The climate crisis could spell the end of the world for many underprivileged, who have low capacity to adapt to the changes. The fact that all climate indicators are in the red makes climate scientists like Roxy Mathew Koll anxious about sharing them. Climate meetings like the one that starts on Monday in Germany’s Bonn put climate scientists and most of their recommendations in the back seat, said Koll, who is a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. As someone who studies atmospheric and oceanic behaviour, he would like to see immediate technology development and transfer to address emissions and put the climate back in the safe zone. Edited excerpts from an interview:
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We experienced a mild summer but parts of eastern India saw extreme temperatures in April and 11 persons in Navi Mumbai died due to heat exposure in that month. How do you think India is impacted by climate crisis?
As more data surfaces, we see that climate change is accelerating at a fast pace, throwing off extreme weather events one after the other. This is faster than what we thought earlier. South Asia has become the poster child of climate change. The entire region, not just India, is witnessing a clear trend in rising heatwaves, floods, landslides, droughts and cyclones. This is already affecting the food, water, and energy security of the region.
The 2022 heatwaves were record-breaking, with temperatures shooting up to 50 degrees Celsius in India and Pakistan. We saw the warmest ever recorded February. India is now capable of skilfully monitoring and forecasting many of the extreme weather events though there are several emerging challenges due to climate change. Investigation of recent weather-related disasters show that forecasts, basic precautions, disaster management, and policies can reduce the number of deaths. India is growing at a fast pace. Amidst the challenges, this presents us with an opportunity to learn and disaster-proof ourselves for a climate resilient, sustainable future.
The World Meteorological Organization has forecast that we are likely to cross the 1.5 degrees threshold in the next five years, at least temporarily. How will that impact India?
The steadfast rise in severe weather extremes are in response to the 1 degree rise in global temperatures due to historical carbon emissions. These events are projected to intensify further since the commitments from nations are insufficient to keep the temperature rise from hitting 1.5 degrees by 2040 and 2 degrees between 2040 and 2060. While we are reeling under the impacts of that 1 degree, the grave impacts of doubling that is difficult to visualize for me, even as a climate scientist. This is not somewhere far in the future. That is not just our children or grandchildren. Most of us living now will face doubling of the global temperatures in a few decades. This is also a scenario where the cumulative actions of a handful of developed nations have brought permanent climate havoc in the lives of all other nations and on themselves as well. This is a climate war where everyone is losing. We need all the tools that can help us to reduce the impact.
How will the El Niño impact India this year?
Events like an El Niño — warm water phenomenon in the Pacific with global climate implications— can sometimes amplify the impacts of climate change. Usually, an El Niño starts brewing in the Pacific during summer and reaches peak intensity by winter. This year, global models are expecting El Niño to be in place by June. During El Niño events, the monsoon winds are slow to pick up, and are relatively weaker. An El Niño during the current monsoon season means a delayed onset and deficit rainfall. Forecasts from the India Meteorological Department already indicates dry conditions over northwest and central India. El Niño is becoming stronger as ocean temperatures rise. The relationship between El Niño and the monsoon is also changing with time, and we need to be watchful of these intricate interactions. A deficit in the total amount of rainfall during El Niño does not mean that we are safe from heavy rains. Heavy rains over a few days still occur during short-term episodes when the monsoon winds carry additional moisture evaporated from the warm ocean waters.
As a climate scientist, how do you feel when politicians globally do not respond to crisis adequately?
The climate crisis is the end of the world for many underprivileged with low adaptive capacity. It is the end of the world for many species of flora and fauna. As a human being, I am ashamed that the global commitments and investments are insufficient to save these lives. We have been negotiating for decades, without transformative decisions that can take us to a stable future.
At the same time, I am optimistic about the power of people. I see that communities and local leaders are taking up the climate challenge. This is important since we cannot wait for delayed global action as severe weather events are at our doorstep. We need communities, scientists, engineers, local administration and educational institutions working together for local solutions. We need to urgently finance and support community-based climate action.
What is your take on the impacts of climate change?
All the data and science that I have show the graphs going up with red colours, indicating rising temperatures and extremes. I feel anxious to show them since many perceive this as painting a scary end-of-the-world picture. This is but reality. Knowing these numbers and taking precautions can save lives. Climate anxiety might be a factor to consider, but climate crisis is a harsh reality that we have to deal with. I see that children with awareness of climate crisis are more sensible in dealing with the environment, and go about finding innovative solutions, rather than children who are not sensitized about the climate emergency.
