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Understanding Climate Change Requires A Cross-Disciplinary Approach: Professor Robert Wasson

For individual events, it is necessary to perform attribution analyses where the role of climate change is quantified by modelling the event with and without higher levels of greenhouse gases

Given that climate change is one of the forefront issues in today’s age, it is integral that those who are involved in the pedagogical arena of climate change are given a voice. In an exclusive interview with BW Businessworld, Prof Robert Wasson, Senior Research Fellow in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy shares his views on climate change, the pedagogical importance of environmental history, the management of natural resources and the importance of a cross-disciplinary approach to understanding climate change. 

Why is the management of natural resources a critical issue in today’s day and time? 

Prof Robert: Population growth and rising affluence are placing increasing demands on natural resources at a time when their depletion is becoming the norm. Soils are being eroded, so the topsoil has vanished in many places and therefore natural nutrient stocks are more limited. This requires ever more chemical fertilisers that are also running out. The water pollution situation has improved in many wealthy countries, but is more critical in much of the less developed world, placing limits and costs on farmers and urban dwellers alike. Surface water for industrial and domestic purposes, including for drinking, is becoming less available. Groundwater is also under considerable pressure in much of Asia, the Americas, and Australia. In small Pacific islands saline intrusion from sea level rise is making the fresh groundwater undrinkable. The oceans are becoming more acidic as carbon dioxide level rises, and corals are bleaching more often as the oceans warm, putting fish stocks at risk, a trend worsened by the depletion of mangroves and seagrass. All of these trends increase food insecurity, and the impacts are particularly harsh on the poor. Without serious reversals or at least stabilisation of these trends, the growing world population will suffer increasingly from less and lower quality food and water, and poorer health -- despite the gains made in recent decades in poverty reduction and public health.

How can the reality of climate change be brought out effectively given the current geopolitics? 

Prof Robert: Most of the objections to the options for dealing with climate change are based on worldviews that are rooted in the economic growth paradigm and legitimised by a neoclassical version of economics that has dominated public policy since the Second World War. While we see much of the public debate focussed on the uncertainty of climate science, this is not the issue in the minds of many decision-makers, particularly in wealthy countries. The trend to local solutions, including major steps by California, and other US states and European countries will have some effect, but unless there is serious consideration given to economic models and governance systems that do not lionise GDP growth as the only path for economic improvement, we will have to wait for some truly catastrophic event to shock the world into action. Perhaps the Gulf Stream will shut down, plunging much of the circum-Atlantic into a mini Ice Age.

What are some of the extreme hydro-climatic events which have occurred as a result of climate change? 

Prof Robert: All hydro-climatic events are now, to some extent, affected by global warming because the hotter atmosphere can hold more water that produces more intense rainfall. The hotter oceans can thus generate more intense tropical cyclones. For individual events, it is necessary to perform attribution analyses where the role of climate change is quantified by modelling the event with and without higher levels of greenhouse gases. The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society produces a report each year in which they examine extreme events worldwide to the extent to which their occurrence and strength have been affected by climate change. For extreme hydro-climatic events the 2015 report focused on US daily rainfall extremes; the snow drought in Washington state; Southeast Florida’s flood; the cold February over North America; extreme drought in western Canada; the late onset of the Nigerian wet season; drought in Ethiopia and Southern Africa; the Chennai flood; extreme rainfall in southeast China; Indonesian drought; low rainfall in Tasmania; and extreme cyclone energy in the western North Pacific. Climate change was involved in all of these extremes.

Why is there a need for cross-disciplinary methods or a multidisciplinary perspective to address the issues of climate change? 

Prof Robert: To understand how climate change is likely to occur, how it will impact society and nature, and to act to mitigate its worst effects requires a cross-disciplinary approach. This is because the science of climate change requires skills from physics, chemistry, mathematics and computing. And the impacts of climate change and the desired actions for its mitigation requires skills from psychology, governance, economics, ecology, earth science and engineering. Climate change in all of its complexity is, therefore, a quintessentially cross-disciplinary filed of action-oriented research.

Why is it integral to integrate environmental history in the current methods of pedagogy? 

Prof Robert: This question is not only highly pertinent but should be given much greater consideration by educators, politicians and other decision makers. Environmental history documents and attempts to explain the interaction between people and the environment through time, so it is an assessment of a two-way dynamic relationship. It must involve histories of environmental change that enable us to identify a looming problem, understand how an existing problem has arisen and provide information about its trajectory, and also can be used to retrospectively test mathematical models of natural processes that are being used to make projections. In its fullest form, environmental history is helpful in examining the effectiveness of policy, a neglected subject that is known as policy history. It also allows us to avoid policy amnesia, where we reinvent forgotten policies tried in the past. And it can provide accounts of human responses to past extremes, such as floods, that may be useful analogues for the future. One example of an analogue is the so-called 'levee effect' where people build levees after a flood and then feel safe. Because of this increased sense of safety, they build closer to rivers, often just behind levees, and over time lose the experience of coping with floods. As a result, small and medium floods do little damage but large floods do a lot of damage as they overtop or breach the levees, causing death and destruction in the areas occupied since the construction of the levees. Another example comes from India where huge gullies, locally known as ravines, front some of the large tributaries to the Ganga River; most notably along the Chambal River, the former refuge of India’s Bandit Queen, Phoolan Devi. Soil conservators tried to stabilise these ravines because they were viewed as a result of recent land use practices. But a quick review of the writings of early European travellers showed that they were already there about 300 years ago. They are now known to be a result of erosion triggered naturally by down-cutting by the river into the uplifting edge of the Gangetic Plain as the Himalaya ploughs northwards. So often modern-day natural resource management problems are thought to be caused by modern land use, and most of them are, but some have a much longer history. In the case of environmental disasters, their incubation can take a long time. For example, in Uttarakhand in the Central Himalaya, the landslides and floods that killed as many as 30,000 people in 2013 did so much damage because of a rising tide of Hindu pilgrims who could reach the Kedarnath temple by motor roads that were first constructed by the British along the edges of flood-prone rivers, then later after the 1962 war with China. But also peasants have been drifting from remote villages as they were banned from the forests by the British thereby reducing the amount of natural fertiliser that they could apply to their fields with the result that productivity has declined Add to this the employment opportunities along the pilgrim and secular tourist routes, which are along the roads by the rivers, and the stage is set for a major calamity when a large flood occurs. Without knowing the history of the place, policymakers are likely to miss the key drivers of human behaviour. The policies will, therefore, be ineffective.

How can the dilemma of poverty alleviation and environmental protection be effectively addressed, given that raising the livelihood of people will invariably increase their ecological footprint? How do we address the trade-off between economic development and ecological prudence? 

Prof Robert: Another way of posing this dilemma is: what is the cost of not addressing climate change, particularly for the poor? Unless we can generate income for the poorest people without increasing natural resource degradation and higher levels of greenhouse gases, the future is bleak for the poorer people on our planet. But this is where innovative economics and governance may provide the solution, but only if we can wean ourselves from the manic growth paradigm. Many ideas are currently being examined but at the moment there is no silver bullet.


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