Climate Change and Security

India’s Uphill Battle Against Climate Change

Climate change can either propel India to a leading position in the world or cripple the country from continuing to develop and reemerge. From the risks that make the country vulnerable to the SDGs that reflect the national circumstance, India cannot ignore climate change.


THE DICHOTOMY OF THE DEVELOPED WORLD versus the developing world is marred with controversies, especially as developing countries continue to face uphill challenges. One of the most notable challenges to a developing country is combatting the increase of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which were admittedly caused by the developed world. Amidst global pressure to reduce emissions, developing countries like India are faced with a multifaceted challenge. The country must not only effectively combat the threat climate change poses, which India is actively combatting through mitigation and adaptation, but it must also work to control other factors that could amplify the effects of climate change.

Ambassador Shiv Shankar Menon, a distinguished fellow at Brookings India, stated that climate change in India is considered a national security threat and the middle class is actively working to increase awareness surrounding it. But, if India is a developing country and does not have historical responsibility to cut GHG emissions, why does the country care? Historical responsibility sparked the climate change debate in the 1990s and is a profound component of the ongoing debate. Developed countries were the first GHG emitters, and therefore, have a historical responsibility to mitigate the issue that is causing the earth’s climate to change at an unprecedented speed. However, the irony is that the developed countries will not experience the worst consequences of climate change. Instead, the developing countries, such as India, will be at the mercy of stronger storms, hotter heat waves, longer droughts, and increasingly insecure food and water.

Therefore, the next step forward is mitigation and adaption. Despite the situation, India does not view itself as the victim, but rather as an innovative leader. In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, he emphasized to the world that climate change is a global threat. This comes in the wake of US President Donald Trump announcing his national security strategy that does not mention climate change as a security threat. But India is incrementally filling the leadership gap through its innovation.

Ambassador Amar Sinha, a distinguished fellow at Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), pointed out that India leads on frugal innovation. Rather than waiting for the developed countries to fulfill their duty to cut emissions, Dr. Jairam Ramesh, Member of Parliament, commented that India has to build its own capacity to deal with climate change. India sees this as an opportunity rather than a challenge to its development. Dr. Vaibhav Chaturvedi, Research Fellow at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), explained that the government wants to ensure there are no climate constraints on India’s development, and  instead, is pursuing a sustainable approach that will still benefit the environment. In the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), the government connected development objectives with climate change objectives on adaptation and mitigation. India, in comparison to many other states, is attempting to lead developing and developed countries with its climate-resilient development strategies that will be sustainable for the future.

Traditionally, India’s view on climate change was indifferent because they did not understand the effects of GHG emissions. But that changed when India, among many other developing countries, realized they will be affected first by the consequences of climate change. In the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, a report based on a national survey taken in 2011, found that “a majority of respondents said their own household’s drinking water and food supply, health, and income are vulnerable to severe drought or flood and that it would take them months to years to recover”.

Climate change is not only about a warming planet, but also more frequent and extreme weather, an effect India is seeing firsthand. Explained in the Climate Change and India: Adaptation Gap (2015) report, “India has experienced substantial changes in mean and extreme climate during the period of 1951-2013. For instance, mean annual air temperature has increased in many regions of the country”. During the same time period, precipitation levels during the monsoon season dropped leading to droughts with 2002, 2009, and 2015 among the most severe. Although the statistics provided in the report end with 2013, the same risks are still of concern for near term threats. These conditions stated above cause concern for food and water security. There is also a large portion of the population dependent on the agriculture sector, which relies on the monsoon season. Droughts not only create concern for food security, but for flooding as well. When the land is exposed for prolonged periods to hot weather, it becomes very arid. This means when it rains, the dry ground will not be able to absorb the water and flooding will occur. The physical risks also include the long coastline where infrastructure is vulnerable to flooding, sea level rise, and cyclones.

Overall, India’s NAPCC explains that India’s economy relies on natural resources and climate-sensitive sectors, such as agriculture, water, and forestry, which is why climate change is a threat now and will continue to be in the future. It is noteworthy to mention that although India ranks as the world’s 4th largest polluter, the effects of climate change India is currently experiencing is from the GHG emissions of the developed countries. Speculation suggests that the long term threats will be exacerbated by the extra emissions in the atmosphere from an increase in the amount of countries developing.

It is further important for India to respond to this threat relates to the four SDGs prioritized by India, which are hunger, water, poverty, and education. These four goals reflect the national circumstances and deficiencies because if the country is not resilient to the changing weather patterns, their most vulnerable areas will be impacted, which will harm the economy. Lt. Gen. Prakash Menon succinctly described the national security strategy by highlighting its focus on economic development in a secure environment that will enable these SDGs to flourish.

India continues to face challenges in terms of food and water security on a regular basis.  14.5% of the country’s population is undernourished and 190.7 million people face hunger every day, a problem that will be further exacerbated with climate change limiting access to food. Similar to food security, water security is a concern in India that is inflamed by climate change. Lt. Gen. Prakash Menon declared water a permanent issue. He elaborated that many rivers are polluted and water management systems need repair whereas water tables have dropped drastically, which the agricultural sector is dependent on it. He added there are external tensions concerning water with Pakistan and China, internal tensions where Punjab previously denied water access to Haryana, and northern parts of India are already water starved due to misuse and overuse.

The issues of food and water security are further compounded by the country’s poverty levels. The World Bank Group determined one in five Indians are poor and 80% of the penurious live in rural areas. Many of the Indians that are hungry are also poor, which elevates their vulnerability to climate change. With poverty comes the additional burden of accessible education; in India, the accessibility along with the quality has decreased significantly. Despite free primary education, a right to education, and a 94% increase in enrollment in the last five years, Dr. Shamika Ravi, Senior Fellow at Brookings India, described the quality as poor. Not only can education alleviate hunger and water issues and resolve poverty, but it can make the country resilient to climate change.

Climate change can either propel India to a leading position in the world or cripple the country from continuing to develop and reemerge. From the risks that make the country vulnerable to the SDGs that reflect the national circumstance, India cannot ignore climate change. India did not choose to change the climate, but the droughts, heat waves, floods, and exacerbated cyclones will be something the country will have to face. The bright side is that the government and think tanks acknowledge the threat and are taking action, which is the first and foremost step in combatting climate change.

Heather Hollow is a candidate for a Master of Science in Global Affairs at New York University. She is focusing on Transnational Security, specifically looking at traditional and non-traditional security threats.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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