The impact of climate change beyond the weather

With the world’s second-highest population and a wide-ranging infrastructure system nationwide, India could be greatly impacted by the effects of climate change.

Students on a Dialogue of Civilizations program this summer spent five weeks exploring the country and learning how cities and coastlines, as well as farmlands and power plants, there are preparing for climate change. Auroop Ganguly, a climate change expert and associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, led the experiential learning program. The group was joined by Jonna Iacono, director of the University Scholars program, and Ganguly’s doctoral student Devashish Kumar.

“(India) will most likely experience extraordinary impacts based on the poverty, large population, and infrastructure issues there,” said Rose Leopold, SSH’16, a student who went on the Dialogue.


An extended journey around the country

By visiting so many diverse places around India, from the southern coast to the Himalayas in the north, Leopold said the group was able to see firsthand the various ecosystems climate change could impact. The group even visited Bengal tiger natural reserves in Rajasthan and in the Sundarbans, a natural region on India’s eastern border with Bangladesh, which is already experiencing rising sea levels.


A wild tiger cub in Ranthambhore National Park. Courtesy photo

The first part of the Dialogue focused on the science of climate change and on engineering resilience, what could happen in the future, and what populations can do to prevent it. Leopold, a political science major, said she enjoyed delving into the causes and effects of climate change, and seeing how climate models, engineering plans, and weather predictions can influence policy.

The 26 students on the Dialogue participated in a war games simulation, in which the students split into five groups, each representing a different Indian sector that could be greatly impacted by climate change—healthcare, water, energy, industry, and agriculture. The students then worked together to effectively meet each sector’s needs.

“What was most surprising about this Dialogue was truly seeing the impact climate change will have on every aspect of our lives,” Leopold said. “It is just going to be a domino effect without the proper infrastructure in place.”

Ganguly also oversaw this Dialogue program last year, and based on that experience added new elements to this year’s program, including more locations for students to visit, such as Kolkata, the Sundarbans, the Himalayas, and cities along the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. He also invited two students, Kara Morgan and Lindsey Bressler, who went on last year’s Dialogue to serve as student-mentors this year.

Timely conversations on a timely topic

The second part of the Dialogue focused on the policy side of climate change and the steps India and the international community are taking to lessen the impact. Guest faculty and students joined the Dialogue from India’s top institutes, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology in Mumbai and Kharagpur, the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, and Jadavpur University in Kolkata.

Leopold noted that the timing of the Dialogue helped inspire the policy discussions. Just one week before the students’ simulated negotiations was the Bonn Climate Change Conference in Germany, where countries presented their national plans to combat climate change.

Ganguly said one of the unique aspects of the climate change debate in India is how certain actions will impact the country’s people who are most in need.

“Some steps that could be taken to fight climate change, such as cutting emissions, may have the most immediate impact on the poorer population,” Ganguly explained, “and that is sometimes used as a reason not to take action. But the other side of the argument is many of the effects of climate change cause the greatest damage to that same group.”