Every national and State government is today confronted by the challenge of climate change, a phenomenon that defies electoral cycles and demands political consensus to prepare for a growing existential risk.
All countries recognise the need to build resilience against the effects of global heating, but as Vinod Thomas, a visiting professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, points out in Risk and Resilience in the Era of Climate Change, the priority given to climate policy lags other concerns in most countries. This is reflected in the way governments are responding to the challenge, pursuing economic models that add up present gross domestic production under assets, without deducting the impact of environmental harms.
The biggest contribution made by the book is to provide a theoretical framework that could help policymakers assess climate risk on the one hand, and adopt or create new resilience metrics to measure the effectiveness of policy actions on the other.
Thomas, who served as senior Vice-President, Independent Evaluation, at the World Bank, devotes a lot of research to identify tools available to assess climate risk, and evaluate resilience indices from organisations such as the World Bank, ASEAN and country-level practices. He sets these against the backdrop of scientific evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), among others.
Beyond the status quo
The book compares the climate crisis with COVID-19, one of the strongest shocks suffered by the entire world in recent times, and uses it to provide a contrast on how governments see cause and effect of problems. Where systems were generally better prepared, and good preparatory investments had gone into education and health, the outcomes in COVID-19 were better.
Cause and effect is not so obvious in climate change, although the science on this is clear. Understanding risk and raising resilience with a focus on prevention, therefore, requires governments to invest vigorously in education, health, logistics and electricity networks, skilling and reskilling of populations, adoption of green technologies and digitalisation, the author argues. Resilience should go beyond merely rebuilding, helping people improve upon the status quo.
The author presents a sound critique of the “discounting” problem in official policy, which gives low importance to real future threats, while drumming up the benefits of present consumptive economic growth. Governments are responsible for “downward spirals” in building climate resilience, as they approve massive projects like the Three Gorges Dam in China, the Tata Mundhra and Vizhinjam ports in India. Thomas describes these as the cause of “serious socio-environmental damages”. Economists, he says, are not really on board when it comes to accounting for climate damage.
‘Tax carbon emissions’
Today’s absolute necessity is to integrate resilience into policy, with an evaluation of what externalities every project involves. Equally, since spending by governments on resilience-building is bound to go up, they need credible tools to see if their measures add up. The World Bank, the book notes, has a Climate Change Action Plan 2021-25 that envisages the use of a Resilience Rating Plan for projects.
Governments spending significant funds on resilience-building should measure the impact, cost-benefit and performance against stipulated objectives. Policy can no longer take a benign view of carbon emissions that arise from both production and consumption; it must consider taxing carbon emissions, and provide incentives to reduce risk while raising returns, such as feed-in tariffs for renewable energy capacity creation. It is evident that India, for instance, offers weak incentives for population-scale participation in the spread of renewables, notably rooftop solar, because vested interests in the power sector continue to rely on coal.
This book, written with a focus on climate policymaking, should particularly appeal to politicians and bureaucrats whose task it is to future-proof countries to face a future of unparalleled risk. Climate change is a secular catastrophe, lashing countries rich and poor — such as floods in the United States and Pakistan in 2022. People, businesses and governments are all worried about its social and economic impact. The insurance industry is having to reconsider its future. Massive migration of populations due to failed agriculture is anticipated. As the author says, resilience needs to be anchored in new priorities, robust budgets and a new politics of sustainability.
Risk and Resilience in the Era of Climate Change; Vinod Thomas, Palgrave Macmillan, ₹1,869 (Kindle).
The reviewer is a journalist based in Chennai.