May 12, 2015

The City Is Not A Concrete Jungle But "The Human Zoo"

Last Sunday, The Hindu profiled a bunch of people who left the city to live and work closer to nature. This is third such story in recent months that I know of (see, first and second). It reminded me of a book about life in the city that I read a few years ago and one which left a deep impression on me. Thought I'll share what I learned from the book with you.

It's called "The Human Zoo" by Desmond Morris, the renowned zoologist/ ethologist (ethology is the study of animal behaviour) published in 1969 and re-published in 1994. Morris is better known for "The Naked Ape" but I consider this little known gem of his to be of far greater significance.

In "The Human Zoo" he makes uncanny comparisons between the patterns of human life in cities with those of animals held in captivity. Sample the introduction from page one:
When the pressures of modern living become heavy, the harassed city-dweller often refers to his teeming world as a concrete jungle. This is a colourful way of describing the pattern of life in a dense urban community, but it is also grossly inaccurate, as anyone who has studied a real jungle will confirm.

Under normal conditions, in their natural habitats, wild animals do not mutilate themselves, masturbate, attack their offspring, develop stomach ulcers, become fetishists, suffer from obesity, form homosexual pair-bonds, or commit murder. Among human city-dwellers, needless to say, all of these things occur. Does this, then, reveal a basic difference between the human species and other animals? At first glance it seems to do so. But this is deceptive. Other animals do behave in these ways under certain circumstances, namely when they are confined in the unnatural conditions of captivity. The zoo animal in a cage exhibits all these abnormalities that we know so well from our human companions. Clearly, then, the city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.

The comparison we must make is not between the city-dweller and the wild animal, but between the city-dweller and the captive animal. The modern human animal is no longer living in conditions natural for his species. Trapped, not by a zoo collector, but by his own brainy brilliance, he has set himself up in a huge, restless menagerie where he is in constant danger of cracking under the strain.
I first read the book around five or six years ago. I came across it at a time when I was beginning to question whether a vast conglomeration of millions of people over a small area, namely in a city, that necessitates a) centralised supply of food, water, cooking fuel, transportation fuel, clothing, building material and so on from sources far away, and b) consumed at a rate that is constantly increasing; can ever be sustainable. Desmond Morris comes from a completely different perspective, that of a zoologist, and looks at patterns of human behaviour in cities to lucidly illustrate "the increasing price we have to pay for indulging [our inventive urges] and the ingenious ways in which we contrive to meet that price, no matter how steep it becomes."

It's the most fascinating account. Re-reading bits and pieces of the book now I see how much I have forgotten and perhaps need to read again. What I remember most from the book is the second chapter on status struggles titled "Status and Super Status" which relates closely to my interest in consumption patterns in our society. Morris says that in any organized group of mammals there is always a struggle for social dominance. Each adult individual has a particular social rank, giving him his position, or status, in the group hierarchy.

He then goes on to provide ten commandments of dominance, the first of which states: "You must clearly display the trappings, postures and gestures of dominance." Then he goes on to show how this holds true for Baboons and Humans alike. What's truly insightful is what Morris has to say about the consequence of status struggle in a group:
The general result is a constant condition of status tension. Under natural conditions this tension remains tolerable because of the limited size of the social groupings. If, however, in the artificial environment of captivity, the group size becomes too big, or the space available too small, then the status ‘rat race’ soon gets out of hand, dominance battles rage uncontrollably, and the leaders of the packs, prides, colonies or tribes come under severe strain. When this happens, the weakest members of the group are frequently hounded to their deaths, as the restrained rituals of display and counter-display degenerate into bloody violence.
This, to me, accurately describes the pattern of events unfolding in this country and elsewhere in the world. I do not endorse everything in the book. It has its limits. But what I really like about it is that it transcends the narrow vocabulary of concepts through which we perceive today's reality. It's a reminder of the need to abandon single, narrow frames of looking at the deep malaise in which we find ourselves. There are so many of them and each one is useful. But I have a problem when a proponent of any given frame argue that it alone is the defining frame from which to understand our predicament: Capitalism vs. Socialism, Globalisation vs. Localisation, Stupid Policies vs. Smart Policies, Stupid Political Class vs. Smart Political Class, Growth vs. De-growth, Fossil fuels vs. Renewables, 1% vs. 99%, West Vs. East, Monetary System vs. Gift Economy, and so on.

One thing I've learned after reading the Russian book series by Vladimir Megre (see mention in left navigation bar) is that no matter how confident we may be about our Weltanschauung, we must always leave scope for new ways of perceiving and understanding reality. Sometimes there are explanations we may never have considered before in our wildest imagination which may be equally valid than the one we hold dear.

Also recommended is the BBC TV documentary series "The Human Animal" which takes Desmond Morris around the world to reveal that patterns of human behaviour are common across national, regional, and racial differences. It is differently organised than the book and contains material from his other works as well. Like the book, the series is little known and also rated highly (8.8 on IMDB from less than 100 users).

Calling Anastasia Readers in India

"The Ringing Cedars of Russia" is a ten-part book series originally published in Russian language over a period of fifteen years having sold around twelve million titles so far. They are authored by Vladimir Megre and Anastasia is the name of the lead character in the books.

Reading the books is a very special experience. If you have read the English translation of any of the titles and live in India, we would like to hear from you. Since the books are not available in India, my guess is that very few people in the country have read them. The e-book version is available as torrent though. I have read nine and my wife is on #5. If you are one of the readers, do contact on the email given in the left navigation bar, we'd like to share notes. Thank you.

July 24, 2013

Nothing Natural About This Disaster (Uttarakhand Floods and Climate Change)

In part-1 of multi-part series on viewing Uttarakhand floods in the context of climate change, I argue that the floods were induced by man made climate change by explaining how rising temperature influences extreme weather, showing that the world's most respected climate scientists would attribute the event to climate change, that it is in line with scientific predictions, and matches with extreme weather events being witnessed around the world.

Indian Meteorological Department calls all rains, falling over a region, that are 20% more than normal, "excess" rainfall. In the week of 13-June to 19-June, the entire state of Uttarakhand received 847% excess rainfall according to IMD.[1] This has no precedent.

