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Against Climate Change, There’s Room for India’s Climate Scientists To Do More

Against Climate Change, There’s Room for India’s Climate Scientists To Do More

An art exhibit by sculptor Isaac Cordal in Nantes, France, in 2013 shows people with floats going about business after global sea levels have risen due to climate change. Photo: objectifnantes/Flickr, CC BY 2.0


  • The academic system has to incentivise climate solutions: simply relying on publications for promotions is anachronistic and in fact detrimental to climate solutions.
  • While pieces of India’s climate response system are slowly falling in place, the biggest missing piece is the continued focus in the research establishment on publications.
  • The crisis begins from the need to improve short (~1 day), medium (~3-10 days) and extended (~2-4 weeks) range forecasts, and climate projections.
  • Does India really need projections out to 2100? It is at best out to 2040 – and the science behind figuring out India’s needs in this time will have to be solved indigenously.
  • India’s investments in climate science should not be wasted on more publications reporting negligible advances.

It is going to be IPCC1 season again with lots of alarms about the dire situation we are in and the urgent need for climate action. Climate scientists will be busy writing about the need for climate action by governments. But why is there so little attention paid to actions that the scientists and the institutions that are often well-funded alone can take?

The entire research community, especially in climate sciences, is driven by publications. It is evident that the academic system itself has to incentivise climate solutions. Simply relying on publications for tenure and promotions is anachronistic and in fact detrimental to climate solutions.

Climate change is deeply manifest in India’s seasonal climate variability – from the harsher winters to more cyclones in pre- and post-monsoons, and a weird monsoon which is often unrecognisable in most years.

India’s plans under its ‘nationally determined contributions’ under the Paris Agreement garner kudos around the world. Investments at home have also led to tremendous progress in improved weather and climate predictions. Efforts to translate those predictions into early warning systems are yielding results in terms of reduced loss of life and property during disasters.

But much remains to be accomplished in terms of early-warning systems, which is the most critical climate adaptation tool for India. The so-called ‘subseasonal-to-seasonal prediction’ project under the World Climate Research Program, of which India is a partner, provides an excellent framework called ‘Ready, Set, Go’ to manage climate hazards. Seasonal predictions are to be used to ready systems like agriculture, disaster management, public health, energy and transportation.

The extended range forecasts for weeks two to four drive the ‘Set’ step, to help place the requisite personnel in place and prepare specific actions like flood management, rescue operations and cyclone shelters. Weather forecasts then drive the ‘Go’ step of action on the ground, responding to widespread floods, cyclone impacts, droughts, crop damages, disease outbreaks, etc.

While bits and pieces of such systems are getting into place in various levels of research and implementation, the biggest missing piece is not the political agenda. It is the continued and relentless focus in the research establishment on publications as an end in itself.

Centers of excellence are funded across many institutions for renewable energy, carbon capture and sequestration, transportation, battery technologies, etc. But the actual climate adaptation problem, which seeks transformational climate action, is seriously lacking in the immediate and integrated approach that scientists themselves need to take to help India.

A relevant horizon

None of the climate challenges India is facing can be solved by individual scientists and their individual labs. Sustained team-building is the real need of the hour, where scientists actually get out of their labs and even their institutions to develop the end-to-end solutions required.

The crisis begins from the need to improve the short (~1 day), medium (~3-10 days) and extended (~2-4 weeks) range forecasts, and climate projections. Does India really need projections out to the year 2100? What are the more socially relevant timescales for India? It is at best out to 2030 or 2040. This time horizon will serve India’s needs and the science behind it needs to be solved here, indigenously.

Expertise to address these issues are strewn across different institutions in India – but nary an effort exists to build teams to bring about transformational climate solutions. Especially in terms of using novel approaches in AI to bring the forecasts to farm-scales to manage agricultural sector and city-scales to manage urban flooding and health issues, and the scales needed to plan for solar and wind energy intermittency issues.

The other component of building end-to-end early warning systems for food, water, energy and health is to build teams across natural and social sciences to ensure that the systems are actually usable and used at street level, where a woman can protect her family during a cyclone, a farmer can mitigate the damage to her crops, a health worker can manage an outbreak of water-borne diseases, a mayor can plan options during a devastating flood, and so on.

Climate change is a social science problem in the end. Natural science will always provide predictions and projections which are probabilistic, but the hard decisions to be made are social science problems. India will never be able to manage its climate challenges without this marriage between natural and social sciences.

I think climate scientists are better off looking in the mirror and doing what they are supposed to be doing instead of continuing with the drumbeat of what the government should be doing. Let the social scientists help the government on implementing just and equitable solutions, while we climate scientists and technologists deliver solutions that are urgently needed.

India’s investments in climate science should not be wasted on more publications reporting negligible advances.

 


  1. Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN body that assesses climate science worldwide

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