Policy Brief: Climate Change in South Asia: Requisites for a Sustainable Future

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Climate Change in South Asia: Requisites for a Sustainable Future Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, Harvard University

Scientifically sound, community-centered, multisectoral approaches that account for long timescales are essential for preparing and protecting the vast majority of South Asia’s population vulnerable to climate change.

This Policy Brief draws attention to significant knowledge gaps, information asymmetry and barriers to decision-making and capital experienced by the communities most at-risk, calling for large investments in community-centered innovation, financing and adaptation.

Key Areas for Climate Investment: Accessible Evidence Base Adaptation Renewable and Decentralized Energy

Climate Consciousness




Center At-Risk Communities The impacts of climate change will disproportionately affect the poor, who constitute the vast majority of the population in South Asia. Multi-stakeholder platforms that prioritize the needs of those most atrisk will allow for sustainable solutions. Engage poor and vulnerable communities in decision-making through inclusive participatory processes. Energy transitions, managed retreat and reskilling will have significant implications on the lives of millions in South Asia, and must be undertaken with full participation and consensus of those directly and most impacted. Promote and scale local innovation in vulnerable communities – as has been successfully demonstrated by civil society organizations in both Bangladesh and India – by investing in local training, capacity building and entrepreneurship. Bridge Capital Gaps: Multilateral financing mechanisms are inaccessible to the most at-risk communities. Invest in tools that allow vulnerable communities and local entrepreneurs to access capital for preparedness and adaptation.


Plan for Short- and Longer-term Time Horizons South Asia must invest in planning for climate scenarios on long horizons, to ensure that adaptation measures are not made redundant by future climate change. Investments of scarce resources in longterm planning will minimize the need for continued adjustments to changing climate risks. Mainstream climate adaptation and preparedness into long-term development planning to ensure that projected impacts on coastal communities, agriculture production, migration, and habitats are accounted for on different time scales. Design flexible mechanisms for policy-making and investments to be responsive to evolving uncertainties associated with future climate scenarios. Harness multi-sectoral approaches to address expected climate migration and interconnected needs of displaced populations: food security, habitat, economic stability, gender based protections, education, and health. Community participation and consensus, rather than aid without agency, must be incorporated into planning.

AN URGENT NEED Inclusive Climate Adaptation in South Asia

Climate change threatens agriculture, food security, habitat and health in South Asia, with potentially devastating impacts on the lives and livelihoods of millions. This Policy Brief summarizes discussions from two workshops: the Workshop on Climate Change, held at the inauguration of the Harvard Mittal Institute Climate Platform, in New Delhi, India, in March 2023, and A Workshop on Climate Adaptation in South Asia and West Africa, held at Harvard University, Cambridge, USA, in November 2023. Both convenings included large civil society organizations, policy makers, scientists, health practitioners, entrepreneurs and business leaders, and representatives from state agencies, from India and Bangladesh.


KEY RECOMMENDATIONS: 01 — Invest in an Accessible Evidence Base Cogent policy making addressing the lives of more than one-fifth of the global population requires a strong, data-driven, evidencebased foundation. The significant uncertainties associated with climate projections at local scales are only compounded by lack of data or lack of access to existing data, precluding effective local planning and adaptation. India’s commitment to its Digital Public Infrastructure must be regionally leveraged to make data relevant to climate change preparedness and adaptation widely available to and usable by local communities and the public and private sectors.

Implementation Steps: Address Data Paucity: Make significantly larger investments in infrastructure for collecting and analyzing empirical and localized data for modeling and response planning that is contextualized to the right scale, so communities have accurate and relevant information about their own risks. Leverage Novel Data Sources: Utilize digital data from micro-climate sensors, satellite and drone imagery, mobile devices, wearables, and social media to supplement traditional data streams to study the impact of the changing climate on land use, population mobility, health, and livelihoods. Promote Responsible Data Use: Develop legal frameworks and transparent policies for the responsible use of novel data streams. Promote trust among the public and policymakers and socialize the potential benefits and limitations of these data sources. Expand Knowledge Access: Make data free and accessible in user-friendly formats. Expand the National Data and Analytics Platform (NDAP) to offer a wider range of datadriven tools and resources for individuals, communities, local jurisdictions, and the private sector. Build Data Literacy: Invest in data literacy training for communities and government agencies to foster trust in science and to promote evidence-based and transparent decision-making. Promote data-driven policy making: Climate adaptation interventions will be capital intensive. It is important that localized empirical data are used to evaluate the impact of investments and interventions.

Most of the attention dedicated to research is going towards climate mitigation in the Western world. I think for those of us who are resident in the developing world, climate adaptation takes a particular form of urgency because literally hundreds of millions of lives and livelihoods depend upon it.