In an excellent (though limited) analysis of the reasons for the disaster, R. Ramachandran writes in Frontline [2]:
What was peculiar about the monsoon this year? On June 14, the monsoon front was located over eastern India. In fact it was a trifle sluggish compared with the normal progress of the front. But within a day, the front advanced right across Uttar Pradesh and the western regions to cover the entire country by June 15, exactly a month ahead of its normal date of July 15. While the IMD had forecast a rapid advance [...], its advance right across to the west just within a day was entirely unexpected.

This has never happened in the past, according to M. Rajeevan, Adviser in the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES).
Despite the significantly unusual nature of the event in more ways than one, every single commentator has called the Uttarakhand floods a "natural disaster," or something to that effect, that has been aggravated by poor governance. True, illegal construction on riverbeds, unchecked deforestation, high inflow of tourists, sham environmental clearance process and a dam density that is highest in the world - are all responsible for exacerbating the damage and need to be addressed.

Without taking away from the significance of the factors that made the disaster worse, I wish to point out that we must pay greater attention to climate change, the phenomenon which induced the disaster in the first place.

Scant reports in mainstream media on climate link of the floods have cautiously talked about changing monsoon patterns [3][4] but even in reports from environmental institutions that should know, [5] little has been said on precisely how climate change influences such events, there's also fairly little about studies that had predicted disasters like these, and what they say about disasters of tomorrow. No one has connected the dots between Uttarakhand floods and other major climate anomalies unfolding around the world. Most importantly, we haven't been told who is really responsible and what implications a changing climate hold for future of the country.

How Climate Change Influences Extreme Weather

The term "natural disaster" is one of those things that has lived way past its expiry date, like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It's time we should let it retire into obscurity. Today almost all disasters that are supposedly natural - floods, droughts, storms, heat waves, cold waves, and forest fires (with the exception of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes) - are linked with climate change.

Scientists like to put the word "anthropogenic" (man-made) before the term "climate change" [6] to signify that the phenomenon is caused by factors for which humans are responsible. Chief among them is burning of fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. Fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, oil and its various derivatives are consumed to power every day of our lives from the home in which we wake up in the morning, to the air conditioner that keeps us comfortable at office, the car that takes us there, and the stuff we buy at shopping malls.

None of this, of course, is "natural." As Joel Salatin, a self-described "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-Farmer" and a personal hero, says in his book [7]:
For the first time in human civilization, you can flip on a switch or clench a nozzle to get energy from who knows where, turn on a faucet and get water from who knows where, send the sewage out a pipe that goes to who knows where, and build a house from materials that came from who knows where. Folks, this ain’t normal.
Over the past two centuries or so human beings have veered far beyond the path of our natural existence and we're now seeing its consequences. Back to topic, the most pertinent question here is this: "Is climate change solely responsible for causing Uttarakhand floods rather than natural factors?" Ask any climate scientist and you will get no for an answer. It's the wrong question. Instead, a good question would be: "Is it fair to say that Uttarakhand floods would have been less severe if there was no climate change?" All scientists would answer yes to that.

Our weather is a complex beast. No extreme weather event is "solely" caused by climate change. Such events are caused by a combination of what's called "natural variability" - the natural processes of a normal climate and rising temperature due to climate change. For thousands of years life has existed and thrived on this planet in a climate that has remained largely stable.[8] But less than two centuries of fossil fuel consumption has led to a warming world.

Rising temperature does to global weather patterns what drugs do to an athlete. It boosts their performance. In scientific terms, you could say, climate change amplifies natural variability. But when an athlete takes drugs before a track event and creates a world record, can you say to what degree were the drugs responsible?

It's the same with climate change. When an extreme weather event strikes, it is impossible to tell the share of climate change and that of natural variability in causing it without studying the event in detail. What we know for sure is rising temperature increases the odds of extreme weather events. If you rate all extreme events in a normal climate on 1 to 10, many 5's would be converted to 8's in a warming climate. If there is a rare event that rates 9 in normal climate, under rising temperatures it may go up to level 13 or 15 - an intensity and scale you cannot imagine in normal climate. Such records are made when both climate change and natural variability are moving in the same direction. This is what seems to have happened in Uttarakhand.

Scientists Knew This Was Very Likely to Happen

Scientists have long predicted that as temperature continues to rise this century the intensity, as well as, frequency of extreme weather events will rise with it. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — a conservative body of scientists who examine existing scientific studies and whose every word is debated by government representatives in its panel — has been saying since 1990 that climate change is unequivocal.[9]

Its 2007 Synthesis report warned that "continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century."[10] The report predicted, among other things, of "increase in frequency of...heavy precipitation" (rain, snow, hail or their combination) specifically in higher altitudes like the Himalayas.[11] It further said that "disruption of settlements, commerce, transport and societies due to flooding: pressures on urban and rural infrastructures; loss of property" is to be expected. A conservative way to state what happened in Uttarakhand.[12]

In fact an RTI application filed by Climate Revolution Initiative with the Ministry of Environment in 2009 had sought to know whether the central government acted on the IPCC warnings and conveyed them to state governments to prepare for adaptation. As can be expected, the ministry had issued no such advisory.[13]

In 2009, Government of India constituted its own body of scientists named 'Indian Network on Climate Change Assessment' or INCCA to look into published research on climate change.[14] In executive summary of its report #2 published in November 2010, a key result listed in section 13 was titled "Impacts of climate change on floods." It warned of a significant increase in the magnitude of floods. And said the following [15]:
this has a very severe implication for existing infrastructure such as dams, bridges, roads, etc., in the [river basin] areas.
In 2012, IPCC published a special report on extreme events or SREX called 'Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters...'[16] It says "evidence from observations gathered since 1950" show the number of heavy precipitation events are rising; losses from weather and climate disasters are increasing; that in future, we can expect "substantial warming in temperature extremes"; and that "frequency of heavy precipitation or the proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls will increase."[17]

After a record-smashing "Angry Summer" Australia endured in 2012-2013, which brought heat waves, brush fires, and record maximum temperatures the country has ever seen, researchers at the University of Melbourne were tasked to look into future weather patterns. In a paper published earlier this month they conclude that Australia is five times more likely to see extremely hot summers and half the blame can be laid at the door of greenhouse gas emissions.[18]

While science can tell us broad trends going decades into future, it cannot tell us when and where climate impacts will occur. To an extent "where" can be determined by detailed climate vulnerability assessment studies but "when" is much harder to know in advance. Climate adaptation will be looked at in a later post.

