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Fiddling While India Burns

Fiddling While India Burns

Photography by Nayan Khanolkar.

Bittu Sahgal suggests that climate change is taking a toll on wild species and ecosystems and that India is making a huge strategic error by pushing forward with carbon-based energy options. For the benefit of the Neros in our midst, the author suggests that the Indian subcontinent will be one of the worst victims of climate change in the decades ahead.

In the Hemis National Park, snow leopards are sandwiched between receding glaciers, snow melt and climate-induced ecological changes that could see scrubby vegetation such as junipers retreating, as conifers and pines extend their range to nudge the treeline upwards. This could in turn encourage powerful competitors such as the common leopard to nibble at the fringes of what was once the almost exclusive, but fragile, hunting ground for snow leopards.

Tigers in the West Bengal and Bangladesh Sundarbans find themselves squashed between the rising seas to the south and galloping habitat loss to the north. The mangrove forests, their mantle of protection, will be among the first victims when sea levels rise.

This summer, across the Indian subcontinent, when Greylags and Barheads fly south to escape the cold north, they will notice subtle and not-so-subtle changes that could forever threaten their future. The wetlands on which geese and birds like the Pond Herons seen on this page depend, are drying up and the composition of the aquatic organisms upon which they feed is rapidly changing. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC operates under the auspices of the U.N. Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organisation) wetlands constitute up to eight to 10 per cent of the world’s land surface and may hold between 10 and 20 per cent of the planet’s terrestrial carbon. Because they are so carbon-rich, wetlands are vital to the global carbon cycle, which regulates (and moderates) Earth’s temperatures, making her abundant lifeforms possible. The IPCC believes that wetlands might actually “represent the largest component of the terrestrial biological carbon pool.”

After the 1997-1998 El Niño that raised ocean temperatures across the tropics; a survey was conducted in the Gulf of Kutchh, the Lakshadweep Islands, and the Gulf of Mannar by ecologist Rohan Arthur of the Nature Conservation Society. His findings revealed that oceanic temperature fluctuations were killing corals, particularly species such as Acropora. This resulted in the “rapid loss of structural complexity in the reefs, which held the potential to affect other reef biota.” By some estimates a rise in sea levels between 14 and 94 cm. might wipe out the celebrated Greater and Lesser Flamingo breeding colony in the salt-marshes and mudflats of the Rann of Kutchh in Gujarat, together with a host of land-based animals including the Lesser Florican and Indian wild ass.

To the uninitiated, the above might be written off as the bleeding heart concerns of “animal lovers”. But across the world, scientists are telling politicians, planners, land managers and insurance companies that such events are indicative of a virtual tsunami of ecological changes that promise to forever destabilise the foundation of human sustenance. Climate change, scientists warn, will undermine our food, water and economic security

Climate change led by fossil fuel pollution has often been quoted as the main reason for amphibian decline. Amphibians such as these bi-coloured frogs Rana curtepis that have congregated during the summer in Nagarahole National Park in Karnataka, are strongly influenced by the external environment, particularly temperature. Ambient temperatures dramatically affect the time taken to reach metamorphosis, differentiation and growth rates, body size, mechanisms of gas exchange, rates of energy metabolism, and other physiological parameters. Additionally, UV light causes retardation in embryos making them susceptible to fungal diseases.Photograph by Kalyan Varma.

We live in a warming world

Ecologists know that melting glaciers will make river flows unpredictable; that when wetlands die, wells follow suit, and that the frequency and intensity of floods and droughts will rise sharply at a terrible human cost. Marine biologists tell us that mangrove and coral losses have contributed to the dwindling of marine food stocks, although overfishing is generally identified as the only cause. Cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Cochin and Vishakhapatnam have all seen expensive real estate damaged by floods, cyclones or storm surges in recent years. The economic consequence of disasters yet to come is almost too staggering to contemplate. This is why insurance companies are increasingly turning to the ecologists and scientists that presidents and prime ministers have studiously ignored to assess the likely damage to commercial and urban infrastructures along India’s coastline. A rise in the cost of insurance premiums for goods and properties exposed to climate change hazards is inevitable and, as is the case with nuclear reactors, insurance companies will refuse to offer any security cover for the most vulnerable installations.

The most effective and economical step we can take to reduce the impact of such damage would be to protect sand bars, corals, mangroves, mudflats, beaches and the littoral vegetation that thrives behind these bulwarks that protect the land from the fury of the sea. These are the natural “infrastructures” that current and future generations will need to survive the adverse impacts of climate change. India has some of the finest environmental protection legislations in the world but with the support of the Prime Minister’s office, the laws are being weakened.