What are your expectations from the climate meeting at Bonn and the annual summit later in the year?
The Bonn meeting is supposed to lay the groundwork for the 28th Conference of Parties in Dubai in December. The number 28 (the number of years that global climate negotiations are being held) indicates that we were well aware of the climate challenges and knew very well that we should cut down carbon emissions, but have been negotiating for the past three decades. The annual meetings put climate scientists and most of their recommendations in the back seat. As policymakers debate, there is slow progress in terms of climate action, but there are no transformative binding decisions that can address the climate crisis. I would like to see immediate technology development and transfer that can help reduce emissions and embrace sustainable development on a global scale.
We also saw how cyclone Mocha rapidly intensified to a Super Cyclone. Why do you think that happened? Do we have any lessons from Mocha?
With the help of state-of-the-art models, we can now predict the genesis, track, and landfall of cyclones with high accuracy. Combined with disaster management at ground, we are saving several lives. However, climate change has brought in new challenges. Cyclones are now intensifying rapidly since warm ocean waters provide a consistent supply of heat and moisture for quick intensification. Cyclones like Fani, Amphan, Tauktae — and recently Mocha — intensified from a weak to severe status in less than 24 hours due to warm ocean conditions. Cyclone models are unable to pick this rapid intensification. This is because many of these models do not incorporate ocean conditions accurately. More than 93 percent of the additional heat from global warming is absorbed by oceans only. This heat reflects largely in the ocean surface and subsurface. The sub-surface ocean temperatures keep the cyclones intensifying because the strong winds churn up the ocean and take up that energy. However, most of the models deployed for cyclone forecasts generally use surface temperatures alone for forecasts. Hence, we need to incorporate sub-surface data also in the cyclone forecasting framework. For high-quality sub-surface data, we need to more investment in robust ocean monitoring systems like moored buoys. We have satellites for ocean surface data, but they cannot measure sub-surface temperatures. Climate change impacts are now overlapping to make extreme events worse. For example, when a cyclone occurs, the storm surges due to the intense winds along with the sea level rise and heavy rains is aggravating coastal floods along the coast of India. Cyclone Amphan was a perfect example were the coastal flooding reached several tens of kilometers inland, damaging infrastructure and agriculture over huge swaths of land. We need to upgrade our facilities so as to monitor and forecast these compound extreme events.
How does India need to prepare for heat extremes and protect the most vulnerable.
The IMD provides heatwave forecasts on a 6-hourly basis, for the next five days. Along with a heat action plan at city or district level, this an excellent way to take precautions and avoid deaths. Heatwaves are going to intensify further, and we cannot wait for forecasts every year. We have sufficient data to identify the regions where the heatwaves are increasing and we need to have policies in all those places. We need to redesign our cities to have open spaces and trees that help in releasing the excess heat quickly and also act as hubs for shade and cooling down. Integrating a heat emergency plan into the education system and workplace policies can equip individuals to handle heat emergencies and protect their health and wellbeing. India needs a long-term vision where we have policies that help us in managing our work hours, public infrastructure, schools, hospitals, workplaces, houses, transportation, and agriculture for heatwaves to come.
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How will the Indian Ocean be impacted by 1.5 degree C warming?
Compared to the Pacific and Atlantic, the Indian Ocean is the fastest warming. This has a huge impact on us since the Indian subcontinent is covered by the fastest warming tropical ocean on all three sides. As these waters warm, it supplies more heat and moisture for weather systems to intensify. The number of cyclones in the Arabian Sea has increased by 52% during the last four decades, and more extremely severe cyclones like Tauktae 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. Heatwaves are now happening in the oceans too — we call them marine heatwaves. These heatwaves kill corals. Corals occupy less than 1% of the global ocean surface but hosts about 25% of the marine biodiversity. Marine heatwaves are hence detrimental for fisheries and aquaculture also — have resulted in mass fish mortality worldwide. Just like we need open natural spaces on land, we need more protected marine parks too. Most of the times climate change is aggravated by direct human intervention, whether it is land or ocean. Land use changes and development makes our cities and panchayats vulnerable to flash floods, landslides, and droughts. Similarly, coral mining and unregulated industrial fishing deplete the marine ecosystem at a rate faster than global warming. This environmental degradation can be slowed down if we make sure that existing environmental policies are implemented in the true sense.