“Every time, the story is one-sided. Politicians often use ‘climate change’ as an excuse [in disasters],” climate scientist Roxy Mathew Koll said to a clique of legislators in Kerala.

Koll was addressing the state legislators in a lecture on Climate Change: What we can expect in Kerala. These legislators with the power to make a raft of changes and mobilise scientifically-informed climate action in the state, listened with rapt attention as the scientist described the state “between the devil and the sea,” caught between developmental changes and extreme rains in the Western Ghats and the warming Arabian Sea.

Koll, who is originally from the state’s Kottayam district, used the interaction to demystify climate change, offer potential solutions to adapt to local impacts of climate change in Kerala and debunked myths on climate change that can often deflect attention from human-caused actions.

“Landslides can happen because of heavy rainfall due to climate change. But many times, it’s how the land use changes have happened over time. Kerala is the best example,” says Koll. He also spoke of rainfall trends-while the total amount of rainfall is decreasing across Kerala, the frequency of extreme rainfall events has increased — particularly in and around central Kerala.

Pummelled by extreme rainfall in the summer monsoon, the state witnessed deadly landslides and floods in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021, with mining, unscientific construction and deforestation in vulnerable areas contributing to the massive loss of lives and property.

Need for more engagement

The climate scientist’s interaction with the legislators in Kerala comes at a time when the gap between political and scientific spheres has been widening in the “post-truth era” in which “it’s easy to cherry pick numbers to make a particular point”.

It has also become increasingly challenging for politicians to navigate the growing body of scholarly research addressing the layered challenges of climate change.

A recent study has also spotlighted the inadequate discourse on climate change in the Indian Parliament: as many as 895 unique parliamentary questions on climate change were raised by 1,019 ministers, forming only a fraction – 0.3% – of the total questions asked in Parliament from 1999 to 2019.

Although the number of parliamentary questions posed on climate change went up over the two decades, the percentage of questions did not reflect the growing vulnerability of India to climate change, according to the study led by Azim Premji University.

The researchers sifted through questions using eight relevant keywords: climate, adapt, carbon, fossil fuel, green power, IPCC, or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Kyoto, or the Kyoto Protocol on reducing emissions, and warm. The questions did not come from states vulnerable to climate change, and they did not represent socially vulnerable groups.

The parliamentary questions were mostly concerned about the impacts – 27.6% – and mitigation – 23.4% – of climate change. “We still find there is substantial room for growth, especially in critical areas of climate justice and adaptation relevant to the Indian context,” write the authors of the study.

“We need to have more engagement with the media, scientists and legislators,” study co-author Harini Nagendra told Mongabay-India.

Former Sikkim Member of Parliament PD Rai, who co-chaired the 2018 Legislators Meet on “Himalayan glaciers and water security of the Indo-Gangetic Plains” organised by the Integrated Mountain Initiative also says that the ongoing conversations between scientists and legislators on climate change need to be deepened.

Rai who was also the first Secretary General of the Global Legislators Organisation for Balanced Environment, or GLOBE, an initiative of legislators worldwide, said, “Earlier, in the 15th Lok Sabha there were Informal Committees set up by the Speaker on climate change and global warming. So the discourse has been happening since then in a structured manner when experts were invited to speak to Members of Parliament. Some of our MPs also attended COP26 climate change conference (2021) and who met up with our Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) in Glasgow.”

Climate change not a poll agenda

Anjal Prakash, research director of Bharti Institute of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business, largely agrees with the finding that the discourse on climate change among legislators needs to be strengthened.

“There is a degree of awareness among legislators, but issues linked to climate change are still not at the top of the election agendas,” Prakash told Mongabay-India, adding that legislators often do not receive the information they need on climate change in the way that would be able to absorb.

“They also often question the veracity of news reports on climate change impacts or stark warnings,” added Prakash, who recently conducted a training with legislators and administrators on public policy, where climate change was also part of the discussion.

According to the study, MPs received most of their information on climate change from studies and reports and newspaper articles. The legislators were most concerned about the impacts of climate change on agriculture, the coast and health. Parliamentary questions on climate change mitigation were focused on energy, agriculture and aviation sectors.

The year 2007, which preceded the launch of the National Action Plan on Climate Change, saw the sharpest increase in parliamentary questions in the 20-year study period. The highest number of questions – 104 questions – was asked in 2015, the year that followed the renaming of the Ministry of Environment and Forests to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change with an expanded portfolio.

Anil Kulkarni, who studies glaciers, climate change, and snow cover and was part of the 2018 Legislators’ Meet on Himalayan glaciers and water security of the Indo-Gangetic Plains notes that a lot of parliamentary questions are now being asked on Himalayan cryosphere – the frozen part of the Himalayas including the glaciers and seasonal snow. “Glaciology is a hot topic, and in every Parliament session, we have five to six questions,” he adds.

