Kirti Manian (00:57): Hi Rohan, thank you so much for coming on the show. I am going to get started by asking you this. Can you take us through your career arc? And please do give us more details about your organization Nature Conservation Foundation.
Rohan Arthur (00:10): First of all, thanks a lot for getting me on this podcast, it’s an honour to be here.
Well, I had a fairly uninspiring youth, I think. I grew up in Bombay in the 1970s and ‘80s, and I lived by the sea all my life within a house that overlooked the sea, but the coastal waters of Bombay were grey and choppy and dirty and not very tempting at all. So, most of my, I think my early youth I didn’t really think about the sea that much even though I lived in Bombay with the sea in front of me. I studied at university, at St. Xavier’s College, it’s a university now. I went to the department of Zoology there. And I think that, that for me, was the beginning of a turning point where I began to see that this was something that I would like potentially to do in the future.
And from there I went to the wildlife institute. How did I get to the Wildlife Institute of India which is in Dehradun, once again I think through basically a series of real coincidences. When I was in the zoology department in St. Xavier’s, I heard a talk from a student who had done a masters there, in the Wildlife Institute, and she said well, you know that these entrance tests happening in a little while’s time, why don’t you just sit for them. And so, I did and I got into the Wildlife Institute. And over there it was really a bunch of people who were fascinated with essentially terrestrial wildlife, they were looking at mountains and forests and all these other exotic places.
But I decided to go and do my masters dissertation in the Gulf of Kutch instead. And that’s when I started working on coral reefs for the first time, this was sometime in 1996, I think. And, I haven’t left. I started working in the Gulf of Kutch in the intertidal reefs of a small island called Pirotan looking at how coral communities were established, looking at the effects of pollution on these reefs. It is a fairly naïve piece of work I would think in retrospect. But, since then I haven’t actually left. I have been studying coral reefs since then and coastal systems. You asked about NCF...
Kirti Manian (03:17): Yeah.
Rohan Arthur (03:18): Well, NCF was born once again within the Wildlife Institute itself. We were a bunch of people, students sitting around, chatting after our classes about what we saw about the wild places that we visited. We were discussing ideas, discussing problems of conservation, trying to find institutions around us that we would potentially carry on our work, the work that we love.
And we found that actually none of the institutions around us really seemed to give us the kind of satisfaction or the place that we would like to be in. And so, I think with more enthusiasm than good sense, we decided, why not start an institution ourselves. And as one of my colleagues says, we thought it was a good idea at that time. So, we picked up a bit of the loose change really that we had in our back pockets and set up an institution.
And that is what NCF has become right now. It was an institution that started in 1996 with the aim of science-based wildlife conservation. We believe that it should be rigorous, that rigorous science should underpin pretty much everything that we do in conservation, and that it should be socially equitable because we live in a country that is where wildlife and people share spaces such a lot. We believe that it is absolutely critical that whatever we do in conserving wildlife doesn’t harm the people who are least able to actually bear the cost of conservation. NCF is now entering its 25th year.
Kirti Manian (04:52): Wow!
Rohan Arthur (04:53): Yeah, and we are about, I think all in all about a hundred and fifty people or more working across a range of different ecosystems and habitats across the country from the trans Himalayas to the north east rain forests to the Western Ghats. And the work that I do has largely to do with the oceans and coasts.
Kirti Manian (05:13): Perfect, and it goes perfectly into my next question which is about coastal ecosystems. And in your opinion, what essential services do coastal ecosystems supply? I know we keep talking about fisheries and they play a huge role, but it would be good for our listeners to also know what more is there about, and what is the kind of importance they have.
Rohan Arthur (05:34): Kirti, about one-third of humanity lives on or near the coast within, say the first hundred kilometres of the coast. And so, we are talking about approximately 2.4 billion people.
Kirti Manian (05:46): [laughs] Right.
Rohan Arthur (05:47): So, that’s not an accident of geography. So, people flock to the coasts for a reason. They are very important areas, these are areas that are highly productive, they are also areas of where you communicate to the rest of the world. In India itself in 2000 there were about I think sixty-four million people living all up coast, and that is expected to rise by three times. In 2000 it was about sixty-four million, by 2060 we expect that number to rise to about 200 million or even more than that.
And so, a disproportionate number of people live on the coast compared to the hinterland. And the reason for that is actually that they have a huge number of services, of course we know about fisheries.
So that brings us to the first group of services which is essentially what I call the provisioning services. And so, you have coastal ecosystems like coral reefs, mangroves, sea grasses, salt marshes, estuarine areas, there are whole range of other rocky reefs and things. And they are a huge source of food, but a whole range of other resources as well, not just food.
