India's Urgent Need for Climate Adaptation Measures

The highly anticipated report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) directly linking climate change and extreme weather was released on Friday.  This report follows last month’s release of a statement from medical experts worldwide warning that climate change, and its resulting extreme weather, poses the “greatest threat to public health.” Both studies find that developing countries like India will face greater exposure to more frequent and extreme weather events, and their populations are more vulnerable to the devastating effects. These findings underscore the urgent need for India to implement climate adaptation measures like the pilot heat health early warning system in the city of Ahmedabad.

According to the IPCC report:

  • the frequency of peak temperatures will increase;
  • heat waves will increase in length, frequency, and intensity;
  • droughts may intensify; and
  • monsoon rains and flooding may magnify (though these complex changes are difficult to predict).

The statement released by more than 100 medical and military professionals warns of the effects of rising temperatures and weather instability, including loss of habitat, water and food shortages, spread of disease, and the potential resulting mass migrations. With 2.5 million people forced to flee their homes during flooding in September 2009, natural disaster displacements in India are already a reality. These professionals urge policymakers to adopt concrete climate mitigation measures to limit the expected toll on human health, particularly poor populations, and the resulting economic and security costs.

Due to India’s vulnerability to these intensifying weather events, another recent scientific report by Maplecroft, a British firm specializing in risk analysis, found that India faces an ‘extreme’ risk from climate change. As Charlie Beldon, co-author of the Maplecroft study, observed, “Vulnerability to climate change has the potential to undermine future development, particularly in India.”

While programs aimed at climate mitigation are imperative to address global warming’s root causes, a parallel focus on climate adaptation is urgently needed to reduce global warming’s immediate effects. The IPCC report highlights climate adaptation and risk management measures to protect vulnerable populations from extreme weather.

My colleagues Anjali Jaiswal and Kim Knowlton are spearheading efforts by NRDC’s India Initiative, in collaboration with Ahmedabad’s local government, to prepare and protect its residents from the deadly heat waves already affecting India. These efforts include implementation of an innovative heat health early warning system. This pilot program has made impressive strides to build the local community’s awareness of, and resilience to, the increasingly extreme weather affecting Ahmedabad.  OnEarth Magazine’s account by George Black of the current inability of other local governments to respond to destructive health and economic effects of extreme weather underscores how much more needs to be done in India.

Helping local populations adapt to the current and intensifying extreme climate events is vital to weather the effects of climate change as we continue efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Together, climate adaptation and mitigation efforts can help reduce the devastating consequences of climate change moving forward.