glaciers in this region have been losing significant mass over the past 40 years “at an accelerating rate”, per the report. One of the reasons is record-breaking high temperatures and dry conditions in the Eastern Himalaya, among others.

That’s how the Teesta III dam in Sikkim burst in October last year: due to the melting of the glacier that feeds South Lhonak lake, which lies upstream of the dam. The Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) killed more than 100 people, and more than 70 people are still missing. 

“This type of disaster is increasingly observed because of climate change-induced glacier retreat and highlights the compounding and cascading risks faced by vulnerable mountain communities,” the latest WMO report noted. “Glacial lakes formed by retreating glaciers, exemplified by the reduced expanse of South Lhonak Lake, pose threats that are transboundary, spanning across regions in Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan.”

Also read: Earth’s Changing Climate

Warming oceans, erratic rainfall

Sea surface temperatures in oceans around Asia have also increased since 1982, the report highlighted. 

“The South Asian subcontinent is covered on all three sides by the fastest warming tropical ocean and the melting Himalayan glaciers on the north,” said Roxy Mathew Koll, climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (Pune). “This has made the region a poster child of climate change. Tropical weather systems develop quickly, are fast moving and small, which makes them unpredictable. Climate change has made the weather much more uncertain and disastrous.”

As the waters of the Indian Ocean warm up, it supplies more heat and moisture for weather systems to intensify, Koll noted. 

“The number of cyclones in the Arabian Sea has increased by 50% during the last four decades, and more extremely severe cyclones like Tauktae and Amphan are projected to form in the future. The monsoon that sources its energy and moisture from the Indian Ocean has become more erratic, with short spells of heavy rains and long dry periods, causing floods and dry seasons in the same season.”

In 2023, many parts of Asia witnessed huge deficits in rainfall: from the Turan Lowland (in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) to the Hindu Kush (in Afghanistan and Pakistan), as well as the Himalayas — around the river Ganga and its floodplains, and the lower tracts of the river Brahmaputra (in both India and Bangladesh). Rains associated with the Indian summer monsoon were also “insufficient”, the WMO report noted.

On the other hand, many areas witnessed surplus rains as well – in Myanmar, Korea, Yemen, and of course, some parts of India. In June last year, cyclone Biparjoy brought excess rainfall in northwest India, but also sucked moisture-laden winds from south, central and east India, causing a rain deficit that magnified the heat wave in these regions.

The WMO report noted how intense monsoon rains in July and August led to landslides in many regions, including in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

“Triggered by heavy rainfall, the disaster compounded the effects of an earlier monsoon surge in June,” the report read. “The Indian government declared a state of emergency in the worst-affected areas, initiating rescue and relief operations. The Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) sought support from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), highlighting the need for continued aid and intervention to address the long-term impact on communities.”

In 2023, over 80% of reported hydro-meteorological hazards in Asia were flood and storm events. Overall, the 79 reported hydro-meteorological hazard events that year caused more than 2,000 fatalities and impacted more than 9 million people in Asia, per the report. 

India’s disaster management systems lag behind

Per the WMO report, data in the Global Status of Multi-Hazard Early Warning Systems 2023 shows that only half of the world’s countries have an early warning system in place. 

In Asia, India is one of the only 21 countries to have reported the status of its early warning system on the Sendai Framework Monitoring, which is an online database for UN member states to track the country’s progress in disaster risk reduction, assess trends and patterns of hazards and also develop disaster risk reduction strategies, among others. 

But we still have a lot to improve on.

Of the four indicators that are part of the multi-hazard early warning system (disaster risk knowledge, observations and forecasting, dissemination and communication, and preparedness to respond), India fared very high (~0.9 out of 1) in preparedness to respond to disasters. In observation and forecasting India scored just below average (~0.55). Overall it had a composite score of less than 0.4, again, just below the average for Asia. The composite score measures the overall progress on availability of and access to a multi-hazard early warning system.

However India did not report a score for two of the four pillars: risk knowledge, and warning and dissemination. Sreejith O.P. of the India Meteorological Department and a lead author in the WMO report told The New Indian Express that there is a lack of last-mile connectivity to warn and disseminate early warning messages, but that the IMD was working on it.

Climate change has to become an election issue

But despite so many impacts of climate change on people, it is still not an election issue in South Asian countries, said Koll. 

“Though climate change is directly affecting a large share of the population, it is still not a decisive factor in elections – not even a point of discussion. This has to change, and we need policymakers who are aware and ready to address the challenges that South Asia is facing.”

India is no exception. 

“Despite the fact that India is facing an extreme event almost every day, and that we’re witnessing the heat upfront through the election season, affecting ministers, candidates, and citizens, climate change is not a point of discussion in the elections,” he told The Wire. “And that is disappointing since we need urgent action in terms of policies. We need representatives in the parliament who are aware of the changing climate and are ready to take up the daunting challenge of climate action and adaptation.”