India itself extracts something like, well, I don’t remember the numbers now, but it’s about I think nearly three to four metric tonnes of fish per year within metric tonnes per year, fish, squid, shrimp and a whole range of other products form its exclusive economic zone, and I think the third largest capture fisheries in Asia and among the largest worldwide as well.
So, in terms of just provisioning services, coastal ecosystems play a very, very vital role, they feed a huge part of the planet. Coral reefs among them is perhaps, I mean they are among the biggest of those providers. Even though they have a very, very small proportion of the world’s ocean, they support, by some estimates, about 25% of world fisheries.
So, fisheries themselves are clearly important, but I think perhaps what is less recognized are the other supporting and regulatory services that these ecosystems provide. So, if you think about the ocean, you should think of it really as some kind of a global circulatory system. And it’s constantly moving, it’s connecting different parts of the globe together. And as a result, it’s really a kind of regulatory system, it helps to regulate global climate, transporting energy, nutrients from one place to another, and this is particularly strong along the coast. And that is really the engine of fisheries. So, that is one important regulatory service that the ocean provides.
But, if you come closer to the coast, once again you find that the coasts protect the system from strong damage, from sea level rise which is the big issue when it comes to climate change. When it comes to pollution control, the seas really take most of our, all the garbage that we are, filth that we generate and it dilutes it. Many of these coastal systems like mangroves play very important roles in the filtering of water.
And then of course in the context of climate change, carbon sequestration and the burial of carbon becomes a critical ecosystem service that coastal systems provide. So, some of these systems like sea grasses, salt marshes, mangroves, they are our most valuable systems when it comes to carbon sequestration and burial.
Now, there is a little side note over there when it comes to carbon sequestration, is that, these systems are brilliant at sequestering the carbon, the excess carbon that we are generating and burying it. But as soon as you talk about habitat degradation, as soon as you degrade these habitats, all that carbon gets released, and these systems which bury such a lot of carbon are then actually becoming net emitters, so, they might actually add to global pollution instead of removing from it.
So, that’s when it comes to the supporting and regulatory services. But I think the services that are almost invisible to most of us are the vital cultural services that we, you know, completely ignore them. You know about coastal tourism of course, you know beaches, water sports, all the rest, but I think we forget that how deeply coastal systems are etched in our myths, in our legends, they are so important in our religions, they become sources of inspiration, they are full or literary and religious symbolism, thy influence our art, our music, you know they are linked to our spirituality et cetera. And I think these are almost as important in terms of our human identity as all the other provisioning, and you know services that you can actually put a number on.
Kirti Manian (10:05): I really like this last point you made. It’s something so intangible in that sense right. And if climate change kind of erases this ecosystem, these identities also lose their importance in that sense. So, how is climate change affecting these ecosystems and are there climate and non-climate drivers as well?
Rohan Arthur (10:27): Uff, that’s a tough one, I mean, it seems like a straight bat question right, but it’s actually pretty difficult to answer. The difficulty here is really about how you distinguish climate change from all the other forces of local, regional, global, anthropogenic change, that all of these are simultaneously affecting these coastal ecosystems. And that’s the difficulty, that’s the biggest difficulty when it comes to trying to understand what’s happening with the climate and how climate is affecting these systems.
So, if you think about the uniquely climate drivers, the ones that are directly linked toward changing climate and how they are affecting marine and coastal systems, they would probably be sea level rise, increasing sea surface temperature, okay, ocean acidification. These are the three things that you typically hear of. But apart from that you would also have the disruption in oceanic current systems, and apart from that the intensity and frequency of unusual weather events.
So, we know that the cyclones are increasing in the Indian Ocean, and they are increasing in intensity, not in frequency, but intensity. They become more difficult to predict, they become highly intense with time. And each one of these, I mentioned sea level rise, sea surface temperature, ocean current disruption, acidification and unusual weather events, all of these are affecting each ecosystem in different ways. And the thing is that none of these variables act alone, they interact between each other and they also interact with a whole suite of other drivers such as the drivers that happen at a local or at other region, overfishing, habitat destruction, coastal pollution et cetera. And teasing those apart, how do you separate the effects of overfishing for instance from the effects of sea surface temperature rising?
Imagine a system like a coral reef, which is the system that I study most, where, as a result of sea surface temperature you have a whole lot of coral declining. And as a result of the coral declining, many of the fish that are dependent on the coral are also then declining in their numbers, okay, their numbers fall out. And that seems like a fairly simple thing to establish, but then on top of that if you have overfishing acting as well on that system, it’s very difficult to separate the effects of overfishing from the effects of climate change.
