Thursday, April 23, 2015

One sparrow, a flock of sparrows, seasonal, unseasonal rains

There is something about the word “charisma” that makes us miss observing much of the world. Yes, tiger is charismatic megafauna. Yes, we know it jumps between being endangered or not, depending on how it is counted, who counts it and various other factors. But, how many of even stop to read that a new species of frog has been spotted in the Western Ghats or another frag species is on the verge of extinction? Hardly anyone. Why? Frog is not charismatic megafauna, that is why.
Now, shift from fauna, charismatic or otherwise to climate events. I will try to show how distinctions similar to how we perceive things in the animal world also afflict what we do with climate events. We all remember the cloud burst that paralyzed Mumbai some years ago. I will never forget that, because my cousin spent the night in his car on the road trying to reach his home in Cuffe Parade in South Mumbai (his driver was at the wheels), leaving his office in Andheri at a not unreasonable hour that evening. As he told it, it was chaos reigning supreme. The fact that it was in Mumbai – charisma central of India, what with Bollywood – made India take notice.
Yes, we will not forget how a similar downpour and deluge took Uttarakhand, particularly Kedarnath shrine, by surprise; an instance of insane chaos. The society took notice of the loss – of course, the affected place had immense religious significance added to the charisma of the event – and the nation as a whole rallied together.
There were at least a few comments that perhaps these events, along with similar major climatic events like once-in-a-lifetime floods in England, hurricanes of hundred year return intensity in the Caribbean, never before seen heat waves in the American mid-west, have their genesis in climate change.
Oh, that phrase! Of course, people in the know and who believe that the globe is indeed warming up studiously issued disclaimers – and valid they are – that taking isolated incidents, charismatic or not, as evidence of climate change is unwarranted. Climate change is not a one-off thing; rather it is a matter of sustained change that would tend to have unpredictable outcomes; the best the scientific community is able to do is to predict outcomes with varying levels of confidence, but never with certainty. This is how IPCC Assessment reports come to resemble a mathematician’s paradise, going beyond the ken of normal people (that is my value judgment – mathematicians are not normal people!).
Now, we have had unseasonal rain across many regions of India this spring and farmers have suffered heavy losses. But the events and also the suffering of the farmers are not charismatic enough. Why do I care about farmers in Madhya Pradesh? I get my grains and cereals, and vegetables too from my neighborhood store or street vendors. As far as I am concerned, there is no charisma to these unseasonal rains.
As much as I have scoured newspapers, I have not come across any instance of anyone even hinting that this could be the result of climate change. Why this step-motherly treatment to droughts, rains, floods that affect farmers as compared to similar events of high consequence in urban areas and at religious shrines?
This is where charisma comes in. The differential treatment must not be because the media has taken in the scientific consensus against proving climate change through isolated incidents. It must be because farmers’ suffering is distributed across the land and the effect is not agglomerative. It is difficult for me, sitting in Srirangam in Tamil Nadu, to appreciate a farmer in Madhya Pradesh suffering due to unseasonal rains. The event is coming in at zero on the charisma scale.
Just a small digression. The Trichy-Thanjavur region of Tamil Nadu is spotted with temples of various hues and is considered holy for that reason and so is Kedarnath. Obviously the floods in Kedarnath tugged at the heartstrings of the headman of a private university in this region and he went all the way to Kedarnath to deliver relief goods, collected from the staff of the university.
Continuing with the topic, though I do not have the numbers to back up, I want to make the case, that occasional yet too-frequent-to-be-comfortable droughts, unseasonal rains over a large region etc. are likely to be more in tune with changing climate than a cloud burst over Mumbai or in Kedarnath. This unseasonal rainfall could very well be a precursor to such rainfalls being accepted as seasonal over time, say, two decades. Yes, an isolated hundred year return period hurricane returning within a decade might be telling us something. But as an isolated case, it is just that – an isolated case. What do they say? “One sparrow does not a summer make”.
But, if we waited for a spate of non-charismatic yet chaos-inducing events to herald, not the coming of spring but a warmed up globe, then we are lost. Here is an instance where we have to treat the first swallow as a flock, but with prudence and not too confidently. We have to have our antennae up for the next swallow, another unseasonal rain or severe drought. Climate change demands that.
Are we listening?
Raghuram Ekambaram

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