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Where’s the cold light of reason?

It’s never been so cold in 70 years, the Met office has told us. Before that we were told that it’s rarely been as rainy as it did...

Written by R K Pachauri |
January 13, 2006

It’s never been so cold in 70 years, the Met office has told us. Before that we were told that it’s rarely been as rainy as it did get in Mumbai first and the souhern cities later.

Of course, nowhere in the world have weather predictions proved to be absolutely accurate. But science moves on, as in fact it has in other parts of the world, and the question can be raised whether India has progressed adequately in the meteorological sciences in recent times.

Some decades ago, Indian meteorologists and the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) were world leaders. But if one assesses the major strides in this area taken by other countries, serious questions would need to be answered on the current state of meteorology in this country. Take China. The China Meteorological Administration (CMA) has, over the years, assembled a body of expertise that compares with the best in the world, and has also established an infrastructure that is second to none. Its Centre for Research on Climate Change now competes with the most sophisticated global modelling efforts related to climate change — a discipline that has thus far been the preserve of the US, European and Japanese establishments.

In contrast, our own IMD continues to be in a state of denial on global climate change, even while the entire scientific establishment in the world has accepted the scientific evidence on human induced climate change. There is, besides, a sad lack of leadership. The IMD still does not have a regular director-general, the previous one having been removed from service under a cloud. It is ironical that while some of the best meteorologists in North America are Indians, we are unable to find a suitable person to head our own establishment. This is perhaps inevitable, given the rigidities of the recruitment procedures here.

The IMD can flourish only if it is given autonomy and the freedom to act independently of government procedure and processes. The UPA government is seized of the problem. The inadequacy that we see today has actually been festering for decades and is becoming apparent only now. The country would reap huge benefits from a stronger, possibly larger and real-time system of meteorological data assessment and dissemination.

There is so much that can be done. The CMA, for instance, runs a highly professional television channel that provides weather predictions and information across China. Developed countries, of course, provide an even wider range of services based on knowledge. In the case of the French meteorological establishment, even a small branch of this organisation based in the La Reunion Islands in the Indian Ocean has infrastructure and research capabilities far beyond anything we can boast of. In a country where farming, particularly rain-fed agriculture, continues to be a significant part of economic output and human life, weather information received in a timely and accurate way can provide enormous benefits. But this would require the upgradation of global climate change research capabilities.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme to assess all aspects of climate change. This body, which functions autonomously under 192 governments, mobilises the best expertise from across the globe to carry out an assessment of all aspects of climate change. The Panel has brought out three major assessment reports and several special reports, and is currently engaged in working on the Fourth Assessment Report, which is due to be completed in 2007. The Third Assessment Report had found that “developing countries of temperate and tropical Asia already are quite vulnerable to extreme climate events such as typhoons, cyclones, droughts and floods. Climate change and variability would exacerbate these vulnerabilities.” It was also found that the duration, location, frequency and intensity of extreme weather and climate events would very likely change and would result in mostly adverse impacts on biophysical systems. In particular, the amplitude and frequency of extreme precipitation events is very likely to increase over many areas. It is also likely that global warming will lead to an increase in the variability of Asian summer monsoon precipitation.

A proper assessment of likely future trends would also assist the central and state governments to establish local infrastructure that would help in the event of climate and weather extremes. For instance, heat waves similar to the one that occurred in Andhra Pradesh in 2003 — which led to the loss of almost 4,000 lives — can be handled through proper information on the need for oral rehydration therapy, the provision of medical services during such events, and the timely warning of the likelihood of such extreme conditions.

The complex subject of prediction of extreme events is, of course, still fraught with uncertainties, but given the high stakes that a country like India has in understanding it properly, our knowledge in the area needs urgent upgradation. As it is, several research and academic institutions in the country are doing valuable work on the monsoons and related climate phenomena in South Asia, but there is a need to consolidate this work urgently. More importantly, a degree of leadership has to be provided in the IMD by setting up a body of expertise and the necessary infrastructure, that would then work closely with institutions outside the system to create and consolidate emerging knowledge in the area. The experience of other countries, like the UK, US and even China, and indeed active collaboration with them, would be extremely valuable in achieving this.

The writer is the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and director-general, TERI

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