That one example is absolutely true for everything else, habitat destruction, coastal pollution. All of these interact, and they exacerbate the condition, they exacerbate the effects of climate change. The other thing they do as well is that they reduce the overall climate resilience in the systems, your systems are, they find it much, much more difficult to recover after every climate disaster.
What I’ll add is that, what makes marine systems special in their responses to climate change is, I mean this is not unique to marine systems but it is particularly prevalent in marine systems. One is their interconnectedness, that marine systems just by their very nature tend to be highly connected to each other, you don’t have as many barriers to the flow of energy, flow of species between systems. And that interconnectedness means that a problem that generates in one area can also affect many ecosystems downstream. And so, that’s the first issue.
The second is that they are inherently surprising. They have some kind of inevitable surprise inherent in them. What do I mean by that; it’s that they are, that they have non-linear responses, everything could be chugging along and seems hunky dory with increasing stress. But you increase the stress by just a little bit more, and they collapse without any warning.
Kirti Manian (14:09): Right.
Rohan Arthur (14:10): And the inherently surprising nature of marine systems means that we have got to be extremely careful, because once these systems go over the threshold and collapse to a new ecosystem state, it is very, very difficult to bring them back to their original state. And so, the interconnectedness of the systems and the surprisingness of the systems is that, the inherent surprise inherent in these systems are the two things that characterize many marine systems.
So, given that what we know for certain is that coastal systems are changing. But I think that what I would like to communicate is that this change is actually highly variable. So, not all species respond the same, not all as badly affected, some will actually do better in a warming world which creates another set of problems. What is clear is that the rate of change is faster than we have, than you have ever known in human experience. And most people living along the coast, most societies are living along the coast, we build our societies on the assumption of constancy. And this is the principle problem when it comes to climate change.
Kirti Manian (15:15): I find it very interesting, you talked about oceans being stressed, they are surprisingly, and it’s very weird, in my mind I think of oceans as robust, right. The image that comes to mind when I look at, you know you go across the harbour and you think of oceans very robust systems. So, it’s changed to being described as something delicate, and anything that puts it off balance then completely, as you said collapses the whole system. It’s a very interesting thought.
India’s coastline now stretches for about seventy-five hundred kilometres and coastal districts house roughly 17% of its population. How prepared do you think India is in terms of a coast wide response to climate change? And can we talk a little bit about National and State level plans to deal with coastal issues?
Rohan Arthur (16:05): Okay. Just to address one thing before I go in there. If I gave you the impression that coastal systems are inherently delicate, that’s not quite true, I mean there is a huge amount of resilience in these systems.
Kirti Manian (16:17): Right.
Rohan Arthur (16:18): And what I would like to say is that resilience is something that we need to emphasize a lot. But that resilience has a limit and it’s just basically about understanding those limits that we need to grapple with.
So, to come to your question itself is, you know understanding the ecological responses to climate change is one thing, it’s a difficult task, but it is still tractable. I think that within India itself, I don’t think we should fool ourselves, our track record of ecological research on climate change is actually quite abysmal around the coast and very, very few studies on the effects of climate change on coastal ecosystems. But we can make a fair guess on what the projected response will be or what the projected responses are based on what we already know, about how climate change is affecting systems elsewhere.
What is much more difficult to know is, I talked about all these climate factors, the environmental factors interact with each other. But when we get to social, economical and political variables, these are also interacting with climate change in extremely complex ways. But we know that actually that these factors are interacting. We are talking not just about an ecological system, we are talking about a social, ecological and economic and political system altogether, that is together responding to climate change.
I mean, for instance you can imagine a hinterland drought in the wake of an El Nino together with say local unrest caused by caste inequities or something. And it sends thousands of people flocking to the coast where they are looking for jobs. And when they rush to the coast, they are met with local resistance and they become part of a persecuted underclass who are then forced to live in substandard housing along the coast, which will then be the worst affected when the coastal systems get hit by storms or by declining resources et cetera when it comes to overfishing and things like that.
And you can’t imagine how to build a model that can accurately predict this you know, and we are largely groping in the dark here. We describe the consequences, but we don’t really have ways of predicting this, and certainly ways to plan for this is really very difficult.
So, that’s the context in which we are talking about how India is responding to climate change. India has got a strange response to climate change. At a policy level, I think India is a path setter along the other brick stations, I mean, we have a difficult balancing act as a country. We have to tackle climate change on the one hand, but we also have to pursue our developmental agendas and we also have to ensure social equity. So, these three different dilemmas, we have to do them altogether, and that balancing act is not easy.
Some people would argue that these are actually not mutually exclusive, that we don’t need to sacrifice one in order to achieve the other, that’s another thing. It’s been an important voice in the climate change debate for asserting its own right to develop, okay, and at the same time trying to manage equity and things like that.
