Climate Change and Associated Risks for South Asia

Anthropomorphic or human induced climate change, or as some members of the scientific community prefer to call it, ‘ global climate disruption ’ will, in years to come, have very large impacts on all life on this planet.

Climate change is the greatest environmental challenge facing the world today. Rising global temperatures will bring changes in weather patterns, rising sea levels and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. The effects will be felt globally and will be severe problems for people in regions that are particularly vulnerable to change.

Climate change affects all of us – and we must all be part of the solution.

The Earth has warmed by 0.74°C over the last hundred years. Around 0.4°C of this warming has occurred since the 1970s and the rate of warming is accelerating. The recent Fourth Assessment Report of the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) leaves no doubt that human activity is the primary driver of changes in climate. It would in fact appear that the change is happening even faster that expected,here is what  Kevin Anderson  had to  say  at a conference this summer at the University of Exeter.

The main human influence on global climate is emissions of the key greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide. The accumulation of these gases in the atmosphere strengthens the greenhouse effect. At present, just over 7 billion tonnes of CO2 is emitted globally each year through fossil fuel use, and an additional 1.6 billion tonnes are emitted by land use change, largely by deforestation. The concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere have now reached levels unprecedented inhuman history.

According to the  IPCC , mean global temperatures are likely to rise between 1.1 and 6.4°C (with a best estimate of 1.8 to 4°C) above 1990 levels by the end of this century, depending on our emissions. This will result in a further rise in global sea levels of between 20 and 60cm by the end of this century, continued melting of ice caps, glaciers and sea ice, changes in rainfall patterns and intensification of tropical cyclones.

Across the globe, there will be more intense heat waves, droughts and more flooding. Food shortages and the spread of disease are commonly predicted. The social, environmental and economic costs of climate change could be huge, as indicated in the recent Stern report on the economics of climate change (read the Stern Report).

In South Asia, where many live on the edge of poverty, global climate disruption in the form of water or food shortages may cause untold suffering. Rising temperatures are already causing a melting of Himalayan glaciers, glaciers that act as a  water storage facility  for much of South Asia.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( IPCC ) in their Third Assessment Report (TAR) 2001 emphasize the linkages between global environmental issues and the challenge of meeting key human needs such as adequate food, clean water, clean air and adequate and affordable energy.

Climate change is not a single phenomena, but an interrelated chain of events that started with the burning of fossil fuels (petroleum, coal and natural gas) at the beginning of the industrial revolution, the byproduct of which is CO2 (carbon). The oceans absorb some carbon with the majority remaining in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. The atmospheric CO2 is responsible for the  greenhouse effect  leading to increasing global temperatures. Warming world temperatures will have an effect on the global climatic patterns. Some areas will receive increased rainfall and in others there will be decreased rainfall. Dr. James E. Hansen  Columbia University and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and eight co-authors have drafted a fresh paper (March 2008) arguing that the world has already shot past a safe atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, which they say would be around 350 parts per million, a level passed 20 years ago. (The atmosphere currently about 385 parts per million of the greenhouse gas.)  More >>>

For a good overview of the climate change situation  click here  to download the ‘Scoping Study Report – Pakistan’s Options for Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation‘ April 2008 by LEAD Pakistan. [A 4 MB PDF]

Water Security

Byers and Dragojlovic  in a October 2004 article in the Human Security Bulletin state that “in the future, as climate change progresses .. conflict over natural resources could increasingly take centre stage” and that the situation in Dafur “is likely linked to climate change”. Mesarovic and Pesrel[1] state that in a time of resource shortages “there will be a thousand desperadoes terrorizing those who are now ‘rich‘ and eventually nuclear blackmail and terror will paralyze further orderly


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has, as of June 2008 released their seminal paper  Technical Paper VI: Climate Change and Water .The report states in brief for  Asia:
• The per capita availability of freshwater in India [sub-continent] is expected to drop from around 1,820 m currently to below 1,000 m by 2025 in response to the combined effects of population growth and climate change. [WGII]
• More intense rain and more frequent flash floods during the monsoon would result in a higher proportion of runoff and a reduction in the proportion reaching the groundwater.[WGII 10.4.2]
• Agricultural irrigation demand in arid and semi-arid regions of east Asia is expected to increase by 10% for an
increase in temperature of 1°C. [WGII 10.4.1]
• Coastal areas, especially heavily populated Asian megadelta regions, will be at greatest risk due to increased
flooding from the sea and, in some megadeltas, flooding from rivers. [WGII 6.4, 10.4.3]
• Changes in snow and glacier melt, as well as rising snowlines in the Himalayas, will affect seasonal
variation in runoff, causing water shortages during dry summer months. One-quarter of China’s population and hundreds of millions in India will be affected (Stern, 2007). [WGII 3.4.1,]

Food Security

An  unprecedented increase in food prices  has affected millions of people around the world. The causes are complex: higher demand for grains along with lower supply and rising fuel and fertilizer costs are central to the issue, but other factors such as bio-fuel conversion, climate change and government agricultural policies also play a significant part. The potential consequences, on the other hand, are simple and severe. Among these are a rise in worldwide malnutrition rates, increased poverty and vulnerability among millions, and risks of economic and political instability.

