Audio podcast: India faces economic, social turmoil due to climate change

Ashraf Engineer

March 26, 2022


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

You must have noticed how hot it’s gotten over the past couple of weeks. The heat wave, which usually occurs towards the end of March or early April, commenced earlier this year. It was a sudden spike, 6 to 8 degrees in many areas, and the fear was that if it persisted it would adversely impact crops in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh. That’s not all; the heat could even lead to intense pre-monsoon thunderstorms, hailstorms or dust storms that too would damage standing crops. This warming was accompanied by a grim warning by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the IPCC. In its report ‘Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’, it warned that the increase in average global temperatures will pose great risks to agriculture in India. Owing to its unique geography and large population, India is among the countries most vulnerable to global warming. From economic regression to heightened human mortality and lower food production to acute water scarcity, India is staring at serious climate change consequences.



The IPCC report is alarming when it comes to the impact on agriculture. It says that yields of crops like rice, wheat, pulses and cereals will decline in India.

Here’s how delicate the system is. If temperatures rise two degrees, areas growing staple crops will not be able to do so at the same level of efficiency. We’re seeing this in South America, Africa and Asia already. If global temperatures rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, agricultural activity will be impacted significantly and there would be food scarcity for millions. This is because the altered weather patterns would result in longer and severe droughts, and less rainfall.

The increasing humidity and heat would also make farm labour less productive. Combine this with rising industrial and automobile emissions and the hot conditions could well become intolerable, what the report calls ‘wet-bulb temperatures’ — a joint measure of heat and humidity. For India, the wet-bulb temperature predicted is 31°C, which is extremely dangerous. Let me give you a marker: even fit and healthy humans staying in the shade would not survive a value of 35°C for more than six hours. As of today, these temperatures usually never rise above 31°C but that could change soon.

On the emissions front, Lucknow and Patna would be among the cities reaching wet-bulb temperatures of 35°C by the end of this century if emissions don’t reduce. Bhubaneswar, Chennai, Mumbai, Indore and Ahmedabad are also at risk.

But let’s return to agriculture. Rice production could fall 10% to 30% and maize production by a staggering 70%. Potatoes, starchy roots and tubers are more resistant to temperature rises but sensitive to water scarcity. So, that’s something to watch out for too. Other crops vulnerable to climate change are grape, almond, apple and coffee.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the report says India is among the countries most vulnerable to sea-level rise, which would result in land submersion, flooding, erosion and saltwater intrusion into farmland.

Don’t forget, India has a 7,516-km coastline and much of it is densely populated. Any rise in the sea level would be disastrous, especially because many of our financial nerve centres are coastal cities – Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, for instance.

It is estimated that by 2050, 3.5 crore Indians could face annual coastal flooding and another 4.5 crore would be at risk by the end of the century.

The financial damage would be among the highest in the world. Direct damage is estimated at $24 billion if emissions are cut as promised and $36 billion if emissions remain high.

However, many experts say these estimates are too conservative. In fact, the IPCC report itself cites a study that says damage from the sea-level rise in Mumbai alone would be $162 billion a year by 2050 if emissions keep rising.

Adding to the impact on agriculture would be the shrinking of fish yields as warmer water has less oxygen, which reduces stocks of commercial fish species like hilsa and Bombay duck.

Freshwater, too, would be tougher to source. Climate change and rising demand, says the IPCC report, could mean that 40% of Indians would face water scarcity every day by 2050, as compared to 33% today.

Here’s how high the cost of climate change is. The IPCC report says every ton of carbon dioxide emitted globally costs India $86 and the world emitted 36.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2021.

All of this has huge social repercussions. Since 1991, India’s per-capita GDP has already been 16% lower than what it would have been without warming. If the warming continues unabated then, by 2100, average income could be 92% lower than what it would have been without climate change. Combine this with food and water scarcity and you have a recipe for great social unrest and even armed conflict.

The solution? There’s only one. The world needs to unite to fight climate change. Adaptation measures and a robust mitigation strategy offer the only hope for what is the greatest threat to us in the 21st century.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at Catch you again soon.