So, if you look at India’s National Action Plan on climate change, it was published I think in 2008, it focuses on highlighting the fact that per capita, we are only a small part of the problem, we didn’t start the fire. Therefore, we have the right to develop as we please more or less.
Kirti Manian (19:42): Yeah.
Rohan Arthur (19:43): And then of course, there is this whole section which is about how we deal with climate change. It’s a highly techno positive kind of response which is, we have a bunch of technological fixes, market mechanisms, and that what I find is a really strange, oxymoron sustainable development. So, between these three things, market mechanisms will fix the whole thing, and what can’t be fixed by market mechanisms, we have technological fixes. And we will put a band aid on development and call it sustainable development.
So, that’s generally what at the national level our response to climate change is. When it comes to the coast itself, the mountains, the rivers, the forests, they all have their own separate national missions with dedicated task force that are dedicated to them, addressing climate change very specifically. But as far as I can see, the coasts get absolutely no mention, at least, they don’t have their own separate mission.
So, it falls on the coastal states of India to handle climate change along the coasts as they see fit. Now, if you look at individual state plans, of course they are completely alive to the problems of climate change because it’s so much a part of their state. So, individual state plans, the ones that I have read, all list the evident dangers of climate change on the coastal and oceanic systems.
And then when you look at the measures to handle them, once again they are strangely at arms with all these stated dangers. It’s almost like these are speaking from, with two different voices. So, they are linked once again to asserting developmental rights. It’s about increasing fisheries production, it’s about developing the capabilities of production systems once again. And they throw a bunch of sops to the environment by investing in alternate strategies and alternate energy technologies et cetera.
We had one law which was actually not linked to climate change per se which is the Coastal Regulation Zone Act. And that was, even though it wasn’t linked to climate change, it probably has done a lot to protect coastal systems from many of the inherent dangers, the sea level rise, storm damage and all the rest. But as you probably know those laws are also being seriously watered down along with the systematic dismantling of environmental protection at the altar of this unbridled capitalist development we seem to be increasingly moving towards.
Kirti Manian (22:03): It’s good to hear your thoughts on things like this because this thing about how we didn’t start the fire, caught my attention because it’s always about saying that the onus is not on us to look at you know environmental regulation because we need to catch up to whatever development is out there. So, thereby it is okay for us to not look at regulations strongly or strictly in that sense. And the unfortunate result of this of course is that the environment suffers in the long-term, and so do the people, right. Ultimately, it’s the people in that state living in the country who are suffering. And, I hate to say this but, and that really sucks [laughs].
Rohan Arthur (22:41): No, but, Kirti, I mean I completely agree with the analysis that we didn’t start the fire. I mean, when you just look at the global consumption patterns, we actually didn’t start the fire. We are a very small part of the per capita at least. But first of all, we are an important contributor to global pollution levels.
Kirti Manian (23:00): Yeah.
Rohan Arthur (23:01): And the consequences of that regardless of who started it, the nature of climate change impacts is that it doesn’t matter who started it. You have to deal with the impacts of that. And we are already beginning to see those impacts, and that is going to be something that’s extremely real. And while we can argue politically about our need to develop, we at the same time really need to be worried about how we deal with the consequences, the real consequences that are happening to real people on the ground, and that’s what is more worrying.
Kirti Manian (23:31): Absolutely. Can we talk about coral bleaching around the coast of India? I remember reading this report which said you know 85% of the corals in the gulf of Mannar beach would be in mid-April to mid-May after our sea surface temperatures rose. Is it possible to do better prediction of coral bleaching?
Rohan Arthur (23:51): So, this is a big question that we have been trying to answer within the coral reef world, how do we get better model of coral bleaching. Coral bleaching, I am not sure if everyone is aware, it’s linked to essentially any form of stress that corals undergo. Corals are very briefly they are, they have a symbiotic relationship between an animal, which is the coral and a dinoflagellate, which is a photosynthetic, I suppose a plant which lives within the coral and produces something like ninety percent of it’s nutrition using some light, using photosynthesis.
Now, under conditions of stress, that relationship breaks down and the zooxanthellae are released into the water and the coral turns first different shades of pale and then becomes completely white. If the stress continues for a long time, the coral eventually dies. And the principle stress that causes bleaching in the climate change context, the context is increasing sea surface temperature. And that is often linked to these unusually strong El Nino events that start off in the Pacific, but then come to the Indian ocean as well and result in sea surface temperatures rising by two to three degrees in a bad El Nino year.
So, predicting the El Nino and it’s completely linked to being able to predict bleaching, and we have very good models of the El Nino itself, and we know several months in advance when an El Nino will occur based on ocean current systems, based on the tracking of satellite data of sea surface temperatures. It’s much, much more difficult at a local level to get good estimates of coral bleaching.