In April, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the creation of a  High Level Task Force  on the global food crisis. Its primary aim is to coordinate the efforts of the United Nations system in addressing all aspects of the crisis. USG John Holmes was appointed Coordinator of the Task Force. The High-Level Conference on Food Security, held 3-5 June in Rome, examined the impact of soaring food prices and the challenges of climate change and energy security. The Task Force released its Comprehensive Framework for Action  (CFA) in July. The CFA provides a set of measures to address the immediate needs of those affected by the crisis, as well as longer-term actions aimed at the structural components of the crisis.

Sea Level Rise

Sea level rise (SLR) due to climate change is a serious global threat: The scientific evidence is now overwhelming. Continued growth of greenhouse gas emissions and associated global warming could well promote SLR of 1m-3m in this century, and unexpectedly rapid breakup of the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets (WAIS) [5]might produce a 5m SLR.[6]  NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies  James Hansen and his collaborators argue that based on the paleoclimate records is that sea level rise is likely to be five metres this century under a business as usual (BAU) trajectory. In December 2006 data presented to the American Geophysical Union Conference suggested that the Arctic may be free of all summer ice as early as 2030 and likely by 2040. This will have the effect of setting up a “positive feedback loop” with dramatic consequences for the entire Arctic region.

The question in relation to Greenland is whether the ice cap can survive the forcing contributed by the albedo effect of open ocean for the duration of Arctic summers. Rising sea levels have three causes, the first being the expansion of the planet’s oceans caused by the rising temperature [3], and the second being the melting of ice caps and glaciers globally and the third is the change in terrestrial storage. The IPCC “Climate Change 2007  Fourth Assessment Report  states that ‘Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level’.[3] In a high level meeting with a senior advisor the British Government the author was informed that the UK is expected to have monsoon type rains in years to come, necessating the replacement of storm drainage systems in many metropolitan areas. This therefore is another consideration for the northern latitudes, that due to the rising average global air temperature, the atmosphere will be able to hold more moisture leading to heavier rainfall and inevitably greater terrestrial flooding, flooding that is already problematic and will be exacerbated by increased sea level. In the southern latitudes the opposite may well be the case, with water shortages being experienced.

C02 Carbon Output

Phase-out of  coal emissions  is the sine qua non for climate stabilization. Oil and gas, the most convenient portable fossil fuels, are sufficiently abundant to carry the world well into the dangerous CO2 zone, but not irretrievably so. If coal emissions (not necessarily coal use) were phased out promptly (within ~2 decades, which probably would require phase-out in the West within ~1 decade), it would be practical to get back to CO2 levels lower than the present day amount. Coal is by far the dirtiest of the conventional fossil fuels, providing additional reason to target it for phase-out. Conclusion that the largest pools of oil and gas will be used, and that oil and gas reserves are smaller than coal reserves, does not imply that it makes sense to extract every last drop of oil and gas. Given the need to move beyond fossil fuels in any case, and the need to get back to a safe level of atmospheric CO2, policy-makers should consider actions that move beyond fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, preferably leaving in the ground the oil and gas that is more difficult to extract or located in environmentally sensitive regions.

Energy Security

There is a growing realization that achieving energy and climate security is at the core of future global challenges, with implications that go well beyond their traditional policy spheres. Schwartz and Randal in their  paper  An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security argue that an abrupt climate change scenario could potentially de-stabilize geo-political environments, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war due to resource constraints.

Conflict Trigger

Climate Change in South Asia: A Precursor for Conflict?  Journal of South Asian Non-Proliferation – July 2007


South Asian Strategic Stability Institute Climate Change Links Page

Global Change Master Directory

IPCC Technical Paper VI- On Climate Change and Water

Goddard Institute of Space Studies

United Nations Environment Program

Global Change Impact Studies Centre Islamabad, Pakistan

LEAD Pakistan

E3G.Org Change Agents for Sustainable Development

Climate Change Links  - You will be taken to an external web site

New Scientist Magazine’s Special Report on Climate Change

The Cayman Institute  - An independent think tank addressing energy security, climate change and sustainability.

Climate Change: Changing Our World  - A climate Change Blog with topical articles on climate change and global warming

Energy Security  An Energy Security Blog with topical articles on energy security

Climate Change & Conflict

[1] Mesarovic, M & Pestel, E., Mankind at the turning Point: The Second Report of the Club of Rome, 1975: The Anchor Press Ltd. 210

[2] Jim Hansen  20080804_TripReport.pdf



[5] An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and its Implications for United States National Security, Schwartz and Randal, October 2003