Climate Change Has Role in Every Extreme Weather Event, Say Scientists

Records and events around the world bear out scientific predictions. May 2013, for example, was the 339th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, according to National Climatic Data Centre (NCDC) based in Asheville, North Carolina, U.S.[19] Think about that for a moment. Since 1984, average global surface temperature for every single month has been greater than 1901-2000 average. The odds of that occurring by simple chance is a number "considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe."[20]

If the planet was not warming, one would expect the number of occurrences of record maximum temperature and record minimum to be about the same. For U.S, until 1970's that was the case. But by the year 2000, the ratio of high temperature records in the country was twice as much as low temperature records, says Kevin Trenberth who heads climate analysis at National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) at Boulder Colorado, U.S. By 2012, maximum temperature records were being created ten times more frequently.[21]

Earlier, scientists used to hold the view that no single climate event can be attributed to climate change. But that view is changing. Three years ago, Trenberth, in a presentation to scientists argued that we should assume global warming plays a role in every climate event, then ask how significant is that role.

In August 2010 the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration along with the UK Met Office's Hadley Centre organised a workshop on attribution of climate events. In it Myles Allen, another reputed scientist who heads Climate Dynamics group at Oxford university department, argued that it's no longer appropriate to say that you can never blame an individual weather event on climate change.[22]

In July 2011 climate researchers from Britain, the United States and other parts of the world announced a new international alliance that aims to investigate exceptional weather events.[23] They believe that it is no longer plausible merely to claim that extreme weather is “consistent” with climate change. Instead, they intend to assess each unusual event in terms of the probability that it has been exacerbated or even caused by the global temperature increase.

In September 2011 a press teleconference held by a renowned group of climatologists and weather experts made it clear: "All weather events are now influenced by climate change because all weather now develops in a different environment than before." [24]

James Hansen, world's most respected climate scientist, who until recently headed NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, U.S, goes a step further. Based on a purely statistical analysis of historical weather data, he says even without investigating individual extreme heat wave events one can say they were "caused" by climate change.[25] Hansen's study showed extremely hot temperatures covered less than 0.2% of the planet between 1951 and 1980. By 2012, those temperatures covered about 10% of the land area - a fifty-fold increase already.[25-A]

Hansen says scientists need not be defensive about linking individual weather events directly to climate change. "To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change," he wrote in August last year describing his results.[26] [27]

Studies Have Conclusively Established Climate Change Contribution to Past Weather Extremes

In July 2010 Russia burned. Some called it a once-in-1000-year heat wave, others said it is the worst heat wave ever in Russian history.[28] [29] Forests caught fire, crops were destroyed and capital city Moscow got enveloped in smoke with people walking around in masks and feeling like "smoked fish in an oven".[30] [31] [32] More than 50,000 died from respiratory illnesses and heat stress that year.[33]

Soon after, a scientific study was undertaken to investigate the factors responsible. The scientists used a new approach for crunching climate data called Monte Carlo modeling, which reports say, "is a tool for investigating tricky, probabilistic processes involving both defined and random influences: Make a model, run it enough times, and trends emerge."[34] Their conclusion was categorical: "80% probability that the 2010 July heat record would not have occurred without climate warming."[35]

Scientists at Germany's Potsdam Institute for Climate Research used physics, statistical analysis and computer simulations to link extreme rainfall and heat waves to global warming. They conclude that "It is very likely that several of the unprecedented extremes of the past decade would not have occurred without anthropogenic global warming." The study said that "the high amount of extremes is not normal."[36]

Another study conducted by Munich RE, the world's largest reinsurance firm, says the number of natural disasters per year has been rising dramatically on all continents since 1980 with the largest increase in North America where countries have been battered by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, searing heat and drought. It says climate change is driving the increase and predicts those influences will continue in years ahead.[37]

Uttarakhand Floods Match Pattern of Extreme Weather Events Worldwide

Flood fury in Uttarakhand this year matches the pattern of climate change induced extreme rainfall and flood events in recent years in different parts of the world. In 2010 monsoons, one-fifth of Pakistan was under water killing close to 2000 people and damaging $43 billion worth of property.[38] Thailand, Combodia, Myanmar and Vietnam were all severely flooded in 2011.[39] The same year El Salvador in central America saw more rains in ten days than in entire year.[40]

Ten Years of Flooding in China

China has always been prone to flooding in the monsoon season.[41] Flooding in China, according to observers, is distinctive in that it is not limited to a single incident in a limited area. It is a series of individual flood disasters occurring over a large number of provinces, "with each province measuring the size of a European country." Over the last few years massive flooding is occurring with regularity and intensity not seen before.

