Alarmist Climate Narratives


The New York Magazine article on “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells has raised eyebrows within the scientific and policy circles, as the author’s propositions on various doomsday scenarios are being considered not only alarmist but also unfounded. The article itself presents a whole range of predictions based on a single premise that if the world does not do anything or does very little to prevent climate change, it is doomed to be destroyed by the forces of the omnipotent ‘Nature’.


First, to sum up the article, it describes mass extinctions due to climate change by the end of the century; ice cracks in Antarctica; inundation of Miami and Bangladesh; people dying of extreme heat conditions and heat stress; famines caused by severe drought; climate plagues or re-emergence of ancient diseases owing to the release of bugs, bacteria and viruses stored during yesteryears by thawing of permafrost and ice; an “airpocalypse” in some parts of the world like China; conflicts over resources and permanent economic collapse as capitalism fails to save the world from global warming; poisoning of oceans by ocean acidification; and many more such scenarios.


This is neither the first time that these scenarios are being talked about with facts and sources to back them up, nor the first attempt by someone to jolt various stakeholders, including epistemic communities, into climate action. In the past as well, many articles and books like Gwynne Dyer’s “Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats” have been published. Interestingly, not only climate deniers and sceptics disapprove of such literature, but even the climate scientists do not endorse it unequivocally. The reason why it fails to get receptivity is that most scientists and policy-makers believe that such efforts often turn out to be unproductive and sometimes even counter-productive, as the credibility of climate science itself comes into question. Moreover, when people have no hope, it would discourage them further from taking any productive action.


David Wallace-Wells’ article has also invited a series of criticisms from the established scientists and scientific groups. In fact, the article takes a dig at climate scientists for being reticent in publishing their research and continuously wallowing in the language of uncertainties, which according to him is partly responsible for the lack of preparedness in facing climate change. On the other hand, in response to the New York Magazine article, many counter-narratives have sprung up; and the majority of them question the scientific basis of many assertions made by the author, including the claim that the thawing of permafrost would result in spewing out of all of its methane and accelerate global warming many more times than at any point in history.


The objective is undoubtedly to paint a scary picture and not allow our lack of imagination to prevent us from thinking of the worst-case scenarios. This point is well-taken as until the uncertainties on how climate change affects the earth system exist, these scenarios cannot be ruled out completely either. The timing of the article is also noteworthy here. The Trump administration in the US has brought the climate debate back to square one, as one had come to believe that climate scepticism had mostly faded out, especially after the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015. Hence, the article has been published at a time when the need for defeating climate scepticism has again gained traction.


Limitations of Climate Policy


Another controversial issue broached upon in the article is ‘geoengineering’. As of now, the debate on geoengineering is highly polarised – with “abolitionists” against all research in the field; and “reckless adventurers” against any control on experimentation. The abolitionists have argued that geoengineering projects could have unexpected consequences such as regional climate change, ozone depletion, ocean acidification and so on. Some of the geoengineering methods could be tremendously expensive too; for instance, the annual cost to inject 1 Tg of aerosols into the stratosphere, including ammunition, gun barrels, stations, and personnel, is estimated to be $20,000,000,000. Moreover, if this technology is used for military purposes, then it would be a violation of the UN Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques.


Many articles concerning regularising research and development in geoengineering have been published in this decade, due to the increasingly intensifying conviction that climate mitigation cannot solely prevent climate change. However, the proposed recommendations and regulations are founded largely on technical criteria. The risks involved in geoengineering are more political and social in nature than physical, which require greater engagement with governance mechanisms.


The conflict between climate science and policy and divisions within the two are signifiers of the problems of scale and intensity of the problem. Climate change is not an issue that needs to be resolved; it can only be managed. Moreover, climate change is more a symptom than a problem. There is very little understanding of how the effects of climate change can be entirely eliminated. Even if climate change had not been happening, changes in other environmental systems that are commonly bracketed with climate change such as water, food, energy and land related challenges would continue to wreak havoc and could bring the same scenarios listed in the New York Magazine’s article into reality.


India’s Future Intertwined with Climate Change


Where does India stand on climate science and policy? Under the current circumstances, India has realised that when it comes to climate change, it has to start preparing itself for various scenarios. This is the reason why the Government has commissioned three think tanks to “project a long-term low carbon growth trajectory for India” in its preparation to achieve the targets set under the purview of the Paris Agreement. These efforts would complement India’s mitigation policy. However, as far as impacts are concerned, there continue to be uncertainties with regard to influence of climate change on India’s southwest monsoon, the Himalayan glaciers, the 7,500 long Indian coastline and one of world’s greatest hotspots, the Western Ghats.


There are many scientific studies that have looked into climate change-related impacts based on models, which provide an assessment of the impacts of climate change on agricultural productivity (food security), water security, biodiversity, coastal communities and health. Most of them have pointed towards rising temperatures, unpredictable and varying precipitation patterns, and increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, but the relationship is not linear or direct in all cases. For instance, much needs to be studied on the level of melting of glaciers in the Himalayas and its impact on the glacier-fed river systems of the Indo-Gangetic plain. Some of these changes have already begun to unfold in India, so much so that intra-state migration owing to climate change, in the form of rural-to-urban migration and migration from coastal areas and islands, has also been recorded in the past decade. There has been a drastic spike in the number of deaths caused by heat strokes as well as cases of pulmonary health disorders (due to ozone or other types of air pollution). The dependence of India’s agriculture on the monsoons is a well-established fact and recurring droughts in various parts of the country due to deficient rainfall has also posed serious challenges to food and economic security. Sea level rise and storm surges are already being held responsible for the ingression of seawater into several coastal areas and even submergence of islands. With food-energy-water nexus being the central challenge for India, water stress would seriously affect the operations of power plants, whether it is hydro or thermal ones.


One sentence is not enough to describe the enormity of each of these challenges (and many more) that India confronts. Indiscriminate deforestation, resource overuse, land subsidence, ground water depletion, overfishing, stress on urban infrastructure, unplanned developmental activities in environmental fragile areas, degraded farmland and so on are other challenges that India faces; and these are not directly caused by climate change. As a case in point, the common understanding is that use of fossil fuels leads to carbon emissions, thereby resulting in climate change and disasters. However, this equation will just not hold water if one has to devise solutions to prevent or reduce the risk of environmental disasters, considering reduced use of fossil fuels will most certainly not result in vastly decreased number of natural disasters.


India undoubtedly needs to dedicate greater amount of resources for climate science research so that these interrelationships can be studied nationally and appropriate adaptation measures be implemented. Well-intentioned adaptation programmes could even result in maladaptation and unintended consequences. Such risks should be minimised to the greatest extent possible. At the same time, environmental risks are multifaceted and they could be best managed by foolproof environmental risk assessment and management, a process that involves planners, insurers, law enforcers and many others who could design appropriate tools for assessing environmental risks and implement measures to mitigate them. Therefore, it is pertinent to not only focus on environmental change rather than just climate change, but also ensure that any development-related project or initiative complies with the myriad environmental laws of the country at all stages.


In a nutshell, while many environmental problems will persist even without climate change, what needs to be understood is that they need to be tackled holistically, taking into account the climate factors that have long-term implications. The greater the scientific uncertainty regarding the causal links and impact interactions, the more the world needs to gear up for the worst-case scenarios. This is perhaps what David Wallace-Wells intends to emphasise in his article too. The challenge is to tread the desirable path when it comes to policy and not be driven by sheer imagination, which could be disastrous in a completely different way.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.