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Whither Indian Research and Science in Climate Change!

Centre for Education and Documentation

08 / 2010

“Yes! There is climate change. We do not know what is the reason is. The scientist will no doubt find out more about the problem, and the government will find a solution” . This statement by Pradeep Tapke, President of a Fishermen Cooperative in a fishing village in Mumbai summarises the expectation of the common man from research and academia on crises such as climate change. (1)

Research in India

Thanks to new financial support, several universities and institutions in India have set up research centres on Climate Change. The first Institute for Climate Change was set up in the Indian Institute for Tropical Meteorology, Pune. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore has set up the Divecha Centre for Climate Change. The primary goal of the centre is to quantify climate change and its impact on the environment and identify technologies that will help to mitigate climate change. For India’s National Communications Reports to the UNFCCC, NATCOM has tied up with several institutions in India. About 36 institutions were a part of this process.

Despite this, it can be said that field studies of climate change impacts in India are currently non-existent. Prof. N.H. Ravindranath, professor at the Centre for Sustainable Technologies, Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and one of the lead authors in the IPCC, for instance, says that research in India on climate change and its impact is in its “infancy” and scientific projection models “weak to put it mildly”

Dr. Subodh K.Sharma, Advisor to the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), in the presentation on the “Approach to Vulnerability & Adaptation Studies in the National Communication Process” states that:

  • the status of current knowledge on Climate Change is fragmentary;

  • there is a high degree of uncertainty with all impact projections;

  • these uncertainties arise because of limited understanding of many critical processes in the climate system;

  • there are multiple climatic and non-climatic stresses;

  • there are regional scale variations and non-linearities

Meanwhile a National mission on Strategic Knowledge for climate change has been launched to identify the challenges of, and the response to climate change through research & technology development, ensure funding of high quality and focused research into various aspects of climate change. This mission contains a draft blueprint for national activity of a similar scope in India, with climate change as its deliverable. But, as Rahul Goswami (2) points our, the framework stops short at defining systems that will convert the blueprint into communication. Disaster risk reduction needs to be taught in schools and in communities. Besides, public awareness campaign and climate education needs to be carried out on specific positive actions that individuals and communities can take. There is also a need to link research to communities on the one hand and public policy at large.

At a pilot workshop between NGOs, scientific institutions, and fishermen in Mumbai recently, representatives of the fishermen and the NGOs, heard scientists from the weather departments as well as the fisheries research institutions, and realised that they had information on many topics which would be helpful for them, while at the same time, scientist felt that they needed to tailor their research so that it can be of use to fishermen. Yet there was a gap in communication.

Research in the non-state sector

Given the laggardish nature of the government related scientific institutions, many NGOs have been forced to take up scientific research. Two outstanding examples of such institutions are the CSE and TERI.

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), based in Delhi, is a public interest research Organisation dedicated to disseminate information about science and environment. Research at CSE consists of in-depth learning of the issue from a micro-perspective of the poor and the marginalised and translating them into lessons in policy-making. It was in 1996 when CSE released the book Slow murder: The deadly story of vehicular pollution in India on smog as a part of the Right to Clean Air Campaign seeking to improve the air quality in New Delhi. The campaign pushed the government to introduce the use of clean fuels such as the compressed natural gas (CNG) for public transport. CSE published the Sate of Global Environmental Negotiations (GEN) reports, which uncovered the issues and politics involved in these negotiations. The two GEN reports, Green Politics and Poles Apart published in 1999 and 2001 respectively, are today used as resource material. CSE also launched a campaign to establish an equitable framework for a system of global environmental governance for Climate Change negotiations. In 1991, CSE raised the issue of equity in managing climate change with its publication Global Warming in an Unequal World.

The Energy Reasearch Institute (TERI) initial activities focused on awareness generation and capacity building for different stakeholders. TERI has sought to bring out the developing country perspective in the international arena. Dr R.K.Pachauri, the Chairperson of the IPCC since 2001, is from TERI. TERI has recently launched a specialised library on Climate Change that is working as an information platform to collect and disseminate information related to climate change and energy security. For the last two years TERI has organised the International Climate Change Exhibition (ICCE) held on the sidelines of TERI’s annual flagship event the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS), the main focus of the ICCE is to offer a platform to show case cutting edge climate change adaptation and mitigation techniques.

Object of research

While the IPCC and the large institutions have played a major role in the science of Climate Change with concerns for long term effects on the scale of decades and so on, what needs to be addressed is the vulnerability of communities who are faced with the challenges on a regular basis. In his article, which draws on experiences in Sri Lanka, Lareef Zubair (3) argues that local communities have an urgent need for more information in order to cope with short-term ‘climate variability’. Climate science and technology skills need to be developed locally, he says, through support for research institutes, basic scientific infrastructure and young scientists. Zubair says a focus on short-term local variability would provide a valuable testing ground for adaptation to longer-term climate change.