Over the last ten years, every single year saw floods in China.
  • 2012: On 21st July capital Beijing was hit by the heaviest floods since records began. It brought the city to a halt, led to evacuation of 57,000 people, took lives of 79 and caused damage worth US $1.6 billion. It was part of series of floods that began in Spring.[42] [43]
  • 2011: In June to September central and southern China saw series of floods inundating 12 provinces while leaving others in drought. The floods affected 3.6 crore people while killing 355 and resulting in damage of US $6.5 billion.[44] [45] [46] [47] [48]
  • 2010: Floods and landslides from May to September broke all records as it affected 28 provinces leaving close to 3200 dead, over 1000 missing, affecting crops over 97,200 square km, destroying over 13 Lakh houses, leading to evacuation of over 1.5 crore people and destroying US $51.4 billion of property.[49] [50] [51] [52] [53]
  • 2009: Floods caused by more than 30 large-scale rainfalls and nine typhoons hit 29 provinces, regions and municipalities involving 87,300, affecting over 1 crore people and causing US $12.39 billion in damage.[54] [55]
  • 2008: Fifteen provinces in Eastern and Southern China were flooded for around 15 days of torrential rain and landslides causing over 200 people to die, forcing 13 lakh to evacuate and destroying US $2.2 billion of property.[56] [57] [58]
  • 2007: Massive flooding from June to September caused by torrential rains and overflowing rivers affected 24 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities with 200 million people resulting in more than 1,000 casualties. Some claimed it to be worst flooding in 80 years.[59] [60]
  • 2006: In the most serious disaster since 1998, over 3000 people died in China due to Typhoons, floods, landslides and hailstorms. More than 1.3 crore sought emergency shelter or were evacuated.[61] [62] [63] [64]
  • 2005: Flooding devastated 27 provinces across the country leaving some 134 million people affected. 910 people were reported dead, over 830,000 houses destroyed and more than 9.5 million hectares of farmland submerged.[65] [66] [67]
  • 2004: In June and July 2004 Guangxi Autonomous Region experienced serious flooding that affected at least 3.69 million people, with 76 people losing their lives. 57,000 rooms were destroyed with 398,380 tons of crops lost.[68] [69]
  • 2003: Over 2 Lakh homes collapsed and another 530,000 damaged after pounding rain in China's Shaanxi province, where 123 died or went missing between August and October. An unusually long flooding season continued till October.[70] [71] [72] [73]
India too saw a number of floods over this period. The state of Bihar regularly witnessed large flooding, particularly in the year 2004, in 2007 when several other parts of the country were flooded too along with other parts of South Asia and in 2008 when Kosi embankment broke and inundated large areas of the state affecting 23 Lakh people.[See Update 25-Jul] We can't forget Mumbai, of course, which saw 1000 mm of rain in a 24 hour period in 2005. In 2010 Leh witnessed a cloudburst killing 200 even though it's a sparsely populated cold desert that hardly sees any rainfall all year.

So far I've listed only flood events. The number of heat waves, forest fires, storms, droughts and other extreme weather events over the last few years in various parts of the world is far too large. Some people have a new term for this: global weirding. As Tom Friedman puts it, "The weather gets weird. The hots are expected to get hotter, the wets wetter, the dries drier and the most violent storms more numerous."[74]

Even as Uttarakhand floods were unfolding, other regions of the world were experiencing impacts of extreme weather of varying intensity. If there is one common denominator with all of these stories it is the fact that none were reported in mainstream print and TV media in India. Consider the sample below.

June 2013: Alberta, Canada Sees Worst Floods in History

Heavy rainfall led to extensive flooding in multiple cities in Alberta province of Canada as several of its rivers swelled to many times their peak flow. Floods displaced or evacuated over 1 Lakh people and led to deployment of Canadian Armed Forces to help in relief work. Damage was estimated to be (Canadian) $3 billion to $5 billion, which is 20-30 times the amount of damage caused by the second biggest floods in the region in 2005.[75] [76] [77]

June 2013: Central Europe Faced Floods

Several parts of central Europe mainly Germany, Austria and Czech Republic but also Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Switzerland were caught in floods as two main rivers Danube and Elbe and their tributaries became swollen after heavy rainfall leading to floods along their banks. One region in Austria saw as much rain in two days as it would in two months. Overall losses are estimated to be US$16 billion.[78] [79] [80]

June 2013: U.S. Witnesses Large Forest Fires and Other Extremes

State of Colorado witnessed second largest forest fire in its history by area.[81] Started on June 20, it merged with two other fires a few days later and covered 110,405 acres in total. Other parts of the country from New Mexico to California and Idaho were also reported to be witnessing forest fires. Even Alaska saw forced evacuations of hundreds of citizens and animals due to a wildfire.[82]

Although immediate cause of forest fires can range from lightning strike to an Army artillery exercise, forests are more susceptible to catching fires due to climate change as rising temperature sucks moisture out of the air, out of ground and out of the trees.[83] [84] In other extremes witnessed this month in U.S, storms were lashing more frequently and tornadoes were getting more powerful as the one-and-half minute ABC news clip shows (video taken down by member).

The New York Times is calling it the new normal — an increasingly hot and dry West, resulting in more catastrophic fires.[85] Scientists say that the recent fires are hotter, more enveloping, and that they are killing far more trees.

July 2013: Southwest China Floods

In late June and early July heavy rains lashed on Sichuan province and other parts of southwest China killing 58 and disrupting lives of 60 Lakh people. The rains were described as heaviest in the region since records began in 1950s.[86] Multiple landslides following the rain buried dozens of people. In another part of the country, Eastern China, 5 Lakh people were forced to evacuate in anticipation of torrential rains brought along with Typhoon Soulik.[87]

May-July 2013: Russia Battered With Drought

Large parts of Russia have been battling drought conditions since May this year due to higher than normal temperatures. Russia has had a long relationship with drought which makes an appearance very few years. This time though Russian grain production has been affected for the fourth year in a row by weather maladies. As can be seen in the graph below, Russian crop projection is down to 20-40% in most areas. Daytime temperatures have been so high that the Government health officials called on people to take an afternoon break to limit strenuous work and sun exposure during the hottest part of the day.[88] [89] [90]

Could Uttarakhand Floods Be Linked With Arctic Melting?

Some scientists have claimed that the floods in Europe and droughts in Russia could be linked with melting in the Arctic summer ice. Arctic region experiences melting of sea ice (floating ice) every summer and regains it in winter. Since 2005 though the rate of melting has accelerated to several times the previous years. In 2007 extent of melting shocked scientists as it was more than 22% over the previous record low.[91] In 2012, it set a record even lower.[92] This melting is decades ahead of projections in IPCC 2007 report.

Scientists have suggested that this is disrupting the normal flow and position of jet stream which influences weather patterns worldwide. An AFP news release from June 5th explains[93]:
Leading the charge is the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) near Berlin, which says a low-pressure system that dumped the rain [in central Europe] was locked into place by a disturbance with a global wind pattern. "We think it is linked to the current drought conditions in Russia as well," Stefan Rahmstorf, PIK’s professor of ocean physics, told AFP.
Rahmstorf and colleagues introduced "wave resonance theory" in a paper earlier this year that has gained a lot of traction with climate scientists:
Normally, air moves around the mid-latitudes of the planet in the form of waves, oscillating irregularly between the tropics and the poles, Rahmstorf explained. The main force behind this movement is the big temperature gap between the frigid Arctic and the warmer southerly latitudes. Like a pump, this differential helps to force air northward or southward.