Biologists use plants and animals to gauge the health of ecosystems. For instance, the presence of the tiger indicates that the forest in which it lives is doing relatively well; conversely, a decline in tiger numbers might indicate that the forest ecosystem is in decline. Similarly, the presence of large animals such as sharks and whales in the ocean indicates that the food web is alive and kicking. The same is true of olive ridley turtles in Gahirmatha, whose presence points to a functioning coastal ecosystem.

No species or habitat will remain unaffected by climate change, from human populations living in coastal regions.Photograph by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

Frustrated by the abysmal lack of ecological intelligence among decision makers of the world, ecologists attempt to illustrate the importance of species by plotting their presence or absence and then comparing the results to the flashing lights of an instrument panel in say, an airplane or a nuclear reactor. Persistently ignoring the blinking lights (low on aviation fuel/overheating reactor/degrading ecosystem) could cause the machine/reactor/ecosystem to collapse with catastrophic results.

Environmental crimes

While the business-as-usual brigade, led by successive presidents of the United States, remained in deep denial for three decades since the 1970s, events such as melting glaciers, coral bleaching, and storm surges presented a virtual discotheque of flashing warning lights suggesting that the Earth’s climate was wobbling and on the verge of going into a tailspin. There is scarcely anyone now, save for incorrigible flat-earthers, who seriously deny the deadly reality of climate change. Yet, even as weather extremes become the order of the day, Indian planners are doing all they can to destroy the self-regulating mechanisms of the subcontinent – glaciers, forests, rivers, wetlands and coasts – that helped all lifeforms overcome the cyclic atmospheric changes that have taken place over millions of years.

The accelerated rate at which we are destroying natural ecosystems by turning them into cities, dams, mines, roads and commercial plantations is nothing short of suicidal. Such irrational actions on the part of powerful leaders, including Dr. Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India, can be likened to a seriously ill patient (in this case India) ripping off vital life-support systems in an Intensive Care Unit. Lack of common sense on the part of Indian planners defies all logic. The destruction of every ecosystem we sacrifice for short-term gains (the port at Dhamra, Orissa, the dam in the Lower Subansiri Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, the proposed Vedanta mines in Lanjigarh, Orissa, World Bank-financed coal mining in Hazaribagh) accelerates climate change and degrades the availability of fresh water and/or wild foods upon which human beings will always depend.

If the leaders of the world were to magically wake from their stupor, they might realise that future generations will hold them responsible for the environmental crimes they commit today. But for the moment, like latter day Neros, they fiddle while the planet burns.

In his path-breaking book, Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed, Jared Diamond, professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles writes, “The history of the Arctic, including that of Greenland, is a history of people arriving, occupying large areas for many centuries, and then declining or disappearing or having to change their lifestyle over large areas (because of) climate change.” He goes on to draw a parallel between the collapse of past civilisations and their abuse of life-support systems, suggesting darkly that humans today are poised to follow the footsteps of the Easter Islanders, Maya, Aztecs and the Greenland Norse. But Indians might prefer to take their lessons from events closer to home.

Small islands that are already facing the brunt of rising sea levels, hurricanes, storms and cyclones, to snow leopards above the tree line. Retreating glaciers, snow melt and climate-induced ecological changes will aggravate the extinction threats posed by poaching and habitat destruction. Like dead canaries in a coal mine, vanishing species herald our own demise.Photograph by Raghunandan Chundavat.

Divine (as opposed to scientific) evidence of global warming presented itself dramatically when the Himalingam, a naturally-formed ice stalagmite in the Amarnath cave shrine that draws thousands of worshippers and inspires millions more, melted this summer. TV channels and newspapers splashed the news across the nation on June 19, 2006, and showed priests screaming “Sacrilege! Sacrilege!” when a man-made ice lingam was erected in place of the natural (holy) one. But, of course, much more than a shrine was desecrated. Located at a height of 3,888 m., the Amarnath glacier, which feeds mineral-rich water to the cave holding the stalagmite worshipped by many Hindus, has been vanishing at a rate of more than 15 m. per year. Ice caps at the North and South Poles, and the snows covering the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, the Andes in South America, and the Alps of Europe are suffering the same fate. CC dumps Glaciers are in sharp retreat everywhere.