It is the poor and marginalised communities who are particularly vulnerable to climate change, requiring support in order to adapt to the changes they are experiencing because they rely heavily on the ecosystem and natural resources that are immediately available. Vulnerable communities need to be empowered to cope with climate variability and climate change. As part of this process, there must be practical steps taken to support, strengthen and empower local scientific and technological capabilities. Weather indexing, early warning systems, developing methodologies for assessing vulnerability need to be geared to the needs of the marginalised.

It is also important to note that the bio-physical impacts cannot be completely independent of the socio-economic structures. The mitigation and adaptation measures should consider both bio-physical and socio-economic aspects of the region. Bottom up approach at the household/community level needs to be prioritised. More and more of inter-disciplinary studies between science and development has to happen.

But as Dr Murari Lal, one of the lead authors of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports for over 15 years says, « No local studies have been done in India to measure the precise impact of global warming”.

At the recent meeting of the Indian National Social Action Forum (INSAF), a network of action group of seventies vintage, Lawrence Surendra, an academician activist, emphasised that today most of the scientists are paid by the corporate sector, and the areas of scientific enquiry is more in line with concerns them. In fact the scientist is expected to deliver technology as the messiah of a post-Climate-Change order. To complicate matters, the high priests ordaining these technologies, whether the sovereign (as embodied in the nation states) or the entrepreneurs (as ruled by corporate devices), know that there is money to be made, and seek to privilege this information through patents, and indulgences (read CDMs). They seek privy to this magic potion, at the expense of the faithful, who in any case had little to do with the creation of the problem, by discrediting whatever solutions they had, as pagan, impractical and backward.

The business, in corporate circles is called monetising the situation. In this effort, Science is called upon to measure and monitor the problem in its component parts – in this case Green House Gas (GHG) emissions – so that the market can buy the rights to contribute these emissions, when it makes economic sense to do so, while those who sell their privileges scamper in the market place to squeeze out that extra Euro from the system.

On the other hand, the real solution to the problem of climate change seem to lie in the search for an alternative or rather alternatives to the “high density energy” based system that we have.

These high-density energy systems tend to be centralised, and owned by a few people. They also rely on the fact that this energy has been concentrated by nature over millenia. On the other hand low-density energy systems have to be broad based, and accessible to a wider range of people – be they solar, wind, gravity, or renewable firewood. Science and Technology has not found the time or the inclination and definitely not the money to adapt these sources on the wider decentralised scale. If anything, they have been de-legitimised.

The NGO view

The Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG), an NGO in Uttar Pradesh, outlined some important research needs:

  • linkages between vulnerability to climate change in different agro-economic zone to environmental, socio-economic and political factors;

  • changing patterns and types of poverty dimensions due to climatic extremes;

  • mapping of current and future vulnerability;

  • identification of priority sectors and cities;

  • financial mechanisms for risk spreading and pooling;

  • indigenous technologies of water harvesting, crop management and other practices that enhance adaptation;

  • local & specific impacts of climate change on the industrial sector and vice-versa;

  • low cost technologies that promote employment but at the same time mitigate global warming and promote climate change adaptation.

In terms of technology, Civil Society has been asking for significant push for sustainable and decentralised alternatives. Most of these alternatives have been demonstrated in the field. Civil Society Organisations thus have a lot to contribute in terms of knowledge and expertise. These need to be valorised by the scientific community. Some of these areas include:

  • water Harvesting and Watershed Based Management of water;

  • crop Management, diversification, Non Pesticide Management, System of Rice Intensification, etc;

  • more appropriate local seeds, soil fertilisation and pest management (Timbaktu, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture);

  • community based management;

  • decentralised energy systems (INECC);

  • people’s management of power (Prayas);

  • re-cycling & Waste management (Stree Mukti Sanghatna, Parisar Bhagini Vikas Sangha).


Research and Academia have made significant contributions to the understanding of Climate Change at the global and national level. But there is a need to develop adaptation frameworks at local level. The issue of Climate Change is a part of the larger challenge of sustainable development. The primary aim of research on Climate Change should be to secure lives and livelihoods for the poor and marginalised communities at large by understanding from a local perspective on their vulnerability, strengths and adaptive capacities. The basic idea is to learn from people’s own knowledge, disseminate their own information and involve them in the process of combating climate changes by integrating their knowledge and experiences with academic researches.

(1) Interview with CED, 28 March 2009
(2) Rahul Goswami, « Blind spots in India’s new National Action Plan on Climate Change », in InfoChange, September 2008
(3) Lareef ZUBAIR, “Empowering the vulnerable”, in Tiempo Climate News Watch

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