The problem, though, is that the Arctic is steadily warming — last year, its summer sea ice hit its lowest extent on record — so the temperature difference is declining. As a result, according to the theory, the wave movement diminishes. At a certain point, pressure systems stay locked in place, causing a weather pattern that persists wretchedly.
In a key statement Rahmstorf adds that the "planetary wave resonance is not a local effect but spread around the whole (northern) hemisphere." He argues that when "resonance" episode occurs, half a dozen peaks and troughs of high or low pressure form around the northern hemisphere. "This explains why some parts of the world become unseasonably hot or cold and others unusually dry or rainy," said Rahmstorf.

The purpose of including this section is not to claim that record Arctic melting is responsible for Uttarakhand floods but to draw attention to a phenomenon which could be connected and which requires research. Since like Europeon floods, heavy rainfall in Uttarakhand is also linked with a low pressure system,[2] that was locked into place[94], this aspect needs to be seriously investigated.

In Conclusion

Uttarakhand floods cannot be termed as a "natural" disaster. Since we know how climate change influences extreme weather events; we know it is consistent with scientific predictions; we know climate change contributes to every extreme weather event today; and finally, because similar unusual and extreme weather events attributable to climate change are unfolding all across the world; a more appropriate descriptor would be "a disaster induced by man made climate change."

Next in the series on Uttarakhand Floods and Climate Change: Mega-Disasters of Tomorrow

Update 25-Jul: Himanshu Thakkar of SANDRP comments below that Kosi embankment failure of 2008 was more due to human error rather than extreme rainfall. If his data of below average rainfall in the area is correct, the event cannot be blamed on climate change. That said, the same year Assam, Western Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh also witnessed flooding due to heavy rainfall. In total, according to government data, over 2400 people died in monsoon floods that year. Deaths due to Kosi is said to be around 400.

Update 05-Aug: In a comment below Nagraj Adve writes: "Unfortunately, we still cannot link single rain events to climate change though as you persuasively argue, it is likely they like Uttarakhand are linked." I would respectfully disagree. I think it has long been known that warming will lead to heavy rainfall events. Here's a paper from 1992 and one from 1993 investigating climate change influence on rainfall. Today in mid 2013 there is already extensive research on this.

In a 2011 paper titled "Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes", researchers from Canadian and UK universities argued that "human-induced increases in greenhouse gases have contributed to the observed intensification of heavy precipitation events found over approximately two-thirds of data-covered parts of Northern Hemisphere land areas." It went on to add that "the impacts of future changes in extreme precipitation, may be underestimated because models seem to underestimate the observed increase in heavy precipitation with warming." Joe Romm of Climate Progress blog called it a "seminal" paper and BBC report on the study was titled "Climate change raises flood risk".

Another study titled "Anthropogenic greenhouse gas contribution to flood risk in England and Wales in autumn 2000" published at the same time looked at flooding of UK and Wales in 2000 and concluded that GHG emissions were "very likely" ( >90% probability) responsible.

A study published in April this year titled "Probable maximum precipitation and climate change" found that "continued course of high greenhouse gas emissions would influence the potential maximum precipitation." See coverage on Climate Progress blog titled: "When It Rains, It Pours: Study Confirms Climate Change Will Keep Driving More Intense Precipitation."

Apart from this, we also know that climate change raises risk of glacial lake outburst which was also witnessed at Kedarnath in Uttarakhand. A 2010 report from U.S. Geological Survey, which came out when one-fifth of Pakistan was under floods, stated that Himalayan glacier retreat due to climate change "increases the likelihood of outburst floods that threaten life and property in nearby areas."

Then there are several studies specifically on Indian Monsoon that link climate change to extreme rainfall events. Prof. Dr. Anders Levermann at Potsdam Institute For Climate Research replied to a query saying that "variability of the Indian monsoon system is very likely to increase under global warming. We have recently shown that all models of the new CMIP-5 model inter comparison afford show such an increase in variability. Overall higher rainfall during the monsoon season is to be expected." He cited two of his recent studies in support of increase monsoon rainfall and increased monsoon day-to-day variability respectively.

So science is pretty clear that climate change leads to extreme rainfall. That said, one can well argue that every extreme rainfall still cannot be attributed to climate change and one may technically be correct unless there is evidence. But what I have tried to establish in this post is that we do no necessarily need this evidence! As observers we do not need to CONCLUSIVELY PROVE climate link for each single event because it fits a broader PATTERN of increased frequency of such events which is consistent with climate change.

Update 11-Feb 2015: Struck down references to upcoming posts on climate impacts.

Notes and Links

(All links open in new window.)

[1] IMD's weekly rainfall graphic for 13-June to 19-June, all states (PDF) | Downloaded from on 26-Jun

[2] Why Kedarnath happened | Frontline

[3] Earth sciences secretary blames Uttarakhand rains on climate change | Times of India

[4] Uttarakhand: Warning bells on deaf ears | Hindustan Times

[5] Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) magazine coverage | Down to Earth

[6] Scientific articles with term Anthropogenic Climate Change | Google Scholar

[7] Folks, This Ain't Normal by Joel Salatin | Amazon

[8] Holocene | University of California Museum of Paleontology

[9] IPCC AR1 Working Group 1 1990 (PDF) | IPCC

[10] Summary For Policy Makers Pg-7 (PDF) | IPCC

[11] Summary For Policy Makers Pg-8 (PDF) | IPCC

[12] Summary For Policy Makers Pg-13 (PDF) | IPCC

[13] RTI disclosures | Climate Revolution Initiative

[14] Environment and Forests Ministry to give renewed impetus to science | Press Information Bureau

[15] Climate Change and India: A 4x4 Assessment (Executive Summary), Pg-29 | MoEF

[16] SREX - Press Release (PDF) | IPCC

[17] SREX - Summary for Policy Makers Pg-12 (PDF) | IPCC

[18] Study: Global Warming Has Increased Australia’s Chances Of Extreme Summers Five-Fold | Climate Progress