- Tarun Khanna, Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School; Director, Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, Harvard University at the Harvard Climate Change Platform inauguration in New Delhi, March 2023


02 — Invest in Adaptation Long-term resilience in South Asia will require large and immediate investments in climate vulnerable areas and sectors. This calls for public investments that also achieve the vital co-benefits of creating jobs and increasing welfare.

Implementation Steps: Rapidly increase climate-resilient infrastructure through public and blended finance: Long-term climate threats must be accounted for in infrastructure planning. Crucial infrastructure like ports, highways, telecommunications and energy installations will require significant added protections funded wholly or partially by governments. Create flexible pots of money for adaptation funding: Climate impacts are felt and best understood at the local level. Facilitate decentralized adaptation by creating flexible adaptation funds operating at national and sub-national levels that can be drawn on by local governments and communities. Build local capacity to apply for, receive, and manage these funds. Document and disseminate best practices in adaptation: Invest in eliciting, studying and disseminating information on both new and traditional adaptation measures so successful practices can be recognized and scaled. Communities and local governments will benefit from a menu of relevant options that they can choose to prioritize from. Facilitate the creation of wide and inexpensive insurance pools: The region’s extreme vulnerability, characterized by a multiplicity of unpredictable threats affecting hundreds of millions with limited means, will require the spreading of risk through large insurance pools in agriculture, healthcare and infrastructure, among others. They must be affordable, easily accessible and deliver prompt relief to facilitate continued development. Existing insurance programs will need refinement to accommodate for changing rainfall patterns and heatwaves. Improve the safety net for at-risk communities: Countries in the region have many decades of experience implementing social policy that has improved human security by reducing hunger, providing employment, and improving healthcare access. Social investments must be targeted to the most at-risk communities in order for them to be able to withstand sudden and cascading climate shocks.


03 — Invest in Renewable and Decentralized Energy Energy poverty can be addressed through decentralized renewable technologies, such as rooftop solar, small wind turbines, and geothermal where feasible. Green technology innovation, manufacturing and export can potentially contribute significantly to the region’s new and green economies.

Implementation Steps: Scale Up: Invest heavily in scaling up innovation, manufacturing and deployment of decentralized renewable energy solutions to meet local needs. Incentivize: Create enabling policy environments to incentivize private players and social enterprises to amplify these efforts. Train: Train vulnerable communities to leverage energy access and develop solutions that bolster livelihood opportunities and improve access to health, education, and other services.


04 — Invest in Climate Consciousness Develop local idioms for climate change, adaptation, sustainability, and circular economies that are rooted in regional histories, traditions, and philosophical frameworks.

Implementation Steps: Demystify Climate Change: Make information about climate projections, effective interventions, and their benefits accessible and relatable in local languages and in specific contexts. Focus on both short-term impacts like floods and heatwaves, and on long-term impacts like food, work, and habitat. Promote awareness of effective interventions and their benefits in each case. Use Traditional Forms of Knowledge Dissemination: Utilize the region’s rich storytelling traditions, including folk music, dance, puppetry, and theater, in addition to social media and digital tools, to reach across socioeconomic and language barriers. Start Early: Revise school and college curricula to teach students about climate change, sustainable development, environmental justice, and actions for a more sustainable lifestyle. Draw on historical and current best practices in the region.

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The South Asia Climate Platform at Harvard’s Mittal Institute produced this video to promote scientifically sound and contextually relevant community-centered dialogues about climate change and adaptation, in partnership with the National Foundation of India and Social Alpha’s Community Science Alliance. The informational video on heat stroke awareness and protection will be broadcast nationally in India in anticipation of the summer of 2024. It will also be screened at COP28.


ABOUT US: The South Asia Adaptation Research Cluster at Harvard University’s Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability and the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute aims to advance climate adaptation research and implementation at the household, community, state, and federal levels in South Asia, particularly in the context of climate-driven migration. Harvard University faculty collaborate with in-region partners to identify the most important threats to health and livelihoods, as well as the triggers for migration, consolidating and collecting data on environmental variables like rainfall and temperature, flooding, drought, health, and agricultural production to identify communities that are at most risk; build data repositories to inform policy and research on climate adaptation; and codesign and test climate strategies at scale. The strategies will encompass technologies, financial instruments, law and policy, and education, training, and awareness programs.


