Expert Speak Young Voices
Published on Aug 07, 2019
Climate Change: An issue of the present

The displacement of millions in Assam and Bihar due to flooding while 41% of the country remains “abnormally dry” is a paradox that is alarming, yet not unexpected. While it is difficult to pinpoint climate change as the sole cause for any one instance of abnormal weather patterns, weather trends (rising temperatures, decline in rainfall, extreme weather patterns) indicate that the effects of excessive CO2 emitted into our atmosphere are already underway. This will continue to worsen unless multilateral action is taken, a task that has proven to be extremely challenging as evidenced by last month’s G20 summit. As leaders from countries responsible for 80% of global emissions convened, climate change, ironically, was the last issue settled. Even then, the agreement was simply another declaration of commitment to implement the 2015 Paris Accord, despite G20 nations being significantly behind in their commitments towards capping global temperature increases to 2℃ and their promised contributions to the Green Climate Fund.

As international action on climate change continues to be a showcase of good intention rather than tangible action, many countries have faced measurable repercussions due to the effects of this phenomenon. A study conducted by Stanford University’s Department of Earth System Science has attempted to measure the effects of anthropogenic climate forcing on GDP Per Capita by country. Their results are disquieting, indicating that a disproportionate impact on GDP is harming some regions while benefitting others.

Temperature and GDP have a parabolic relationship. Warming temperatures can benefit growth in countries located in higher latitudes and cooler climates, as agricultural yields and worker productivity both benefit in comfortably warmer temperatures. The opposite is also true, anthropogenic climate forcing has already harmed economic growth in countries in lower latitudes and warmer climates (Fig 1).

Figure 1: Country Level Economic Impact of Historic Global Warming

By creating a model for temperature trends from 1968-2010 and comparing GDP growth under observed temperatures and the counterfactual model<1>, we can look at the effects of climate change on the global economy. The study finds, with high likelihood, that warming temperatures have resulted in slowed GDP growth in lower latitude countries, with “median losses exceeding 25% for the 1961-2010 period over large swaths of the tropics and subtropics.” Warmer climate countries are also generally less developed and have relatively lower contributions to CO2 emissions in both per capita and historical emission figures than their developed Western counterparts. According to the same report, the 18 countries with historical emissions less than 10 metric tons CO2 per capita have all suffered negative economic impacts, with a median impact of -27% on GDP growth. Conversely, 14 of the 19 countries who have historical emissions that exceed 300 metric tons CO2 per capita have economically benefitted from global warming, their median impact being +13%. Year to year incremental increases in temperature seem insignificant in the present, but over time are demonstrably weighing on the world. This penalizes warmer developing countries while benefiting those northern and developed nations who share a greater historic responsibility for the accumulation of CO2 in our atmosphere. While the increase in urbanization, presence of foreign trade, and economic development in these countries during this period has reduced economic sensitivity to temperature, it is still “very likely” that global warming has been detrimental to the global development process. India’s GDP is estimated to be 31% smaller than it would be in the absence of global warming. India is only responsible for seven percent of total global emissions, yet is facing the effects in greater strength and faster speed than both the United States and the EU. This is important to note not only for pushing for the concept of “Common but Differentiated Responsibility,” as India has championed in global climate policy, but also to use its status as a rising economic power to push developed nations into meeting their emission and development funding initiatives.

Climate and temperature variations will have its most direct effect on agricultural yields. With Indian agriculture composing 18% of the GDP and providing the livelihood for about 50% of the population, we must look at the effects of temperature increase and climate unpredictability on this sector. Agriculture output has been volatile for over a decade now, and the resulting income insecurity on impoverished farmers has sent shockwaves across the country, with thousands of farmers committing suicide every year. Determining what exactly is responsible for this grim statistic is a highly contested topic and a variety of different factors are certainly at play. However, research indicates that increases in temperature during the growing season has a strong positive correlation with farmer suicides. On days above 20℃, a 1-degree increase in a single day during the growing season can account for 67 additional suicides, amounting to a 3.5% increase in the suicide rate per standard deviation increase in temperature exposure. The same increase during the non-growing season has had no discernable impact on suicide rates, indicating that damage to crops due to heat, by increasing economic pressure on farming households, is what leads to the increase in the suicide rate.

