November 13, 2012

Delhi Blues

Last weekend my son took part in a set of Boy Scout activities with his local Delhi scout troop. On the grounds of the former residence of the U.S. ambassador, the boys prepared a kabob lunch, practiced fire making, and even built a Medieval-style trebuchet. But all I could think about were the little striped mosquitoes that seemed to follow the kids everywhere—Asian Tiger mosquitoes, to be exact, the kind that carry dengue fever

In New Delhi, dengue (DEN-gay) has reached epidemic proportions. The scouts, I’m happy to say, completed their tour without infection, thanks to lots of lotion, spray, and smoky coils. But not everyone has been so lucky. I know at least five people who have been confined to bed for two weeks of fever, headaches, and joint pain. (My medical traveler’s guide says it feels as if  “knitting needles have been driven into every joint of [your] body.”) The New York Times reported last week that Delhi hospitals “are overrun and feverish patients are sharing beds and languishing in hallways.” The illness, which in extreme forms can require blood transfusions and even kill, is breaking out all over the country. Official reports say that this year 30,002 people in Indian have fallen ill with dengue through October. But experts believe the real number is around 37 million.

And last week, we had what I call the “Monster Smog,” a week-long haze of smoke and diesel fumes that the Financial Times described as “the worst occurrence of air pollution in a city long accustomed to dirty air, with the density of dust particles in some places reaching 30 times the guidelines set by the World Health Organisation.” City hospitals were once again overrun. Three Supreme Court Justices pledged to investigate the affair. The cause of the Monster Smog apparently involved some mix of tailpipe emissions, field burning in neighboring states, a lack of wind, and an unusual amount of moisture in the air.

Now with events like these, my “climate” radar goes up. I think of the mounting concern among health experts that warmer temperatures could broaden the reach and lengthen the season of mosquito-borne illnesses in some parts of India. Or the possibility that changes in air temperature and wind patterns will thicken India’s urban smog. (For examples of both, see this report.) And I think of how cities like New Delhi must begin to adapt to a changing climate.

I know such thinking just adds to the moral and logistical complexity of modern life. In this way, I am only slightly less annoying than that guy at the seafood restaurant who consults his “Seafood Watch” phone app at the table and warns his guests about the Chilean Seabass. (O.K., I did that once, but never again.)

Causing annoyance is one thing. But in my conversations on climate policy in India, I have sometimes felt that climate adaptation strikes people as tedious and boring. For instance, at a recent gathering of development experts here in New Delhi, I asked one of the speakers how global development strategies in Asia might change as interest in climate adaptation grows.

After expressing skepticism toward the international adaptation agenda (“code,” he said, for relieving rich nations of their duty to curb emissions), he explained that in developing countries, increasing climate resilience was not that different from ordinary development. It was important, yes, but not conceptually challenging. As a policy, adaption was “just not that interesting.”

I can appreciate the point. Development has always been about insulating society from the vagaries of nature. That’s what air conditioning and insurance polices are for. Why burden basic development efforts with extra tweaking? It’s one thing for New York City to wonder how to protect its subways from higher seas in 2050. But many cities in India don’t even have public transportation. Or sewage treatment plants, or sufficient air quality monitoring, or available hospital beds, or any number of basic services Americans taken for granted. Isn’t any improvement in water management or air quality or health care also, at this stage in the game, a step toward climate resilience?

Yes, but it’s not nearly enough. In order to cope with climatic change, developing nations need to have some idea of what the vulnerabilities are and what regions are more at risk. That requires huge investments in regional climate modeling, ecosystem evaluation, and public health monitoring. Few countries in the developing world have adequate resources in these areas. Understanding the possible effects of climate change on the spread of dengue in India, to take one example, would require regionalized information about trends in temperature, humidity, rain patterns, land surface hydrology, insect life-cycles, and human behavior. Experts now studying the issue are still in only the beginning stages.

In addition to assessing vulnerability, developing countries will also require decision-making tools that allow citizens and their representatives to manage climate-based risk in the face of uncertainty. They will need strategies, appropriate to their regions and cultures, for evaluating performance and revising their plans when new information arises.

My fear is that many in the halls of power and finance will see fancy computer models and special decision-making tools as “luxuries” that only cities like New York and London can afford. That would be a shame. Remember the motto: Be Prepared.

Robert Verchick, Gauthier-St. Martin Chair in Environmental Law, Loyola University, New Orleans. Bio.

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