Columns - The Sunday Times Economic Analysis

Future perspectives: coping with climate change

By the Economist

Problems that are not of immediate concern are generally shelved till they grow into huge proportions and remedial actions are difficult and complicated. Today the country is at the threshold of facing a number of serious fundamental problems. The large public debt and the burden of debt servicing costs that are escalating is one such problem that requires immediate action. The ageing of the country’s population and its serious implications on the economy and society are another. The deterioration of law and order and the erosion of the rule of law is another. Crises in education and the lack of reforms to cope with needed qualitative improvements are yet another. These issues are but some of the economic and social problems facing the country’s future. They are placed on a back burner at most with only some lip service to them.

In this context it was heartening to find the Institute of Policy Studies bringing together a number of scientists from various disciplines to discuss an important and serious problem that the country would face in the coming decades. The workshop on “Mainstreaming Climate Change for Sustainable Development in Sri Lanka” was a pioneering conference on the impending impacts of global climate change on the Island. Such a futuristic approach is indeed commendable. Further it recognised that the issues pertain to a number of disciplines. In gathering a wide array of scientists and social scientists this workshop on climate change set in motion the possibility of a national plan to cope with the dangers facing the country.

Climate change has been described as “the most significant, reckless market failure the world has ever seen.” Since the Industrial Revolution, countries have polluted without paying for it because they did not value the environment and the climate. The problem has now reached an alarming stage threatening the extinction of small islands and parts of coastal cities with large populations. The problem of climate change is not a problem created by us. In fact Sri Lanka’s contribution to global warming is insignificant. Sri Lanka is a relatively low contributor to green house gas (GHG) emissions compared with other developed as well as some developing countries The country’s emission of gases is an insignificant fraction of one percent. Yet according to the IPS, “Sri Lanka is highly vulnerable to climate change, both in terms of socio economic and physical aspects.” Most sectors of the economy and society would be affected adversely. Water supply, agriculture, infrastructure, forestry, fisheries, tourism, health, and energy are all key areas. The costs of inaction on climate change could be massive. The workshop noted that a significant proportion of the country’s population lives in highly vulnerable areas to climate change. These vulnerable groups are diverse and include rain-fed farmers in dry zone, coastal communities and estate sector workers in plantation crops.

There is little that Sri Lanka could do to mitigate the problem. There would be a lot of rhetoric on the need to limit GHG emissions globally but little meaningful actions. Developed countries would sign or not sign protocols and agreements but the real limitations placed on emissions are quite inadequate to cope with the problem. It is a problem mainly created by the developed world but one that would affect the developing world. As Dr. Gamani Corea once perceptively observed a sustainable world is only possible in “One world with two lifestyles”. One was for the rich and the other for the poor. The erstwhile developing countries too are industrializing rapidly and approaching the lifestyles in the developed world. Therefore the problem has been compounded. This is particularly so with the industrialization of China and India and the improvements in their lifestyles.

Since we can do nothing to mitigate the problem but face its consequences, the workshop recognized that “adaptation should come as a priority in climate change policy in Sri Lanka while contributing to international efforts on mitigation of GHG emissions.” This is a realistic approach. There is a futility in blaming others and not taking mitigating actions to save ourselves as much as is possible. Given this approach the workshop concentrated on identification of areas of adaptation, selection of suitable adaptation measures, undertaking necessary capacity building, mobilizing resources and enhancing the monitoring of climate hazards. It emphasized the need to have a strong national agenda and policy strategy to confront consequences of climate change.This workshop had broad participation and covered a wide range of issues that were relevant to cope with climate change. The discussions were around six themes: Science and economics of climate change adaptation; Agriculture, Plantations, Forestry and Wildlife; Fisheries, Aquatic Resources and Coastal sectors; Urban Development, Infrastructure and Disaster Management; Irrigation, Water Supply and Drainage and Healthcare and Diseases. This coverage itself demonstrates the extensive impact that climate change would have on the economy and society.

At its working sessions the workshop attempted to identify key issues that need urgent policy attention and prioritization in the order of strategic importance and urgency of action. It also attempted to identify key stakeholders, institutes and strategic alliances necessary for action. Needless to say what the workshop was able to achieve is only a first step in the long journey towards coping with climate change. It is indeed the starting point for developing a virtual network for monitoring, information sharing and exchange of knowledge and experience.

It is vital that this initial initiative is continued from this exploratory stage to a series of steps that would result in a preparedness to face the grave impending problems. It would be essential to develop an institutional structure for networking among scientists and the various facets of research and knowledge, both national and international. The Institute of Policy Studies that initiated the project could be the headquarters for a body to continue this work. A national committee of scientists representative of the various fields as an apex body would be logical.

One of the weaknesses the workshop discussions pointed out was the splitting up of areas into several ministries that crippled meaningful action. If this initiative to cope with climate change is to succeed it would be necessary to overcome this problem.

The IPS expects the project to make necessary technological arrangements with the expectation that the system will be run on inputs of stakeholders who will act as a catalyst for coordinated action by relevant stakeholders and a breeding ground for innovative ideas while overseeing the national agenda set by the project. In the interests of the country we can only hope that this initiative will become an institutional reality with wide participation, technological capacity, effective mechanisms and the political will to cope with the imminent grave problems of climate change.

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