One thing that the coral reef community has been using is something called the degree heating weeks which is the number of weeks temperatures rise abnormally at a particular region, and beyond a certain number of degree heating weeks you would expect the corals to start bleaching. Of course, that number works at a global level, but for every region it’s very inaccurate. And the reason it’s very inaccurate is that the kind of temperature stress that every reef receives is highly dependent on a whole range of other things, whether there are upwellings in the region, whether there are other currents that cool down the system, whether the system, the reef is within a lagoon or whether it’s outside the lagoon, whether it’s cloudy at that particular time, whether you have islands that shade the reef or don’t, if you have sedimentation in the water, it can actually help in reducing the ultraviolet radiation. So, a whole range of other factors that are extremely local interact with these global factors of sea surface temperature to eventually give you the temperature stress that the coral is experiencing. So, it’s complex.
I know for the Lakshadweep that around October-November-December if the temperatures start rising beyond what I consider to be average temperatures, I know that I have got to watch out for bleaching some time in April or May. But that’s true for Lakshadweep, it might not work for all the places.
Kirti Manian (26:59): You mentioned Lakshadweep, and we would like to hear more about your own work at the Lakshadweep area. It’s hard for me to imagine the area is being populated because, you know whenever we say Lakshadweep, I think of these blue oceans and not much human habitation. And perhaps you can help me in breaking my misconception, but please tell us more about your work in the area.
Rohan Arthur (27:18): So, I mean, your description is not too different from the majority of people in the country. Most tourists, they come expecting a place as unpeopled as they see it on the brochures. Most people believe that when they come to the Lakshadweep, they will have a kind of Maldives style experience with an uninhabited island to themselves. And actually, it is possible to get that experience in a few of the islands in the Lakshadweep, in Bangaram or Thinnakara. But for the most part, Lakshadweep is not Maldives. It is one of the most densely populated parts of rural India. It’s about two thousand people per square kilometre, and that’s a lot. Lots of people living on tiny strips of sand which are essentially just coral sand completely built of coral.
So, our team has been working in the Lakshadweep since about 1998 trying to understand the impacts of coral reefs, of climate change on reefs of the Lakshadweep. I mean it started off with my work in ’98 when I went there to find out how the reefs were faring in the wake of the 1998 bleaching. In 1998 there was a very large El Nino and people were seeing reefs bleaching all around the world. I knew that we had absolutely no information from India. So, I did a quick survey of a bunch of reefs in the country, I mean in the Gulf of Kutch where I started off my earliest piece of work in coral reefs. I went to the Gulf of Mannar, I went to, Lakshadweep was by far one of the worst affected systems.
By I think December of that year, we had lost something like 80-90% of the corals and the reefs that I was surveying, it was quite bad. And since then I kept going back and did my PHD as well tracking how these reefs were responding to that. I didn’t expect in ’98 that this will ever recover. But by around 2008, many of these reefs showed really handsome recoveries. Lakshadweep seemed to be bucking the trend in relation to most of the reefs around the world. And that was really surprising, I mean for me that was a lesson of optimism that you should never write-off these systems, that they have more tricks up their sleeve than we can give credit for. And so, some reefs were just blossoming beautifully and the corals were recovering really well in these systems.
And then in 2010, we had another El Nino, and once again we had a major collapse of lots of the coral. And since then the trajectory has been slightly different. The reefs have not been recovering as much. And 2016 we had another bleaching event and the reefs declined once again. And then we have had a bunch of cyclones that we did, cyclone Ockhi was the most recent one in 2018.
So, we have had a series of these disturbances that are coming thicker and faster. And as a result, we have a kind of ratcheting down of the ecosystem. And I first saw the reefs of the Lakshadweep around ’96 or so, ’96-’97, and they were among the most stunningly beautiful places. I had never seen an ecosystem as beautiful as the coral reefs in Lakshadweep. Today, they are very different. They are struggling against the force of all these disturbances.
What we have found is that, if you look at this twenty years of work, is that the reefs have actually with every bleaching event, less and less of the coral is dying which means, gives you the sense that the system is becoming more resistant because most of the most vulnerable corals are being removed from the system, and what remains are essentially inherently resistant. But the recovery periods, the recovery itself is much, much more protracted.
So, currently from our estimates just as back of the envelope, it would probably require another thirty years without any disturbance for the reefs to get back to it’s pre ’98 condition. But of course, we don’t have thirty years. The inter-bleaching intervals, first it was about ten years or so, and now it’s becoming three or four years, once every three of four years you have another El Nino event. So, thirty years without disturbances aren’t heard of, we are not going to have them. So, the systems are going to be very, very different.
