Ecostani | 2022: The link between climate, extreme weather, and inflation

  • IPCC’s caution for the future is visible in India today, where we have seen the record coldest and warmest period in less than five months, with the vulnerable set to lose the most 
On May 15, Delhi recorded 49.2 degrees Celsius, the highest for the city since 1901. (AFP) PREMIUM
On May 15, Delhi recorded 49.2 degrees Celsius, the highest for the city since 1901. (AFP)
Published on May 16, 2022 08:06 PM IST
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2022 will be remembered as that rare year in India’s history where, within less than five months, the record for coldest and warmest days were set.

On May 15, Delhi recorded 49.2 degrees Celsius, the highest for the city since 1901, the year since the India Meteorological Department (IMD) started recording weather data. A small disclaimer — the number of monitoring stations has increased since then (from one in Delhi to eight now), improving the recording of weather. The record was created in Mangeshpur on the Delhi-Haryana border, which came on the IMD weather map just a few years ago. Before May 15, the warmest day in Delhi was recorded at Palam observatory at 48.4 degrees Celsius on May 26, 1998. Then, there was no temperature recording facility at Mangeshpur. Palam on Sunday was 46.4 degrees Celsius.

On the first day of 2022, Delhi witnessed its second coldest day since 1901 with the day’s temperature being 11.4 degrees Celsius and a minimum temperature of 1.1. January 9, 2013, continues to be the coldest day in Delhi, with 9.8 degrees Celsius being the day temperature. Delhi also received the highest ever rainfall for January in 2022.

Delhi is just one example. Several places in India have seen extreme weather in a short period. Churu in Rajasthan, which is considered one of the warmest places in Delhi, recorded a -4.6 degree Celsius temperature on December 21, 2021. Churu on May 13, recorded 48.1 degrees Celsius, the highest for that day in the country.

Extreme weather is here

Extreme weather events have been playing out in India for some time now. IMD’s annual report in December 2021 said that 2021 was the fifth warmest year since 1901 and the last decade (2000-2010) was the warmest ever. It also mentioned that warming in India has significantly increased since the 1970s — 0.5 degree Celsius increase in temperature over the long period average.

IMD data shows India is witnessing an increase in extreme rainfall events — more than 15 cm in 24 hours — in the 21st century. This means that the rainy days in the country are falling, even though the total amount of rainfall received has not decreased. IMD’s rainfall data shows that summer rainfall in India is decreasing, with the lowest rainfall in April and May in the past 50 years. The period from March to May end is considered the summer months in India. This year, the summer rainfall deficit is high despite cyclone Asani bringing heavy rainfall in southern peninsular and eastern India.

Experts attribute the sudden spurt in extreme weather events as a direct consequence of carbon emission induced climate crisis, which is warming land and ocean surface temperatures. An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released in August 2021 said that the Indian Ocean was warming at a much faster rate as compared to other oceans in the world, leading to a higher frequency of more intense cyclones. And, its direct consequence is the weakening of the southwest monsoon and more extreme rainy days during the monsoon.

The economic impact

Although numerous studies have been done on the impact of the climate crisis on Indian agriculture, it is more than apparent this year. The wheat output this year is expected to be the lowest in the last 13 years and is expected to fall to 185 lakh tonnes, forcing the government to reduce the supply of wheat and replace it with rice in the public distribution system (PDS), the Central government scheme to provide subsidised food to poor in the country. According to the official data, wheat production this year would be less than the drought year of 2016-17 when India produced 229.61 lakh tonnes of wheat.

“The clear reason for less production per acre was unprecedented heat in March,” said agriculture expert Devendra Sharma. The temperature in March in several parts of north-west and central India, the main wheat-producing regions, crossed 40 degrees Celsius from less than 20 degrees Celsius within a month, making it the warmest March in 122 years.

India has banned wheat exports and the country is staring at a steep rise in wheat flour (the main staple diet of a large number of people) prices in the country.

The unprecedented heat in March was also responsible for the increase in prices of vegetables in April with a kilogram of lemon being sold at R300, eight times its normal price. According to the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, the inflation rate for vegetables for April was 15.41%, the highest in eight years. The rise in fuel prices due to the Russia-Ukraine war was a contributing factor, but a key reason was the sudden increase in mercury levels.

Such a quick and sudden change in weather was not even on the radar of experts. No government agency had forecast the rapid warming in March and subsequent months. In fact, in its pre-summer forecast in February, IMD had predicted cooler summers as compared to previous years going by the recording-breaking winter last year. “That is what climate change does. It makes the job of weathermen more difficult to make long term forecasts with warming causing very fast changes in the weather systems,” said K J Ramesh, former director-general of IMD.

The lessons

Ramesh’s admission is an indicator of how predicting extreme weather events would become difficult in coming years as the earth gets warmer with every ounce of carbon emitted into the atmosphere. The IPCC report released last year said that at the present pace of emissions, the earth would warm by 1.5 degrees to pre-industrial levels by 2040 as against the Paris climate target of limiting the warming to this level by the turn of the century.

As a word of caution, IPCC also said, predicting extreme weather events would become more difficult with rapid warming, leading to sudden disruptions that can have a policy and societal implications.

2022 has shown that IPCC’s caution for the future is visible in India today, where we have seen the record coldest and warmest period in less than five months. The year also tells us that climate will impact even those living in protected environments in big cities or towns, away from vulnerable areas in mountains or coasts. And its implications will not be easy to handle with only 20 cities in India having a heat action plan and 100 more in the process of framing one.

To offset these possible implications for the future, the country needs climate science-based policy interventions at the national and regional levels for ensuring the country’s food security and general well-being of the population, and incentives for people to adopt new climate-friendly ways of life and agriculture. An approach based on people’s participation is crucial, coupled with better climate vulnerability mapping and institutionalising adequate disaster response mechanisms.

The views expressed are personal

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    Chetan Chauhan heads regional editions as Deputy National Affairs Editor. A journalist for over 20 years, he has written extensively on social sector with special focus on environment and political economy.

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