Earlier this summer, Prime Minister Modi made headlines by vowing to go “above and beyond” the Paris agreement in India’s efforts to combat climate change. Mr. Modi’s stance on climate security underscores the Indian commitment to invest in renewable power and sustainable development, which is on track to supply more than 40 percent of the country’s energy needs by 2022. Behind India’s growing global leadership in emissions policy lies the very real concern over the impacts of unmitigated climate change for South Asia. India needs to increase the scope of its climate investment to include more policies that protect its many poor and at-risk people from the effects of warming. By investing in climate adaptation, India has the potential to protecting its people from deadly changes to their environment while simultaneously building stronger ties with their neighbors and increasing economic competitiveness.
India’s desire to lead the world in sustainability stems from concerns over South Asia’s environment. South Asia is expected to be among the worst hit regions by climate change. Amidst record high temperatures in 2015, over 2 thousand Indians died to heat waves, a number that is expected to grow with time. Over 50 thousand Indian famers are estimated to have committed suicide last year due to the impact of rising temperatures on crop yields. In Pakistan, climate change threatens to exacerbate flooding and potentially destabilize Karachi, the country’s economic backbone. In Bangladesh, rising sea levels are projected to force 18 million climate refugees from their homes. It is hard to overstate the devastating potential of environmental degradation, which threatens to depress agricultural productivity and submerge cities such as Mumbai with rising sea levels.
Experts fear that climate change will generate resource scarcities that fuel conflict in South Asia. By 2050, the extreme shifts in temperature and weather may increase food prices by 50 percent. At the same time, drinkable water will become increasingly endangered, as important glaciers which feed South Asia’s water basin dry up. Water scarcity has historically been a sore issue between India and Pakistan, and has been used as a rallying cry for violence in the past. Founder of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba Hiviz Saeed was quoted as saying, "India irrigates its deserts and dumps extra water on Pakistan without any warning… If we don't stop India now, Pakistan will continue to face this danger." Militants such as Saeed feed off of the discontent created by resource scarcity. As more South Asians see their livelihoods endangered, scapegoats become attractive, and conflict becomes more possible. This is because for poorer, more desperate people, militancy becomes attractive as the opportunity cost of conflict declines. Building a sustainable security architecture will therefore also require addressing climate insecurity.
To combat the deleterious effects of climate change, India has aggressively invested in renewable technology. In 2016, India displaced the US as the second most friendly place for to do business in renewables. This is especially significant because India is projected to have one of the world’s largest energy markets for the foreseeable future. In order to meet India’s ambitious renewable energy targets, Prime Minister Modi is investing in new nuclear reactors to offset fossil fuel dependency, and is expanding hydropower in an effort to expand electricity access to the northeast.
Unfortunately, preventive measures are unlikely to be enough to combat India’s climate issues. Even if India hits its green energy targets, it is unlikely to single handedly stop warming. The effects of climate change are being felt in the present, and need to be dealt with separately from attempts to stop future increases in greenhouse gasses. The inevitability of significant parts of climate change suggests that the Indian government should make climate harm-reduction an important priority in addition to existing efforts at prevention. These policies should be geared towards mitigating the impacts of climate change, such as flooding and heat waves. Realistically, even with total international compliance with the Paris climate agreement, the world will still experience several degrees of warming. While India should certainly continue its preventive measures of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, it needs to also commit to protecting its many vulnerable people from the inevitable impacts of climate change.
Investing in climate adaptation would help prepare India for climate change while tackling many of its longstanding problems. Incremental, technocratic reforms which focus on alleviating the harms of climate change for the most at-risk individuals have the potential to save thousands of lives. Adaptation reforms have the potential to both shield the most at-risk from climate instability, and work towards solving longstanding social or development problems. For instance, investing in better fertilizers, drip irrigation, and crop rotations in rural India would simultaneously help adapt farmers to the impacts of climate change while addressing longstanding problems with malnutrition and rural poverty. Similarly, extending loans to Bangladesh for levees and assisting in flood protection would help stem the ongoing refugee crisis while at the same time making India a regional leader. Focusing on modernizing household cookstoves will help Indians cope with high energy prices while also addressing the 1.5 million deaths per year which result from inhaling particulate matter.
Climate change is a serious threat to South Asian growth and stability, and the problem is not going away. Unless decisive actions are taken, mounting resource shortages and extreme weather issues threaten to kill thousands and inflame conflict. Climate adaptation presents India with an opportunity to tackle longstanding development issues while also becoming a regional leader. India needs to build upon the momentum and goodwill it has established in regards to environmental reform to prepare itself for the effects of warming.