And add to that the fact that before 2012 or ’13, part of that inherent resilience of the system was actually because the fishing community in the Lakshadweep was actually not fishing the reefs too much at all, not commercially at least. They were fishing in the open ocean for tuna. A resilience of the system that we noticed before 2010 was linked at least in part to the fact that fishing on the reefs was fairly low. Between 2012 and 2014, that system has changed and people have started fishing the reefs commercially as well right now. They are fishing them for the large groupers and the large snappers and the jacks, and they are taking them back to the mainland. And that commercial fishery is undercutting much of the inherent resilience of the reef.
And so, what we have been seeing in the Lakshadweep is a steady decline of the ecosystem, of the coral reef ecosystem that holds up the coral reef. And we are seeing local pressures mounting as well.
Now, eventually what is at stake in the Lakshadweep is the, what I call the biosecurity of these islands, because being coral at all, the entire island is completely dependent on the integrity of the coral fortresses that are built around it. Now, the coral, when as long as it’s growing, will actually provide some kind of a barrier against these large storms that come across. But once they start eroding, what tends to happen is that you get much, much more erosion of the coral beaches, you get much more salt water that over-washes and starts moving into your fresh water systems as well. And so, you have a decline of the land, but also decline of freshwater.
And once that starts happening, these islands become rapidly uninhabited. And that is the kind of process that I fear is happening right now. So, in our latest studies what we are trying to do is to measure the potential of these reefs to continue to grow, because right now that inherent function is being lost because of these continuous disturbance events. And we are trying to see whether the reefs themselves can sustain life on these islands and how much longer it can do that. So, that’s where our recent work is focused.
Kirti Manian (33:50): Do you think governmental intervention might dip the balance, or do you think it’s of no use and it’s essentially a combination of factors which is, people need food, reefs are eroding, there is climate change happening, there is a whole bunch of other things. But, do you think the government can maybe not potentially put a stop to it, but maybe show like a more sustainable path forward, is that possible?
Rohan Arthur (34:16): Oh, I think it certainly is possible. I think that right now much of the resilience of the reefs in the Lakshadweep are what I call conservation by accident. So, the government really hasn’t done any proactive management to ensure the resilience of these systems. So, I think that the government can play an important role in bringing some of these disruptive effects particularly of reef fishing under some check, if the government has the will to do that. So, that’s certainly, and I think there are some great government officers who are trying their best to make that happen.
Our local communities also I think play an extremely important role in this because they themselves need to come to the recognition that it’s not merely their livelihoods that are at stake, it’s actually their survival that’s at stake over here.
Kirti Manian (35:01): Yeah.
Rohan Arthur (35:02): So, they also play I think a fairly critical role. That’s something that needs to be recognized.
However, given that we are talking about coral atoll systems, the outlook is not very optimistic because based on what we are finding and based on what people have been finding elsewhere, atoll systems as well, these are systems that are probably going to be uninhabitable within the next hundred years if not earlier. Some estimates say fifty or sixty years, other estimates say about a hundred years.
We ourselves are right now doing studies to try and find out exactly how long these reefs are going to be able to sustain some form of sustainable living on the islands, and it will take a bit of time to figure that out. But yes, so, the government can do a fair amount, the community can do a fair amount, but eventually climate change is going to be one of the biggest factors that affects these systems, we can’t get away from that.
Kirti Manian (36:04): And then how do we look at building resilience? I mean you talked about becoming uninhabitable, then don’t you think like climate refugees will become a part and parcel of our future? We are talking about fifty-seventy years, people don’t have a place for themselves. A place they might have called their home their whole life is not there anymore. And it always is a vulnerable populace that gets affected. So, how do we look at building climate resilience for coastal communities like this, is that even possible, is there a possibility of this?
Rohan Arthur (36:38): I am generally an optimist, so, I’d like to believe that we as humans are like infinitely adaptable and, push comes to shove, we will be able to get our stuff together and do something about it.
Kirti Manian (36:47): Yeah.
Rohan Arthur (36:48): But I think before a start in order to fight the battle, I think we must actually admit that there is a battle to be fought. Now, that’s the first thing. The most surprising thing about climate change is that most of us living along the coast are actually blissfully oblivious to its realities. You might expect that in places like Lakshadweep, climate change is so much a part of the ecological system, it would be much more part of local narratives, but it isn’t.
This is what worries me the most, that there is a general blindness to climate change. Even in places where people are being affected by the most, they will always put it down to some other cause. So, I said that I am an optimist, but two decades of working on climate change in India and this optimism gets beaten out of here. It’s difficult to remain upbeat when you see the disregard of governmental levels and the consequences of developmental directions.
