It Never Flooded Like This Before

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

Muzaffarpur, India -- Forty years ago I spent two years in the Indian state of Bihar, as a Peace Corps volunteer. North Bihar, on the Gangetic Plain, suffered every year from flooding. The causes, although no one mentioned them, were centuries of poor environmental management and deforestation. Eight years ago, while the US Congress fiercely debated whether global warming was real, I returned to Ranchi, the city nearest my village. I stopped in a small that sold bangles, and spoke to the dukandar, or shopkeeper, about what had happened since I had left. I landed during a terrible heat wave, and when I asked "What's going on?" he answered: "Brother, we've cut down the forests, the population has increased so much, we've polluted the air, and now we've changed the climate. This heat (130 degrees) used to last two weeks (true, from my memory), now it last months."

In the eight years since, the US Congress and the Bush Administration have debated whether global warming is real, and if so, what to do about it. Now, this summer, not only did Bihar flood, but 40 percent of the state flooded for months. It's not just the shopkeepers in Ranchi who can connect the dots between climate change and catastrophe, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization has joined the chorus. Bihar remains, as it was in my day, one of India's poorest and most corrupt states and is unable to organize flood relief at anything like the needed scale, but, with 40 percent of the state under water for months, even a government as efficient as Switzerland's might have trouble coping.

There are some things we obviously need to do to avoid future catastrophes. Reforesting the southern slopes of the Himalayas, which drain into Bihar, will both soak up CO2 and control flood waters -- but it will be decades before the new forests can prevent flooding. Heirloom varieties of rice, which carry genes for surviving in floods, have shown promise in Bihar for saving crops, which are actually more valuable than poor people's houses, and harder to replace. And tackling corruption in the state would reap enormous benefits of all sorts.

But we also need to be realistic.

Human societies simply can't cope well with rapidly changing climate. They can cope much more easily with a more energy-efficient, less carbon-dependent economy. But US recalcitrance around Kyoto has let India's government off the hook. If Washington buries its head in the sand, New Delhi can more easily do the same -- as it has been doing. At the recent UN climate week in New York, India insisted that the UN, not Bush's favored "big polluters' club" was the right venue for climate talks. And it pointed out that its economy is more energy-efficient than China's, although much of that difference is due to China's greater reliance on heavy industry. Still, there is little sign that New Delhi has yet decided to cast its lot decisively with the low-carbon future, even though India's abundant sun, wind, and biomass resources -- not to mention its relatively low-quality coal -- would seem to make this an appealing option for Gandhi's heirs.