According to Koll, the positive is that this time the India Meteorology Department, the National Disaster Management Agency, and the Election Commission are working together to bring down the impact of heat on the public and the election process itself, through various measures and awareness programs. The most recent include erecting shamiyanas at election booths, ensuring drinking water, fans, and other assured minimum facilities, as per the Election Commission’s advisory of March 16. On April 25, a day before Phase 2 of the election began, the Election Commission extended polling time by two hours in four constituencies in Bihar (now, from 7 am to 6 pm) — Banka, Madhepura, Khagaria and Munger — to ease polling due to heat wave conditions in these areas.

Koll said that urgent mitigation and adaptation measures — based on a rigorous assessment of threats at a very granular level — are the need of the hour, especially with many South Asian countries conducting national elections this year. 

Some of India’s major national parties have touched on tackling climate change in their manifestos. 

The Congress’s election manifesto, for instance, dedicates an entire chapter to the environment, titled “Environment, Climate Change and Disaster Management”. Among the 13 aspects listed here include some pertaining directly to tackling climate change. These include constituting an independent Environment Protection and Climate Change Authority “to establish, monitor and enforce environmental standards and to enforce the National and State Climate Change plans”; appointing a high-level committee to study the issue of landslides in hill districts and develop measures to prevent them; increase the allocation to the National Adaptation Fund; and transition from the National Action Plan on Climate Change of 2008 to a “National Climate Resilience Development Mission to ensure that all sectors of development provide protocols for action and measurable targets”. 

Many guarantees to meet

The BJP’s manifesto talks of prime minister Narendra Modi’s guarantees to make India “sustainable”. These include achieving the target of a carbon sink by enhancing the tree cover, launching a “Green Aravalli Project” (a green corridor to protect and preserve biodiversity in the region and combat desertification), increasing non-fossil fuel capacity and launching a National Atmospheric Mission called “Mausam” “to make Bharat “weather ready” and “climate smart””.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CIP(M)’s manifesto aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions via economy-wide measures, enabling a just transition from fossil fuels and promoting renewable energy, reported Carbon Brief.

But how much of these guarantees will be met? That’s an answer that will unravel only in June, when the winning alliance or party is announced, and they begin to work towards implementing their promises. For the BJP though, there’s a clear history of going back on its promises — as it did in the case of Ladakh, which now has the entire union territory in a protesting uproar.

The BJP has listed in its 2024 manifesto that it will protect Himalayan ecology (including developing a “holistic” approach to disaster mitigation and strengthening resilience in the region). However, the party — which is currently in power at the centre — has paid no heed to the climate protest that has been ongoing in Ladakh for almost two months now.

Thousands of Ladakhis, led by educationist and climate activist Sonam Wangchuk and local leaders, are taking part in hunger strikes to draw the BJP’s attention to fulfil the guarantees it promised for the last elections – of implementing the Sixth Schedule, and conferring statehood to the union territory.

Also read: Ladakh Protest: Sonam Wangchuk Ends Fast After 21 Days, Passes Baton to Others

These moves, the protestors say, will help more people from the local community have a bigger say in deciding whether to implement projects that threaten the region’s environment and fragile ecology, which are at high threat due to climate change. However, the protest is on its 51st day  and there is no sign that the BJP will relent.

Instead, the union government has tried to curtail the movement of people in Ladakh by imposing prohibitory orders under Section 144 to prevent them from undertaking a peaceful walk to the Indo-China border. The INDIA alliance, meanwhile, has promised to implement the Sixth Schedule to protect the region’s ecology, Wangchuk said in one of his recent daily updates on the protest. 

Keeping promises, clearly, mean everything for people when it comes to leaders showing concern about, and dealing with, climate change. One easy adaptation action that can help people deal with climate change is to time elections better – and not in peak summer – when the probability of heat waves are far higher. The first phase of India’s ongoing Lok Sabha elections showed a lower turnout than expected: the voter turnout was 65.5% in 102 seats, a drop of 4.4% when compared to the elections in 2019. Phase 2 of the current elections begun on April 26 and while the turnout during this phase too will tell us more, could the heat be causing a lower voter turnout?

“Yes, I think there is some impact on the elections,” Koll told The Wire. “They have extended voting hours in some booths considering this. January-February may be the best time for elections considering that the weather is less extreme across most of India.”

WMO’s State of Climate Asia report is yet again a “stark reminder that risk profiles are fast evolving and changing”, commented Abinash Mohanty, Climate Scientist and Sector Head- Climate Change and Sustainability, IPE Global, in a press release. “The need for hyper-granular risk assessment to better manage the hazards and their impacts is even more imperative.”

The efforts of countries like India to map, plan and adapt better to these climate extremities need a “renewed focus to create an enabling environment to brings these innovations from margins to mainstream that can generate jobs, support growth and foster sustainability at a hyper-local level”, Mohanty added.

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