We can certainly make things worse; can we make things better? Perhaps we can. But what we can certainly do is make things worse. How do we work towards some kind of a climate resilient future? I think we spoke earlier about these inherent properties that I talked about in the system, about the interconnectedness of these systems, the inevitable surprise of these social, ecological systems. So, I think we need to embrace these as central principles. These become the central lenses which we look at any plan for the coast or the island.
It’s very clear on places like the Lakshadweep, there are very clear safe operating spaces. Beyond that safe operating space, you are in unknown territory, you are prone to sudden shifts, to major catastrophes. And what we need to do is really to maintain these boundary conditions, maintain these safe operating spaces as these are the boundary conditions. And every developmental activity, if you want to design a port, you want to set up a tourism development, you want to develop your fishery, anything that you do, all of these are extremely important, they are extremely valid things that you need to do for the development of the people for making sure that the economy contributes. All of that is important but you need to look at it through, is this activity going to work within the boundaries of what the system can provide? Because that eventually needs to be the lens through which we do all our planning.
So, I think that we need to do three things when thinking about these systems. First is that we need to find strategies to adapt, then recognizing that climate change is going to be with us, and it is with us already. We need to plan for adaptation already, okay. We need to have a whole bunch of strategies about how we handle our fisheries, how we healthcare, how we handle food security, how we handle water security. All these things are going to be part of our adaptation strategies.
We then need a whole set of mitigation strategies, strategies that when you have climate change disasters, we need to know how to mitigate them, we need to have disaster management plans ready for them because these are things that are going to happen, they cannot be caught unaware. Mitigation strategies can be hard or soft, we should start with the soft ones because when you have a whole lot of coastal erosion taking place, if you have high integrity in your coastal ecosystems, beach erosion does reduce.
But if those systems doesn’t become possible, then you need to, we need to think of in the case of Lakshadweep for instance, if the coral reefs are not going to be able to grow on their own, we need to find ways in which to assist in that recovery somehow. If you want to make sure that people live on the islands, we will have to think of other strategies which are stronger engineering strategies to deal with that. These are not strategies that I would like, but if you want to maintain living on these islands, those hard engineering strategies may be completely necessary fifty years from now or sixty or seventy years from now.
And finally, so, adaptation is one, mitigation is the second, we need to also be actively thinking right now about retreat strategies. The coasts are going to become more and more difficult to live in, islands are going to become impossible to live in. We need to have a whole bunch of strategies that are associated with retreating with climate refugees, how do you prepare people for mass scale movement to other locations. You have to prepare them psychologically, you have to prepare them culturally, you have to prepare them economically as well. You don’t just have to prepare the communities that are moving, you also have to prepare the communities to which they are going.
Kirti Manian (41:25): Yeah.
Rohan Arthur (41:26): And those retreat strategies are also going to be an important part of our overall climate resilient strategy that we build.
Kirti Manian (41:33): Coming to the last part, I can’t even imagine a world where all these, especially the last bit is designed and ready, I don’t think our communities are thinking so far ahead where we have set strategies in place where we say okay, these people will move here and these communities will welcome them. I mean, I know what you are saying needs to be done, but I don’t think we are there yet, and I don’t know when we will be also, which is kind of scary for me to imagine just people lost without a home.
Rohan Arthur (42:04): Yeah. I mean the thing is it doesn’t really require too much forward thinking because this is going to happen, it’s already happening in many parts of the country. So, we will have to deal with it, and we will have to deal with it very soon.
Kirti Manian (42:15): Also, you talked about the blindness in people themselves living on the islands unable to see what’s happening. What about people who are living in the hinterland, people living in urban areas? We always think of coastal areas as somewhere to go, relax, have a holiday, return. And you talked about this whole ecosystem being damaged and the time taking for it to recover is getting longer and longer in that sense. So, how do we get people to realize this ripple effect and how do we get people to kind of develop this empathy that this is happening at the coast and it is going to affect us also in the long-term?
Rohan Arthur (42:50): Climate change is I think, it’s a peculiar problem to get your head around, and I think that’s a primary difficulty. It’s not like coastal pollution or marine plastics which are, you know tangible, they are real, they are easily visible. Climate change is complex, it’s large, it’s all encompassing. And I think that’s it’s primary difficulty, it’s probably too large. You know I have often argued that anything that is beyond a certain size becomes invisible, actually it was Douglas Adams who said that earlier before me. It sits nicely in our blind spot through some kind of a cognitive dissonance and makes it easy to ignore because it’s so large it becomes, what Douglas Adams calls, someone else’s problem, and that makes it invisible.
I think we as scientists and as communicators have done a fairly miserable job though in bringing climate change out of these shadows and making it real. So, we keep talking about climate change, but it’s difficult to show people that any one particular event is climate change. That’s a problem of communication, a problem inherent in the science, inherent in scientists themselves as communicators.
