Global Observer

Asian cities at highest risk to climate change, study says

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DELHI -- Activists discuss the lessons of Hurricane Sandy for the rest of the globe.

DELHI – Two Indian cities – Kolkata and Mumbai – are among the top ten facing the highest risk from climate change, according to a study released last week by Maplecroft, a British consultancy firm specializing in risk assessment.

The most vulnerable is Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka followed by Manila in the Philippines and Bangkok in Thailand. Kolkata is ranked seventh and Mumbai is eighth. India’s capital city Delhi ranks 20 among the 50 on the vulnerability index.

New York City, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Sandy, is listed at 41.

The report warns that countries experiencing economic growth of above 5% should not ignore how climate change can impact people and businesses.

“As global corporations expand into the emerging growth markets, their operations and supply chains will become exposed to a complex set of climate risks that have the potential to disrupt business continuity,” said Helen Hodge, Maplecroft’s Head of Maps and Indices.

New York City, however, is categorized only as “medium risk” because of its quick response to Hurricane Sandy.

“The country’s strong economy and infrastructure, coupled with the extensive preparations before the storm’s landfall, enabled a relatively rapid return to operations for many businesses and services, with some of New York’s major airports and the New York Stock Exchange reopening only two days after the storm,” the study said.

While Hurricane Sandy hit New York, an almost equally ferocious Cyclone Nilam hit the southeastern coast of India in October. Sandy has caused damages and economic losses of $50 billion to U.S. northeast region.

The government of India is still assessing the damage from Nilam which spread over five states. The worst-hit Srikakulam district in the state of Andhra Pradesh would require about $36.4 million just to repair roads and embankments.

Scientists do not link climate change to a single storm, flood or drought. But they say that human-induced  global warming is leading to an increase in the intensity of extreme weather events and a rise in sea levels.

A week ahead of the U.N. climate change conference in Doha, Qatar climate activists in India are wondering whether Hurricane Sandy will propel the United States to adopt a more pro-active role in addressing the global challenge at a domestic and international level.

“We do see some momentum,” said Harjeet Singh, the climate change coordinator at ActionAid International. “Sandy shattered the myth that only developing countries are going to be hit by climate change.”

Singh added that the storm’s aftermath is an indication of the world bypassing the mitigation and adaptation phase. “Loss and damages is going to be a new reality,” he said. “It wasn’t expected for decades but now we’re facing it.”

Following the huge storm, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed Obama on the expectation that he would take action to address climate change. Bloomberg’s Businessweek’s cover story screamed “It’s Global Warming Stupid.”

Growing public awareness on climate change in the U.S. was reflected in polls conducted this year.  For instance, a survey done by Yale and George Mason Universities showed that most Americans believed that global warming is impacting the weather.

R.K. Pachauri, Director General of The Energy and Research Institute in Delhi, who also serves as the chairman of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, noted that public awareness about climate change wasn’t necessarily translating into action. “Governments are being dominated by short-term objectives for their nations,” he said. “But they cannot afford to ignore the rationale of climate change anymore.”

In another poll conducted by HuffPost/YouGov after Hurricane Sandy, one in five Americans would be willing to pay significantly more for gas or electricity, even if they were assured that it meant solving the climate change crisis.

Speaking to the press after winning the elections, Obama said any future action on climate change could not come at the costs of American jobs and growth.

“I don't think anybody is going to go for that.  I won't go for that,” he said. “If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth, and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that's something that the American people would support.”

Climate activists in India see his remarks as vague and non-committal.

“I don’t think it will change the American position. If Katrina didn’t do it then neither will Sandy,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy chief of the Centre of Science and Environment in Delhi. “I think there is a clear message from the Obama administration that there will be little change if it affects jobs.”

Bhushan says that in Doha, the US instead of addressing the issue of reducing its CO2 emission will try to divert to negotiations into reaching an agreement on short-lived climate forces like methane, black carbon or soot and a range of fluorinated gases.

These agents are many times more powerful than CO2 in trapping heat, but have a very short life-cycle of anything between a few days to 15 years. CO2 can stay in the atmosphere for over 100 years. Bhushan says that although CO2 is a bigger problem, the US may push others to pick this low hanging fruit.

In February 2012, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced the Climate and Clean Air Coalition which now has 13 members, including World Bank and European Union to reduce these short-lived agents.

During Obama’s first term, a proposed “cap and trade” regime that gives incentives to cut carbon emissions was passed by the House of Representatives but never approved by the Senate. Analysts see little chance of legislation to tax carbon emissions being passed. “In the U.S. there is a division between the executive power and Congress and that is a continuing reality that won’t change,” said Pachauri.

Obama, however, has pointed out that during his first term the U.S. had doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars and trucks, and doubled the production of clean energy. “But we haven't done as much as we need to,” he said.

In the election issue of Time Magazine, Michael Grunwald writes that Obama’s fuel efficiency rules could reduce carbon emissions by 6 billion metric tons by 2025, and his stimulus bill had put $90 billion into clean energy.

But Indian activists feel that the U.S. needs to rethink its whole developmental model that promotes unsustainable consumption.

“The time has come for the US to take climate change seriously,” said Ashok Khosla, head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Now that the elections are behind, the president can make some tough decisions for his country and the world.”

Indians have cause to be concerned. In another study conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Mumbai and Kolkata have been identified as the two port cities most  vulnerable to face sea level rise and cyclones. The first eight out of 20 spots are held by cities in Asia. Miami comes in at ninth while New York is seventeenth.

The Times of India reported that this study estimates that by 2070 an estimated 11.4 million people and assets worth $1.3 trillion would be at peril in Mumbai due to climatic extremes. In Kolkata, 14 million citizens and assets worth $2 trillion will be at peril by 2070.

Unlike the U.S., developing countries don’t have the capacity or resources to manage extreme weather events. “Everybody is going to take the impact of climate change,” said Krishna Achutarao, a professor at the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. “The divide is not on the impact but the ability to cope.”

Photo: Dhaka, Bangladesh. (eGuideTravel/Flickr)

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Betwa Sharma

Correspondent

Betwa Sharma has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Time, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, AOL News, GlobalPost, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Indian Express and The Tribune. She previously worked as the United Nations/New York correspondent for the Press Trust of India, the country's largest newswire. She holds degrees from the National Law Institute University in India, Cambridge University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in Delhi, India. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure