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World Environment Day - 5 June 2008
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Climate Change Articles


Why all the Fuss?
Kartikeya V. Sarabhai

We have mangoes in summer and undhyu in winter. We are used to fluctuating temperatures and the changes it brings about. We know that the cold wave and shivers in Ahmedabad today will in a couple of months, give way to hot steamy days. 10ºC in January will be nearly 46ºC by May, a difference of over 35ºC. But why talk of months, even during a single day the temperatures vary by 8 - 10ºC. So when the world talks of climate change and global warming and warns that we could see average temperatures rising by 1.8 - 4ºC during 21st century, why is there a fuss?

To understand this, it is important to know the distinction between weather and climate. Weather is a set of phenomena and conditions of the atmosphere at a given time and a given place which often results from temperature differences from one place to another. Common weather phenomena include wind, cloud cover, rain, snow, fog, thunder and lightning, dust storms, cyclones etc. Weather refers to local conditions of the atmosphere over a short time span (days or weeks). Climate, in turn, is the average and variations of weather in a region over longer periods from a minimum of 30 years up to millions of year.  Earth has undergone periodic climate shifts in past but the recent rise in global temperature does not follow this cycle.

Dr. R.K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, spoke on climate change during the recent 4th International Conference on Environmental Education at Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad. He stressed that the warming of the last half century is unusual in previous 1,300 years (see figure ‘Global Mean Temperature) and that during the 20th century glaciers and ice caps have experienced widespread mass losses which have very likely raised the sea level. Increase of 0.68ºC  per century, pronounced warming in post monsoon and winter, increase in extreme rains in the north-west during monsoon and lower number of rainy days along east coast are some of the observed impacts of climate change in India.

The projected climate change will further increase the air and ocean temperature which in turn will affect the water cycle. Only 3% of Earth’s total water is fresh water and any shift and reduction in rainfall and melting of glaciers will increase the drinking water scarcity. We are also likely to witness more droughts and high rainfall events, higher cyclonic activity, shifts of forest types, loss of biodiversity, reduction in crop production, flooding of coastal areas and river banks. These changes will also increase vector-borne diseases, affect human health, human settlement, industries and future development. Scarce resources and extreme weather events might as well lead to crisis, threatening human security in India and the world. 

It is evident that developing countries, including India, will be more affected by climate change because they depend more on climate-sensitive sectors like rain fed agriculture, forestry or fishing. Also, arid and semi-arid areas are particularly vulnerable to adverse effects of climate change. For India, climate change mainly implies water scarcity due to the melting of the Himalayan glaciers and shifting monsoon patterns as well as sea level rise. Gujarat, a semi-arid zone, having the longest coastline of any state in India with fragile ecosystems like desert, wetlands and coral reefs and a unique biodiversity is highly susceptible to climate change.  63% of its population depends on agriculture and related sectors and as a result we are very vulnerable to climate change.