Managing climate change

In recent weeks, serious weather related events have occurred. Some examples are the unprecedented floods in Kerala, the severe cyclone Gaja in Tamil Nadu, the serious cyclone in Odisha and the drought and high temperature in California. It is clear that if we continue to ignore the consequences of human induced climate change, there will be increasing hardship particularly to the economically and ecologically underprivileged sections of our society. The conditions in California were so severe that even the President of the United Stated had to undertake a visit to the affected areas. The important factors which we will have to look into are, first, temperature changes, second, floods and heavy rains, third, rise in sea level requiring alternate accommodation to millions of coastal families who become climate refugees, and finally, economic chaos arising from harm to agriculture. Therefore, proactive climate impact management strategy is an idea whose time has come.

What kind of anticipatory action can we take to minimise the impact of adverse weather. I shall like to deal with this briefly. First, in the case of temperature change we should design new farming systems which are climate smart. Farming systems for nutrition security have to be promoted. Suitable anticipatory research will have to be done based on the following five agro-climatic zones – arid, semi-arid, coastal, hills and mountains and irrigated zone. In all agronomy courses in agricultural universities, students should be introduced to farming systems which are climate friendly. For example, millets are climate friendly nutrition rich crops. Similarly, breeders will have to develop varieties characterised by high per day productivity. In other words the emphasis will shift from high crop productivity to per day productivity.

In the case of heavy floods, there have to be plans both for cultivating flood tolerant varieties and for introducing crop-fish combination. As regards coastal ecosystems, it is very important that both sea water farming and below sea level farming receive attention from research and development angles – 97 per cent of the world’s water is sea water and there is ample scope for sea water farming. In coastal areas, we should also prepare for displacement of families due to the rise in sea level. Such climate refugees will have to be provided with alternative safe accommodation. In all coastal areas, the climate change management centre should work on methods of providing shelter and work to climate refugees.

An area which is going to become important is the production and protection of forest trees and plantation crops in high altitude areas. There are nitrogen fixing tree species which could be promoted in agro-forestry programmes. What is important is the safeguarding of the livelihood security of families living in high altitude areas, many of whom belong to tribal groups. Every calamity provides an opportunity for introducing changes in farming systems designed to promote climate smart agriculture.

The serious loss of life and property in Kerala provides an early warning of the consequences of floods and cyclones. It is high time that we establish community-centered management which can help to save lives and livelihoods in all areas prone to experience the impact of adverse changes in climate. In this connection we should note that certain climate aberrations related to food and livelihood security should receive immediate attention. International collaboration will also be necessary by steps such as ratifying the climate convention agreed at Paris over a year ago.

The latest report of IPCC has warned about the consequences of allowing mean temperature to rise above 1.5 degrees C. In 1990, I had pointed out that even a 1 degree C rise in mean temperature could cause a reduction of about 400 kg of grains per hectare in wheat in North India. The reason is the reduction in duration caused by higher mean temperature. In contrast, an increase in mean temperature will confer benefits to the farmers of northern latitudes because this will lead to an increase in the length of the duration of the crop. South Asia and sub Saharan Africa will be the areas most adversely affected. Therefore we have to take proactive steps to prepare ourselves to manage temperature rise.

An immediate step should be breeding of crop varieties characterised by higher per day productivity rather than per crop productivity as being done now. Climate smart nutri-cereals (millets) will have to be promoted. Climate management is both a science and an art. We will have to marry traditional wisdom with modern science if we are to insulate our crops from the adverse impact of higher mean temperature. There should also be increased effort in developing cropping systems which are climate smart and nutrition rich. Climate risk management centres will have to be established in every panchayat. If these steps are not taken, food and nutrition security will be impacted adversely.

I am happy that the importance of economics of climate change has been highlighted through this years’ award of Nobel Prize for Economics to William Nordhaus and Paul Romer.

(The writer is founder chairman, M S Swaminathan Research Foundation)

M S Swaminathan