[19] NCDC Releases May 2013 Global Climate Report | NCDC

[20] Global Warming's Terrifying New Math | Rolling Stone

[21] Climate Change Buoying Wildfires Across Country | npr

[22] Time to blame climate change for extreme weather? | New Scientist

[23] Extreme weather link 'can no longer be ignored' | The Independent, UK

[24] Scientists Warn Extreme Weather Linked to Steroids of Climate Change | Huffington Post

[25] Hansen et al: “Extreme Heat Waves... in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 Were ‘Caused’ by Global Warming” | Climate Progress

[25-A] Perceptions of Climate Change: The New Climate Dice pg-5| PNAS

[26] Climate change is here — and worse than we thought | Washington Post

[27] NASA scientist links climate change, extreme weather | CNN

[28] Deadly Russian heat wave gravest over millennium | RiaNovosti

[29] Russian President Medvedev: “What is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past.” | Climate Progress

[30] Moscow smog and heat: "I feel like a smoked fish placed in an oven." | BBC

[31] Area in Russian fires increased to 500,000 hectares (Russian) |

[32] Smoke Over Moscow | NASA Earth Observatory

[33] Heat wave, drought, wildfires in Russia (PDF) | Munich RE

[34] Russian Heat Wave Statistically Linked to Climate Change | Wired

[35] Bombshell: Study Finds 80% Chance Russia’s 2010 July Heat Record Would Not Have Occurred Without Climate Warming | Climate Progress

[36] Link builds between weather extremes and warming | Reuters

[37] Report: Climate change behind rise in weather disasters | USA Today

[38] One-Fifth of Pakistan Under Water As the Country Turns Sixty-Three | NYMag

[39] More than 700 dead as flooding hits southeast Asian countries | CNN

[40] El Salvador still reeling from October floods |

[41] China's history of floods | BBC

[42] Beijing floods caused 'significant losses': official | AFP

[43] Beijing 7-21 torrential rain death toll rose to 79 people (Chinese) |

[44] China floods kill 52 as 100,000 flee homes | AFP

[45] Drought persists in northwest as downpour drenches south | Xinhua

[46] Yangtze Rains Bring Drought Relief, and Floods | NT Times

[47] Over 460 dead, missing in China floods | Presstv

[48] China lost $6.65 bn due to floods in 2011 | inewsone

[49] Floods, landslides leave 3,185 dead in China this year: MCA | Xinhua

[50] Flood-hit families to get subsidies from government to rebuild homes | Xinhua

[51] Over 10 mln affected by floods in S China, 132 dead | Xinhua

[52]  Landslides Kill Scores in Northern China | NY Times

[53] 2010 Floods Special | Xinhua

[54] China says flood causes 84.60 bln yuan losses in 2009 | reliefweb

[55] China floods kill 16, force 320,000 to evacuate | CBC

[56] 20 Days of Rainstorms in South China Affected 15 Provinces | Sina

[57] Worst rainstorms in 50 years hit southeast China | Reuters

[58] Freak rainfall lashes nation's south | Shanhai Daily

[59] China: Floods Appeal No. MDRCN002 Final Report | reliefweb

[60] 66 killed in South China flood | China Daily

[61] At least 30 dead in China floods | BBC

[62] China's 2006 Floods In Pictures |

[63] Natural calamities caused over 3,000 human deaths in China | reliefweb

[64] China: 2007 Outlook Appeal no. MAACN001 Programme Update no. 4 | reliefweb

[65] China: Flooding death toll surpasses 500 | NBC News

[66] China Flood Appeal 12 Aug 2005 | reliefweb

[67] South China flood toll surges | CNN

[68] Humanitarian Aid for the victims of the 2004 floods in Chongqing, Hunan and Guangxi provinces | reliefweb

[69] Map of 2004 China Floods | Dartmouth Univ.

[70] Floodwater Enters East China's Shandong Province |

[71] 15,000 Houses Destroyed by Continuous Rainstorms in E. China City |

[72] Death Toll from Typhoon Dujuan Rises to 40 |

[73] China says 123 dead or missing in Shaanxi floods, 200,000 homes destroyed | reliefweb

[74] Global Weirding Is Here | NY Times

[75] Alberta’s flood worse than flood of 2005 | Global News

[76] Tens of thousands could be forced from homes in Alberta floods | Timescolonist

[77] Alberta Floods: High River evauated, more than 150 rescued from rooftops | The Vancouver Sun

[78] EUROPE: Floods Are Here to Stay | IPS news

[79] More Flooding in Central Europe | The Atlantic

[80] Europe Floods 2013's Costliest Natural Disaster |

[81] 3 wildfires combine into one near Colo. tourist spots | CBS

[82] Hundreds of residents, animals evacuated as wildfire threatens Two Rivers | ADN

[83] Is Global Warming Fueling Increased Wildfire Risks? | UCS

[84] Climate change causing US wildfire season to last longer, Congress told | The Guardian

[85] Experts See New Normal as a Hotter, Drier West Faces More Huge Fires | NY Times

[86] Storms across nation cause landslides, collapse bridges | Global Times

[87] China evacuates 500,000 as typhoon hits | The Telegraph

[88] Russia Suffers Severe Heat, Drought | Accu Weather

[89] Russian farmers continue to struggle with drought |

[90] Russia’s Tatarstan Seen Losing Half of Grain Harvest to Drought | Bloomberg

[91] Arctic Melt Unnerves the Experts | NY Times

[92] UN Report: 2012 Arctic Ice Melt Larger Than Size of United States | US News

[93] Climate and land use: Europe’s floods raise questions | Inquirer

[94] 144% surplus rain so far in flood-hit Uttarakhand | Times of India

July 17, 2013

Uttarakhand Floods and Climate Change: With Bigger Calamities Looming and Lessons Still Unlearned, How Many More Must Die Before We Abandon the Illusion of Development?

Uttarakhand floods induced by man made climate change should be viewed as stark warning that the 20th century dream of "development" — raising our standard of living by converting nature into buildings, roads, and stuff-to-consume-and-discard — is about to come crashing down. As our policy makers and media remain determined to ignore climate lessons, calamities unimagined are in store.

The unprecedented Uttarakhand floods of June 2013 that took lives of over 10,000 by some estimates seem to have shaken the foundations of the state legislative assembly. Literally. Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna is to decide whether to demolish the assembly building constructed along riverbed in Dehradun after a July 4 High Court verdict ordered the government to cancel allotment of all structures along riverbeds within a week and remove them within two months.

