The climate crisis could signal the end of the world for many disadvantaged people who cannot adapt to the changes. As a result of the fact that all climate indicators are in the red, climate scientists such as Roxy Mathew Koll are hesitant to share them. According to Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, climate meetings like the one that begins on Monday in Bonn, Germany, place climate scientists and most of their recommendations in the back seat. As a student of atmospheric and oceanic behaviour, he would like to see an immediate development and transfer of technology to combat emissions and return the climate to a safe level. Interview excerpts that have been edited
We had a mild summer, but in April, parts of eastern India experience,d extreme heat and eleven people in Navi Mumbai perished from heat exposure. How dthe o you believe climate crisis affects India?
As more data becomes available, it becomes clear that climate change is accelerating rapidly, spawning a series of extreme weather events. This is faster than we initially believed. South Asia has become the face of global warming. The region as a whole, not just India, isincreasedan increase in heatwaves, floods, landslides, droughts, and cyclones. This is already impacting the region’s food, water, and energy security.
India and Pakistan experienced record-breaking temperatures of 50 degrees Celsiheat wavethe heat waves of 2022. February was the warmest ever recorded. India is now capable of monitoring andseveralg a number of extreme weather events, despite the fact that climaseveralresents a number of new challenges. Recent weather-related disaster investigations indicate that forecasts, basic precautions, disaster management, and policies can reduce fatalities. India is expanding at a rapid rate. Despite the difficulties, this presents us with an opportunity to learn and prepare for climate-resilient, sustainable futures.
The World Meteorological Organisation predicts that we will likely exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next five years, if only temporarily. What is the impact on India?
The consistent increase in severe weather extremes is a result of the one-degree increase in global temperatures caused by past carbon emissions. Since the commitments of nations are insufficient to prevent the temperature rise from reaching 1.5 degrees by 2040 and 2 degrees between 2040 and 2060, these events are anticipated to intensify. While we are reeling from the effects of that 1 degree, it is difficult for me, even as a climate scientist, to imagine the dire consequences of doubling that. This is not a distant future location. This does not only include our children and grandchildren. Within a few decades, the majority of people currently alive will experience a doubling of global temperatures. 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 in which everybody loses. We need every tool that can aid in mitigating the impact.
How will 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, El Niño starts brewing in the Pacific during summer and reaches peak intensity by winter. Global models expect El Niño to be in place this year 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 indicate 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 crises 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 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 finance and support community-based climate action urgently.
What is your take on the impacts of climate change?
All the data and science that I have to show the graphs going up with red colours, indicating rising temperatures and extremes. I feel anxious to show them since many perceive this as depicting 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 severe reality that we have to deal with. I see that children with awareness of climate crisis are more sensible in coping 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 intended 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 conducted) 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 place climate scientists and most of their recommendations in the back seat. As policymakers debate, there is sluggish progress in climate action, but no transformative binding decisions can address the climate crisis. I would like to see immediate technology development and transmission that can help reduce emissions and embrace sustainable development on a global scale.
We also saw how cyclone Mocha swiftly intensified into a Super Cyclone. Why do you believe that happened? Do we have any lessons from Mocha?
With the aid of state-of-the-art models, we can now predict the genesis, track, and landfall of cyclones with high accuracy. Combined with disaster management on the ground, we are saving several lives. However, climate change has brought in new challenges. Cyclones are now intensifying swiftly 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 moderate to severe status in less than 24 hours due to warm ocean conditions. Cyclone models are unable to detect this rapid intensification. This is because many of these models do not accurately account for ocean conditions. Only the oceans absorb more than 93 percent of the additional heat from global warming. This heat is primarily reflected by the ocean’s surface and subsurface. The subsurface ocean temperatures maintain the intensity of cyclones because the powerful winds stir up the ocean and absorb this energy. However, the majority of cyclone forecasting models rely solely on surface temperatures for their predictions. Therefore, we must also incorporate subsurface data into the framework for cyclone forecasting. We must invest more in robust ocean monitoring systems, such as moored buoys, to collect high-quality subsurface data. We have satellites for ocean surface information, but they cannot measure temperatures below the surface. Now, climate change impacts are overlapping to exacerbate extreme events. For instance, when a cyclone strikes the coast of India, storm surges caused by intense winds, a rise in sea level, and heavy rainfall exacerbate coastal flooding. Cyclone Amphan was a prime example of a situation in which coastal flooding reached several tens of kilometres inland, causing damage to infrastructure and cultivation across vast areas of land. Our facilities must be upgraded so that we can monitor and forecast these compound extreme events.
How should India prepare for extreme temperatures and safeguard the most vulnerable?
The IMD provides six-hourly heatwave forecasts for the next five days. Together with a heat action plan at the city or district level, this is an excellent method to prevent deaths. Heatwaves will continue to intensify, and we cannot wait each year for forecasts. We have sufficient data to determine which regions are experiencing an increase in heatwaves, and we must implement policies in all of these regions. We must redesign our cities to include open areas and trees that aid in the rapid dissipation of excess heat and serve as oases of shelter and cooling. Individuals’ health and well-being can be protected by incorporating a thermal emergency plan into the educational system and workplace policies. India requires a long-term plan that includes policies that help us manage our work hours, public infrastructure, schools, hospitals, workplaces, homes, transportation, and agriculture in anticipation of future heat waves.
How will the Indian Ocean be affected by a warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius?
Compared to the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the Indian Ocean is warming the quickest. This has a significant effect on us, as the Indian subcontinent is surrounded on all sides by the tropical ocean that is warming the quickest. As these waters warm, they provide more heat and moisture for the intensification of weather systems. During the past four decades, the frequency of cyclones in the Arabian Sea has increased by 52%, and it is anticipated that more extremely severe cyclones like Tauktae will form in the future. The monsoon, which receives its energy and moisture from the Indian Ocean, has become more erratic, with brief periods of heavy rainfall and long periods of drought, resulting in both flooding and drought during the same season. Heatwaves are now also occurring in the oceans; we refer to them as marine heatwaves. These heatwaves are fatal to corals. Coral reefs occupy less than 1% of the ocean’s surface but are home to approximately 25% of marine species. As a consequence, marine heat waves are also detrimental to fisheries and aquaculture; they have resulted in global fish extinctions. Just as we need more protected land parks, we also need more protected marine parks. Climate change is typically exacerbated by direct human intervention, whether on land or in the ocean. Changes in land use and urbanisation make our cities and panchayats susceptible to sudden floods, mudslides, and drought. Similar to global warming, coral mining and unregulated industrial fishing deplete the marine ecosystem at a quicker rate. This environmental deterioration can be slowed by ensuring that existing environmental policies are implemented correctly.