I recently reviewed two books on global warming for the Times of India. In The Weather Makers, Tim Flannery calls climate change the “Last Act of God”: “Some time this century the day will arrive when the human influence on the climate will overwhelm all natural factors. Then, the insurance industry and the courts will no longer be able to talk of Acts of God.”

The second book, The Revenge of Gaia, was written by James Lovelock. Three decades ago, Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis made me revere the Earth even more than I thought possible. With sermonic fatalism he writes, “We are like the smoker who enjoys a cigarette and imagines giving up smoking when the harm becomes tangible. Most of all we hope for a good life in the immediate future and would rather put aside unpleasant thoughts of doom to come.” Resigned to the fate of the Earth, he goes on to add morosely that a proper gift for our children might be, “… a guidebook for survivors to help them rebuild civilisation without repeating too many of our mistakes.”

I recall writing with anger but with optimism in the ’70s of how the Earth would somehow manage to contain its errant wards by sending hard messages to bring them in line. But today, like Lovelock and Flannery, I must confess, my optimism has vanished. Homo sapiens is not a learning animal.

As I read “Revenge,” I was once again transported by Lovelock’s magic to the outer reaches of the vast universe, into the realm of the Big Bang and black holes. I was again wrapped in the thinly-disguised religion of Gaia, by this self-described “planetary physician, whose patient, the living Earth, complains of fever.” But search as I might, I was unable to find anything really new that Lovelock had to offer on climate change, nor any real expansion or deeper reflection on his once-startling view that the Earth is capable of acting like a single living organism.

Sea level rise could destroy sea turtle beach-nesting sites such as Bhitarkanika in Orissa where thousands of olive ridleys gather. Warmer seas could also affect the sex ratio of hatchlings as the developing egg is temperature-dependent.Photograph by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

What he does proffer, though, is a cure for climate change that could be just as deadly as the disease if many nations in the world take his advice – nuclear energy (see article by Jennifer Scarlott “Nuclear Power? It’s not the answer”, page 25). With enviable facility, Lovelock asks us to accept nuclear energy as the “band-aid” solution to climate change, “We have allowed fiction writers and green lobbies to exploit the fear of nuclear energy and of almost any new science, in the same way that the churches exploited the fear of Hellfire not so long ago. We are like passengers on a large aircraft crossing the Atlantic Ocean who suddenly realise just how much carbon dioxide their plane is adding to the already overburdened air. It would hardly help if they asked the captain to turn off the engines and let the plane travel like a glider by wind power alone. We cannot turn off our energy-intensive, fossil-fuel-powered civilisation without crashing; we need the soft landing of a powered descent.”

He then goes on to say that pinning one’s hopes on wind power and organic foods is akin to “waiting for Godot.” By placing his bets on a technology characterised by the Chernobyl disaster, Lovelock, sadly, assassinates his own muse – Gaia, by the simple expedient of presuming that Homo sapiens can and should continue to rule supreme over the planet using any and all means, including nuclear power. But his new muse, the atom, could well leave the oceans, soils, and air of our fragile planet toxic – for all species – forever.

More circumspect about nuclear power than Lovelock, Flannery is also more realistic about global warming, and angrier, as when he lashes out at policy makers: “The Australian Government’s chief economic adviser on climate change, Dr. Brian Fisher, told a London conference that it would be ‘more efficient’ to evacuate small Pacific Island states than to require Australian industries to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide.”

Evidence of Gaia’s revenge stares us in the face. Not in some distant rainforest, but in urban centres of the world. The Mithi River disaster in Mumbai and the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina were only tiny warnings. If humans allow politicians to continue to determine their fate, the human race itself will be at risk.

Memo to Indian decision-makers, including Prime Minister Singh: read my Times of India review, read this article in Sanctuary, but why take my word for it? The advice that climate change is upon us is circulating endlessly in the esoteric world of deep science – do you have the wisdom to heed your own experts, before it is too late?

One of the most tangible effects of global warming has been coral bleaching worldwide. This affected Lakshadweep as well. Such fragile ecosystems are nurseries for marine species and protect coastal areas from cyclones and storm surges. When ocean temperatures rise, it affects the photosynthetic process that converts carbon dioxide into sugars and this results in a build up of products that poison the zooxanthellae. Without the zooxanthellae, the coral slowly starves to death.Photograph by Reefwatch.

by Bittu Sahgal, Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVI. No. 4. August 2006.


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