And I am convinced that if you are able to know more about that, societies I think will rally around to demand change. And some of that is happening I think, you know the climate change movements around the world, and I think that’s very positive.
So, the thing that I would like to say which maybe you know is slightly controversial is that demanding individual change for a paradigm shift I think is great, but it maybe a bit of a distraction. And you know for the large capitalist industrial machines, it is actually a very welcome distraction. The problem is with you, you want change, go ahead and be the change. But what that masks is that global consumption patterns are actually deeply entrenched in capitalist modes of production, and which themselves are built into our current institutional models. It involves the way global production systems are setup, the way government and business interacts, the way our cities are designed, the way we measure human progress, what we value in terms of development, how we say that this country is doing well this year or badly this year.
And these are much, much more difficult to fix than taking a cotton bag to the supermarket. So, unless we are able to take the fight to this inherently poisonous destructive system of capitalist production, I don’t think we are going to make a dent in the climate crisis, with changing individual choices.
Kirti Manian (45:10): Before you are said you are optimist, and now [laughter], the way you are talking about it that does not sound optimistic at all Rohan [laughs].
Rohan Arthur (45:13): Well, I think that we need to rise up to the amount of change in the society, I truly believe that. I think it may happen too late to save the coral reefs of the world. The reefs of the Lakshadweep which is my little prism, lens to the world, I have already changed. I think that in the next thirty years or so, the reefs will have declined beyond the point that they are recognizable to me. They will change into something. It will have another set of functions, okay. But when it comes to human survival of the islands, when change occurs it might be too late for places like the Lakshadweep. Many coastal systems would probably have suffered a huge amount of damage by then.
But, as I said earlier, I think we are an inherently resistant lot, you know [laughs] I hope we finally get our act together. And I just hope it won’t be too great a cost. I hope that doesn’t sound too optimistic, does it?
Kirti Manian (46:06): [laughs] No, okay. I am going to move onto something a little bit lighter. You recently featured in a book ‘10 Indian Champions Who are Fighting to Save the Planet.’ I would love to hear more about that please.
Rohan Arthur (46:16): I am a bit embarrassed about being featured in that book.
Kirti Manian (46:20): [laughs]
Rohan Arthur (46:21): Radha Radhakrishnan, sorry Rangarajan, sorry, contacted me and she said that she was doing this book for the younger readers, I mean I don’t really think of myself as a champion. I think the book serves an important, yet important purpose for younger readers of charting possible career paths in ecology conservation and climate change, which I think is important. I think it’s important that more and more young people start getting interested in understanding ecosystems and understanding the complex problems of conservation, climate change that we are facing in the world. We don’t have enough people who are studying that. And then I think in that respect that book does a very good job.
I still hold on to the idea that we actually don’t need superheroes yet. Superheroes in general are flawed creatures, they are misplacing their costumes and tripping over their capes [laughter], and to the glare of expectation, they often fail. And I think that if we would look to champions and superheroes to change the planet, I think we will be waiting a long time.
What we need is I think something much more mundane. I think change will come when the faceless majority begins to request change and demand it. Even though I hate to admit it, I think a bunch of boring invisible bureaucrats would probably do much, much more for the climate crisis than swashbuckling heroes.
Kirti Manian (47:37): And so, my last question then. What would your call of action be to our listeners, what would you want them to do? I know you said faceless bureaucrats, but what would your call of action be in that sense?
Rohan Arthur (47:50): So, as I have said earlier, I think individual change is great, it makes us feel like we are doing something. And I think I shouldn’t overstate that; I think it serves a purpose. It starts a conversation; I think it’s an important conversation that we should be having. And it’s perhaps the most important conversation in civilization’s recent history.
But I think the direction of that conversation needs to be changed a little bit. We need to be taking a cold hard look at what holds up our current capitalist systems which lie at the heart of the climate crisis. We need to start discussing alternate modes of governance, the deprivilege of these modes of production. I think if the current pandemic has taught us anything in the most unfortunate way, but it has shown us that we are capable of living simple lives and that degrowth is a societal possibility.
So, our conversation I think needs to shift and that conversation is where we need to start. When that happens, I think our governments and our businesses will be forced to shift as well, that’s the hope.
Kirti Manian (48:57): I do really hope that whatever you have said does come true. Thank you so much Rohan. I have had a lovely time talking to you and you have given such thoughts to take away and think about as well, especially about what’s happening with the coral reefs. So, thank you very, very much, I really appreciate it.
Rohan Arthur (49:15): A pleasure Kirti.
Next cohort starts
* If you work at a non-profit, let us know when you apply