There cannot be a greater symbolic blow to the authority of political establishment of the state, a class that has defended its need to put "development" above ecology and the safety of its citizens. It is a physical blow too as members of the political class themselves own illegal structures now ordered to be demolished.

Yet, there's no evidence that the state or central government has learnt the big lessons. Now that we have seen what climate change can do today, the debate at national level must move beyond disaster preparedness, disaster management, environmental policy and also address more urgent issues of the threat from climate change of tomorrow and its implications for the developmental model of the country.

As big as this tragedy appears, there's a real danger that we will not grasp the true implications of the events that unfolded last month until it is too late. In this series, I examine its link with climate change and events unfolding around the world, highlight what I think we need to learn from the floods and pose some tough questions.

This is a multi-part series of posts with the following parts published so far:

Nothing Natural About This Disaster (Uttarakhand Floods and Climate Change)

Coming Next: Mega-Disasters of Tomorrow

Update 11-Feb 2015: Struck down references to upcoming posts on climate impacts.

June 28, 2013

Note about long absence. This blog has always had periods of inactivity but the last one has broken all records. Yet, each time it manages to pull me back and I write again. Apart from work, the main reason that kept me away this time was Google's policy change regarding custom domains about couple of years ago. As a result of this, the new posts I made were not showing up properly. When I moved host, they stopped showing completely. The required configuration change to fix this appeared too technical and when a couple of attempts didn't work, I left it for later. Just managed to fix this now for good. I regularly wrote elsewhere during this time, mainly on Green-India and India-Environment Journalists discussion groups and will copy some of those posts here. Will back date each one to the same date on which they were originally made while explicitly specifying the original forum and context in which they were made.

P.S.: A big thumbs up for GreenGeeks, my new host for about a year (also the host for Climate Revolution Initiative). For each unit of electricity they consume from the grid, they buy three in form of wind energy credits. The EPA has appreciated this and awarded them the status of 'Green Power Partner' "in recognition of efforts to reduce the risk of climate change through green power purchasing." Good work GreenGeeks!

October 06, 2011

In Memoriam: Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Update: Past posts on Steve Jobs in this blog
Nov 2004 | Steve Jobs: Excelling in the Art
Jun 2005 | Lessons From an Extraordinary Life

April 09, 2011

The Anna Hazare Revolution Is a Triumph of Democracy

Indian Express editor in chief Shekhar Gupta, Centre for Policy Research president Pratap Bhanu Mehta and others calling the people-led success of Anna Hazare, a subversion of democratic institutions need to shed their narrow definition of democracy.

Today is a landmark in the Indian history. For the first time since our independence, the people of our nation have been able to force the government to its knees through unpreceedented and spontaneous mobilisation of millions of people within a remarkably short span to replace a weak anti-corruption bill with one potentially so strong, it could alter the face of governance forever in this country.

Yet, some people are questioning the movement and the process that led to this change. Their primary grouse is that it subverted democratic institutions like the elected members of parliament who represent the common public. Here's a sample:

Indian Express editorial dated 7-Apr: "[Jan Lokpal Bill] is a mishmash of unworkable and dangerous ideas which no government could seriously consider. [...] a belief that [Civil Society] alone can speak for “the people” and elected representatives cannot, is dangerous."

Indian Express editorial dated 8-Apr: "The danger is that such passive-aggressive tactics as a fast to cast a demand as that of civil society’s subverts the constitutional framework."

Indian Express editorial dated 9-Apr: "What, after all, is civil society, and what privileges one group over another to speak for the nation? The only irrefutable proof that you represent the people is that they have voted you in, through a free election."

Pratap Bhanu Mehta in IE dated 7-Apr: "the movement behind the Jan Lokpal Bill is crossing the lines of reasonableness [sic]. It is premised on an institutional imagination that is at best naïve; at worst subversive of representative democracy."

Institutions Have Not Been Subverted

First of all, let's be clear: no government institutions have been subverted, be it the constitution or the parliament. The civil society activists have obtained an *equal* role in the drafting committee, not a majority role. How could this be called a subversion when the elected government gets to keep half the strength and co-chairmainship of the committee?

The gvernment notification ensures that it's not an unofficial committee with no constitutional validity. In fact there's even a precedent to it, as reported by a government source in a news report today -- the committee to disability act was also made up of civil society institutions alongwith government representatives.

It would have been subversion had Anna Hazare said, here's the Jan Lokpal Bill, you better make it an official act or I'll fast to death. But the architects of the movement didn't say that. They argued for a joint constitutional committee whose drafted bill wil be submitted to the cabinet and then after their approval will be tabled in the parliament. Where is the subversion in this?

What is Democracy?

Yes, legislature is the primary prerogative of democratically elected government but to say that the joint drafting committee route is undemocratic would be to remain stuck on a narrow definition of democracy.

Does democracy only mean a government elected by the people? Once elected can they do anything they wish regardless of public support for their decisions? Does the fact they they were voted to a majority give them a license to exploit the country to the best of their advantage?

Unfortunately, in India we have become so accustomed to this meaning of democracy that even our academics and newspaper editors who should know better consider anything else outside of this narrow definition undemocratic.

Wikipedia offers a far more meaningful definition: "Democracy is a form of government in which all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal (and more or less direct) participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law."

Equal participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law is precisely what is being sought by Anna Hazare and his supporters in this case. As long as Anna Hazare has the support of the common public how is this process undemocratic?

Anna Hazare Represents The Entire Nation

If there's one thing that stands out crystal clear in this entire episode is that Anna Hazare only provided spark to a fuel of deep anguish against corruption which was already spread all over the nation.

How else does one explain mass mobilisation of thousands of people thronging to the Jantar Mandar and growing in number every passing day, hundreds of solidatory demonstrations, rallies and candle light vigils across the nation, millions of messages on social netowrking sites Twitter and Facebook and strong support across a vast multitude of people from celebreties to the housewives, corporates and school children all over the country.

Yes, the media helped without doubt but media cannot create a movement out of thin air. The fact of the matter is, we are a people sick and tired of experiencing corruption in all walks of life every single day. We've had enough and Anna Hazara, for the very first time, offered us a solution.