“There are a lot of questions on the Himalayan cryosphere, especially after the Uttarakhand disaster in 2021. Generally, politicians are interested in the subject when a paper on glaciers receives media attention. It is rare for scientists to speak to politicians on their own,” Kulkarni, at Indian Institute of Science-Bengaluru’s Divecha Centre for Climate Change, told Mongabay-India.

A damaged building during the 2012 Uttarakhand floods. Credit: European Commission DG ECHO, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

“At the central level, most of the questions [on Himalayan cryosphere] are coming through to the Parliament because of media coverage and not necessarily because they [legislators] are reading research papers. More interactions with politicians are possible through intermediaries [media coverage] because the media comes with a message linked to the paper published but has a larger public interest,” he explained.

Kulkarni recalls how media attention to a recent study led by the University of Leeds on Himalayan glaciers melting at “exceptional rate” led to a spate of parliamentary questions on glacial mass loss, risks, glacial lakes and prediction of glacial mass loss, etc.

“The packaging and messaging around the study were very crisp. It was picked up by Western media and then by the Indian media. On the other hand, we also receive general questions on glacier retreat and flash floods and their impacts on society,” he added.

At the state level, the situation is slightly different. “There is a lot of interest among state government officials and legislators of Himalayan states on the climate change impacts in their states and the policies that are needed to address these challenges,” Kulkarni said.

He was referring to a sensitisation meeting of scientists with Himachal Pradesh’s policymakers and administrators organised by the Himachal Pradesh Council for Science Technology and Environment in collaboration with Divecha Centre for Climate Change in July 2022.

“These kinds of fora offer valuable feedback mechanisms where we can inform politicians what science says, but politicians want something that is beyond science, so these fora show us what is on their mind and also provides us the opportunity to redefine scientific research,” shared Kulkarni.

Echoing Kulkarni, Harini Nagendra says: “Climate change is such an applied field that doing research for research sake in the climate field is a luxury that we can’t afford. So we should be able to target what is practical in terms of what are the questions that they are struggling with information to guide proper action.”

At the 2018 Legislators Meet on Himalayan glaciers, for example, Members of Parliament expressed concern on changes in Nepal’s glaciers that in turn impacted the state of Bihar in neighbouring India, lack of experts to study glaciers in states such as Arunachal Pradesh, patches of black carbon visible on mountains and impacts of short duration, heavy rainfall.

Need enhanced engagement

In Kerala, in his interaction with the legislators, Roxy Mathew Koll, took the legislators through the global scenario on climate change to its local manifestations, with a strong emphasis on adaptation solutions to deal with its local impacts.

“I strongly emphasised that while climate change is global, its impacts are local and adaptation efforts at the local level are crucial in collaboration with the community,” said Koll who in his decade of experience in science outreach has realised the importance of working on solutions or discussing the way ahead.

“And for a state like Kerala even though there is a decline in monsoon rains, it still receives a lot of rain. So, it’s more of a management issue than a climate change issue,” he reiterated to the legislators.

Koll went on to field questions from the legislators on the likelihood of deadly floods and landslides that ravaged the state in recent years occurring again, to a query on the projected submergence of the commercial port city of Kochi and reducing carbon emissions and information on changing microbial ecosystem of rivers during flash floods.

Kerala is vulnerable to landslide hazard. Warning that extreme weather events would not only recur but intensify with human-induced climate change and “not in the far future, but in the in the near,” Koll explained to a legislator that “right now we are seeing the impacts of the one-degree Celsius warming. We will hit 1.5 degree Celsius in the decades 2020 to 2040, and in 2040 to 2060 we will double the one degree Celsius to two degrees Celsius. Even as a scientist I cannot imagine the impacts in terms of floods, cloudbursts and monsoon shifts.”

Tea plantations on steep slopes are vulnerable to landslides during extreme weather events. Credit: shankar s. from Dubai, united arab emirates, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Science administrator Akhilesh Gupta also highlighted the lacunae in communication on climate change in science and media. “The kind of questions that are being asked to scientists are very general. We, as scientists also should push for enhanced engagements between legislators and scientists. On the other hand, the understanding among journalists on climate change and its nuanced reporting also need to be ramped up.”

“We also need more reporting on climate change impacts on society. In fact, legislators have a deeper understanding of climate change’s impacts on society. But scientists also do not explain the scope of impacts,” Gupta, Senior Advisor/Head, Policy Coordination and Programme Management Division at India’s Department of Science and Technology, told Mongabay-India.

However, Kulkarni worries that even if some climate change topics create a buzz among politicians, and that interest reflects in parliamentary questions or through other fora, the interest may not necessarily lead to improved science funding.

“The structure that existed five to six years ago to study glaciers has vanished. There used to be a separate parliamentary committee to encourage the study of glaciers. There is a need to have long-term strategic planning to study glaciers in India and need to have institutionalisation of research,” he said.

This article was first published on Mongabay.