Figure 2: Relationship between Suicide Rate and Temperature

Analysis of the impacts of the same temperature increase shows corresponding decline in agricultural yields as well. This further indicates that “variations in temperature affect suicide rates through their influence over agricultural outputs.” There is also the presence of lagged effects that last for around five years, meaning an increase in temperature during one season and the resulting decrease in yields, can affect suicide rates positively for five years after its occurrence. The worst of this problem occurs in the states ofKarnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, where temperature has had significant negative impacts on yield, leading to a severe response in the suicide rate as well. The report estimates that since 1980, nearly 60,000 suicides are attributed to warming temperatures, accounting for almost seven percent of the national upward trend in suicide rates.

Estimates project national temperatures to increase in excess of 3℃ by the end of the century. The Economic Survey for 2017-2018 had dedicated a chapter to the effects of climate change on agriculture. While supply shortages will undoubtedly lead to a rise in crop pricing, the increase will still not be enough to offset the overall economic loss felt by farmers. Hypothetically, in a year where the temperature is 1 degree higher, farmer incomes would decrease by 6% and 6.2% in the Kharif and Rabi seasons respectively.

Figure 3: Impact of Weather Shocks on Agricultural Yields (response in percentage decline)

Additionally, extreme rainfall patterns, both in number of days with less than .1mm of rainfall and over 80mm of rainfall has been on the rise since 1970.  In a year where rainfall levels are 100mm less than average farmer income would decrease by 15% in Kharif and 7% in Rabi. The effects of extreme temperature change and rainfall on agricultural yields are shown below:

Figure 4: Effects of Temperature on Yield

These effects are significantly worse in unirrigated areas, which makes up 52% of the land used for agriculture in India. The situation will be further exacerbated by climate change driven water scarcity and groundwater depletion, presenting additional challenges in attempts to increase the ratio of irrigated farmland.

This article details the effects of only certain aspects of climate change onto one sector of the economy. Increased demand for energy, massive urban migration, rising sea levels, resource shortage, the vulnerability of food production, and various other challenges are approaching within the next few decades. Even if India manages to accomplish the impossible and cut its carbon emissions to near zero by 2050, climate change is a global phenomenon and cooperative global action is needed to mitigate the effects. The United States still emits over twice as much as what India does in a year, yet India faces far more urgent and dire consequences due to this impending existential crisis. For this reason, there needs to be full-fledged and widespread risk assessment and adaptation planning. Dealing with simultaneous events of water scarcity as well as severe flooding will stress and test the ability of national response measures. Parched cities or flood destruction will hamper the health and well-being, as well as the economic productivity of the population. Initiatives such as the creation of Jal Shakti and the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana program possess immense importance and may provide the structure to address such polar concerns simultaneously. With a workforce heavily dependent on agriculture, much needs to be done in the context of a changing environment. Both droughts and floods devastate crops and soil, hurting not only immediate yields but the long-term ability to grow as well. Technological revolutions in agriculture will be necessary to reduce losses in yields and income for farmers. Research and development, as well as the implementation of existing scientific advancements towards genetically modified seeds or nonconventional growing methods may help reduce or even prevent further damage burdened upon farmers. As water bodies diminish, threatening arable land, the calculation and attribution of specific monetary values to natural resources such as reservoirs and farmland may help actors visualize the importance of protecting what exists. Finally, exerting economic and political pressure on the international community, specifically towards developed countries, to fulfill commitments of aid and funding is of tremendous importance. To do this, the full magnitude of the eminent threat needs to be acknowledged and acted upon by the G20, as the purported leaders of the world. As each second ticks in the absence of prudent climate policy, the economies these leaders serve to foster and the populations they serve to protect are increasingly endangered. The consequences of inaction will manifest sooner than many expect.

<1> Counter Factual Model: determining global temperatures in the absence of CO2 emissions during this time period

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