"It is so much more than just rising temperature"

June 23, 2019

Adil Najam is Dean, Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, USA

The News on Sunday: For a layman in Pakistan, what is rising temperature and how is it eventually affecting his daily life?

Adil Najam: The issue is NOT just rising temperatures. If it were just that it would be a much less difficult problem to beat. Rising temperatures, or heatwaves, is just one manifestation -- one amongst many -- of the great challenge of climate change. Climate change is a complex of multiple manifestations of changes in the greater climate system -- not just changing weather. It is about temperatures rising in many places, sometimes in heatwaves, sometimes in erratic temperature swings, sometimes even in temperatures falling. It is about erratically changing rainfall systems; cyclones, tsunamis, monsoon bursts … or just the disappearance of expected rains. It is about drought. About floods, about snowstorms, about dust bowls, about rising sea levels, about melting glaciers, about disease vectors moving, about ecosystem endangerment, about invasive species, about species loss, and about so much more.

That, in fact, is the whole point about global climate change. It can change the entire GLOBAL climate system, and in ways that we cannot always predict. The fluctuations can be sudden, and massive, sometimes irreversible. If all of this sounds scary; it is because it IS scary. And the most scary part of it is that (a) once the system changes in one place it can make other parts of the system -- sometimes continents away -- also change, and that (b) our understanding of precisely what those changes might be when, when and how is still very very limited. Here is what all of this means for you and me, and for people everywhere: climatic patterns that have been fairly dependable and around which we have structured our entire lives -- what you wear when, where to build our homes, when to take vacations, when to plant what and where, and so much more -- is no longer dependable. Yes, that IS scary. And, yes, that is so much more than just rising temperatures!

TNS: Are we generally aware of climate change and what it means? Also, you have written that we are now living in the ‘Age of Adaptation’, what does that mean?

AN: Are we generally aware about climate change? Yes, we are. But only in very general terms. Unlike in the USA where a large part of the population (including President Trump) are climate deniers, most Pakistanis would not deny the phenomenon and most will affirm from their own experience that the climate IS changing.

However, people are still not really understanding what this means. Even well-educated and caring folks are not fully able to connect the dots about the impacts of climate change and all the many interconnected ways in which it is already changing how we live and the options that may or may not be available in the future. But let me also add that this is true not just in Pakistan, but everywhere. In fact, I sometimes feel that at least on some aspects, people in Pakistan are more aware than those in the US, on some things even Europe -- of course, this is because we are already having to face the wrath of climate change very directly in our daily lives.

Most importantly, I have argued in my recent work that we are now, already, living in what I have called, "The Age of Adaptation." That means that it is no longer enough to reduce carbon emissions (i.e. mitigation), we are now having to tackle head-on the challenges of dealing with the IMPACTS of climate change (i.e. adaptation).

Of course, we still have to mitigate because the less we mitigate the more we will have to adapt, but it is no longer enough to just reduce carbon emissions -- in the Age of Adaptation we have to also prepare for drought, for flood, for disease epidemics, and for out-of-control heatwaves like we are seeing across South Asia, including in Karachi, today. After all, adaptation is what you have to do after you fail to mitigate.

TNS: How are rising urban temperatures impacting urban life, urban policy making and development patterns? The heatwave in Karachi has cost many precious lives, (even though this year they have handled it better) and impacted upon work output negatively. How can we cope with this in a better way?

AN: Of course, temperatures don’t just rise in cities, they rise all over. But urban areas, especially megacities, do have a special role. Lots and lots of people are concentrated in cities and that itself is a factor. Cities, or part of cities, can also become major heat-sinks. Badly planned cities can turn into concrete and asphalt ovens, especially for their poorest and most vulnerable inhabitants.

Temperatures don’t just rise in cities, they rise all over. But urban areas, especially megacities, do have a special role. Lots and lots of people are concentrated in cities and that itself is a factor. Cities can also become major heat-sinks. Badly planned cities can turn into asphalt ovens, especially for their poorest inhabitants.

Conversely, cities are also an opportunity for good planning as an adaptation policy itself. Cities have scale, and scale can sometimes provide solutions. Cities that are planned around humans needs -- especially, the needs of the most marginalised -- can adapt better to rising temperatures. For example, green belts and shade may provide mere visual eye-candy to someone sitting inside an air-conditioned office or car, but they can help cities breathe, can have appreciable impacts on micro-climates, and can literally be life-saving safety nets for the poorest who have to slog outdoors. Water, and how and to whom it is made accessible, can literally be a life line in scorching heat. It is no surprise why well planned cities, throughout history, have been designed around lakes, canals, ponds, fountains, and tanks. These are necessary and utilitarian structures, not just decorative elements.

And, of course, there is the question of buildings -- who and what do we design them for.

TNS: Rising temperatures are also increasing our energy demands -- use of electricity in running fans, air coolers and air-conditioners, etc.

AN: Energy, of course, is a basic human need. It can also be a central tool for adapting to rising temperatures. Energy is needed for cooling: fans, air conditioners, and so on. Without basic energy -- which is needed for so many other things too -- development can falter. For countries like Pakistan, energy poverty remains a greater challenge than energy extravagance. But energy must not become a band-aid; it cannot be a quick-fix, especially not in Pakistan. Most importantly, pumping more energy, especially from unsustainable and problematic sources, such as coal, cannot be a substitute for better urban planning.

Yes, Karachi needs and deserves -- all of Pakistan needs and deserves -- more reliable, less expensive, uninterrupted, sustainable energy. But there is still so much that can be done with how we plan and manage our cities, how we build and insulate our homes, the green areas and public waterworks or city governments provides and maintains, the greens we can grow in our courtyards, our rooftops, even vertically.

All I am trying to say is that, yes, energy IS a key part of the answer, but unless we reverse the criminal failure of civic sense by governments and citizens alike, no amount of energy -- cheap or not -- will solve our problems. Because most energy sources, after all, are net producers of CO2, and, therefore, the source of climate change.

TNS: But some people see coal as the answer to Pakistan’s energy crisis? Is it?

AN: Coal is clearly a terrible idea in terms of climate change -- and, please, before anyone even suggests so, let me make as clear as possible that there is NO such thing as ‘clean coal.’ That is an oxymoron, and a very bad one. But my case against coal for Pakistan is NOT based on environmental reasons. Even if you simply ignore the climate costs of coal, it is just a bad idea to be building new coal plants today. Simply put, coal is an old, outdated, and declining technology. The whole world, especially including China, is tearing down its coal plants, mostly because there are better, cheaper, cleaner technologies available.

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Fifteen years ago there might have been an economic case to build new coal plants, today there is none. Given how much the costs of alternatives have fallen, how good new smart grids and battery technologies are, building new coal plants today would be like someone insisting that he would rather get an old manual round-dial land-line phone rather than an iPhone.

Energy is undergoing a massive transformation today. Now is the time to leapfrog, not to argue for last-century technologies like coal. Mark my words, we will regret our coal fetish -- and much sooner than you may imagine. Coal was an absolutely brilliant and revolutionary technology of its time; but that time is long gone, at least by 2 centuries. Today it is a dying technology. It is beyond foolish to be building new coal-fired energy plants. On this, I think, we should be following not what China was doing 25 years ago, but doing what it is doing today -- moving to smart-grids and to cutting-edge, large-scale renewables.

"It is so much more than just rising temperature"