PEOPLE: South Asia Climate Adaptation Cluster Faculty Leads: Satchit Balsari, Assistant Professor in Emergency Medicine, Harvard Medical School Caroline Buckee, Professor of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Peter John Huybers, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tarun Khanna, Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School; Director, Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, Harvard University Jennifer Leaning, Senior Research Fellow, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Daniel P. Schrag, Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology, Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering, Professor of Public Policy, Director of the Science Technology, and Public Policy Program, HKS South Asia Collaborators: All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI), India BRAC, Bangladesh James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University, Bangladesh National Foundation for India Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Sustainable Futures Collaborative TrustBridge Rule of Law Foundation

The South Asia Climate Cluster would like to acknowledge Neha B. Joseph, Mittal Institute Fellow, for her dedication and work in bringing together the 2023 climate workshops.


SOUTH ASIA CLIMATE CHANGE PLATFORM AT THE MITTAL INSTITUTE, HARVARD: Launched in 2023 at Harvard’s Mittal Institute, this new Climate Change Platform for South Asia includes research projects, training programs as well as exchange fellowships for senior and junior academics, scientists and policy makers.

Current Projects: CLIMATE ADAPTATION IN SOUTH ASIA This interdisciplinary project seeks to advance climate adaptation research and implementation at the household, community, state and federal levels in South Asia, particularly in the context of climate-driven migration. CLIMATEVERSE: DRIVING DATA-DRIVEN RESPONSES TO CLIMATE CHANGE IN SOUTH ASIA The aim of this project is to develop a transformative, open-access climate and population health data-monitoring ecosystem in South Asia. COMMUNITY HATS (HEAT ADAPTATION AND TREATMENT STRATEGIES) IN SOUTH ASIA This project seeks to collect empirical and localized data on lived experiences of extreme temperatures and humidity. MAPPING THE LANDSCAPE OF ADAPTATION ACTION IN SOUTH ASIA This project seeks to identify and map the wide range of adaptation interventions underway in South Asia in response to extreme heat and precipitation.


MITTAL INSTITUTE CLIMATE WORKSHOPS 2023: This Policy Brief summarizes discussions from two workshops convened in 2023 by the South Asia Climate Cluster at Harvard University. The inaugural workshop was held in New Delhi, India, and the second workshop was held in Cambridge, USA at Harvard. Both convenings included large civil society organizations, policy makers, scientists, health practitioners, entrepreneurs and business leaders, and representatives from state agencies, from India and Bangladesh.

Workshop on Climate Change, New Delhi, India, March 2023 The sessions convened an interdisciplinary group of experts, policymakers and academics to set collective research and strategic priorities. Discussions focused on the impact of and adaptations to extreme heat and rainfall, as well as on the technological and policy interventions required to facilitate an energy transition. The workshop was co-sponsored by the Mittal Institute at Harvard, the Salata Institute and the Confederation of Indian Industry. Learn more about the workshop and see a full list of participants. Watch the videos from the conference proceedings.

Participants from the New Delhi Workshop on Climate Change held in March 2023.



Workshop on Adapting to Climate Change in South Asia and West Africa, Cambridge, USA, November 2023 This workshop built on research being conducted by the Salata faculty research clusters on climate adaptation in West Africa and South Asia at Harvard University. The conversations focused on where impacts are expected, local vulnerabilities and risks in these regions, what local capacity and government response is necessary, including the stakeholders who will need to make decisions on the ground, connecting these conversations across these regional contexts, and planning for how to prepare local, regional, and international capacity on the topic. The workshop was co-sponsored by the Mittal Institute at Harvard, the Salata Institute at Harvard, the Stanley Center for Peace and Security, and the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard. Read more about the workshop.

Participants from South Asia and West Africa at the Climate Change Adaptation Conference at Harvard in November 2023.

“Climate change-driven shocks such as cyclones, floods, and heat waves are most severe on the poor. For poor women, innovation is their survival or coping strategy. It's not a luxury for them. We only need to leverage what the poor are already doing.

- Reema Nanavaty, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) at the Workshop on Climate Change in New Delhi, March 2023

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At the inaugural Workshop on Climate Change held in New Delhi, Reema Nanavaty, Director of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), delivered a keynote address that highlighted the climate challenges faced by working poor women in South Asia.


CONTACT: The Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute at Harvard is a university-wide research institute at Harvard that engages faculty members, students, and in region institutions through interdisciplinary programs to disseminate knowledge, build capacity, inform policy, and engage with issues that are shaping South Asia today. Website: mittalsouthasiainstitute.harvard.edu/climate/ Follow on Social: @mittalinstitute Join the mailing list: mittalsouthasiainstitute.harvard.edu/newsletter/

To learn more about the Mittal Institute’s Climate Change Platform for South Asia, please contact the Mittal Institute at mittalsai@fas.harvard.edu

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