So who are these newspaper editors and policy experts saying that the process is unrepresentational as Anna Hazare does not represent the common man just because he doesn't happen to be a elected politician?

After witnessing the scenes on TV does anyone really need proof that the campaign is representational? If one does, an HT-C Fore survey published in HT today shows that the movement has complete backing of people with 84% saying they support Anna Hazare's crusade against corruption. Why then do these democracy purists believe that being elected through a vote is the only criteria for representation?

What Do People Do If Democratic Institutions Fail?

Those arguing that all policy must originate strictly within democratic institutions should suggest what to do if those institutions fail the public as they indeed have in the case of corruption in India. We can surely vote out of the office the leaders we don't like but what if there were no clean choices available while voting?

The only recourse left is to force the policy makers to change if they are not willing to bring in the change the public so desperately wants. As Pratik Kanjilal argues in today's op-ed in Hindustan Times: "In desperate times, when all other options have been exhausted, moral coercion becomes a valid political act." Practically speaking, there was no other way, the government would have brought in a strong Lokpal bill.

By overturning the government on the issue of joint drafting committe, Anna Hazare has achieved a triumph of democracy with no parallel in recent history. It needs to be celebrated rather than questioned. Of course, it's only a beginning of a much longer process but what a beginning! I leave you with this song: "Aarambh Hai Prachand" from the film Gulaal (2009).

April 28, 2010

The Suckers At Delhi Government

An outdoor air purifying system made by Italian company Systemlife and installed at Connaught Place by NDMC is symbolic of cluelessness that prevails in the higher echelons of the government.

I returned home this morning, after an interview with a German researcher on Delhi government's climate initiatives, to find a newspaper report which made a perfect specimen for the central argument I tried to put across in the meeting -- the Delhi govt, just like its counterpart in the centre, has no clue what they are talking about, no clue about the scale of the climate crisis, what needs to be done and how ineffective will be their so-called plan.

The newspaper report I'm referring to touted "CP’s air cleaner than before" because of an outdoor air purifier installed there for the last month. You read that right, an outdoor air purifier.

I cannot believe this scam has survived over one month. When I first saw news reports last month, I was aghast at the collective ignorance of the government and the media. Certain at the same time that I'd see a report in the next few days citing an expert clarifying that this had no chance of making any discernable impact on air quality of the region. Surely, I thought someone would point out that you don't install air purifiers in open areas!

The emperor-has-no-clothes moment I was expecting has not only not arrived, but the emperor is on to another round of parade. The news today is covered by several newspapers. It apparently originated with this release from the PTI: "Air purifier station at Delhi a big success." The source cited is not an air monitoring agency but the company that did the installation.

The machine is claimed to have captured 2 kg of particulate matter but out of how much? All this claim proves is that the device does filter out the air it sucks but is it actually effective in reducing pollution of that region? What is the reduction in particulate matter (in ppm) measured by nearby monitors? If it impacts a limited localised region, how much precisely is that area?

Systemlife, the Italian company behind this technology publishes no specifications of their products on their website. The site contains no technical details and there is no mention of peer-reviewed scientific papers or independent studies that corroborate that its products meant for the outdoors improves air quality of a localised region.

Interestingly, the company's product page for Model Città, that was installed at CP, does not even make such a claim. All it says is that it cleans the air it sucks -- without specifying the quantity or the effect on the localised area. News reports from last month do provide an indication of capacity -- 10,000 cubic meter per hour.

10,000 m^3 capacity effectively means an area less than 23 meter long, 23 meter wide and 20 meter high (air we breathe)! That certainly wouldn't cover much of CP.

But this is assuming that air stands still over a given area, which of course it doesn't. The rate of air flow over a 100m distance at just 1 m/s wind speed at the height of 20 m is 72 Lakh cubic meter per hour (7,200,000 m^3/hr), according to Dr. Sarath Guttikunda, founder of UrbanEmissions.Info, a research unit meant to share information on air pollution and its management. This is taken from his blog post -- the only online reference I could find online where this scam has been exposed.

You don't need to be a scientist or a mathematician to know that air mixes rapidly in open areas. The question is, is our government incapable of both simple math and common sense? What about newspaper editors?

Proponents of the machine could argue that whatever little the machine is doing is still commendable. But that would be an argument made without any sense of scale. The scale in this case is like a 2.5 crore (which is what this machine cost) water purification system installed on the banks of Yamuna with a cleaning capacity of a home water purifier!

Sure, it may be cleaning 10 litres of polluted Yamuna water per hour, at the rate of 0.003 litre per second, but does it matter in a river with a flow of 8.5 million litres per second? That is the scale of con that is being perpetrated here.

The health chief of NDMC while launching the machine said that money does not matter when it comes to health of Delhi citizens. Systemlife intends to installl 100 such machines in Delhi. Ritika Modi, head of Uniglobe Travel South Asia, the Indian partner company of Systemlife, said every Indian city needs these machines.

At 250 crore for hundred machines that promise to be as effective as the proverbial drop in the ocean, I hope that better sense will previal with the government. Thankfully, the current installation is only a pilot one and the government says it will monitor air quality for three months before taking a decision. If the process is honestly followed there is no chance of it getting through.

The point is, the pilot was not needed had anyone done even the most rudimentary thinking. But I suspect the lure of a magical vaccum cleaner that sucks out all the city's pollution was too much to resist for any thought process.


The post was copied to:

January 28, 2010

Top Five Reasons Why Apple's iPad is Revolutionary

People lamenting iPad's lack of "features" are discounting its user experience as well as the big picture change it represents.

[UPDATE 28-APR 2010: After finally spending hours with the device, reviewers at Engadget reluctantly admitted earlier this month that "it's a little bit revolutionary" indeed. Wall Street Journal's veteran tech reviewer Walt Mossberg went further in his March 31st review: "I believe this beautiful new touch-screen device from Apple has the potential to change portable computing profoundly, and to challenge the primacy of the laptop."

Meanwhile, Apple is so inundated with iPad orders within the U.S. that it has decided to postpone its international launch. Clearly, iPad is turning out to be as much of a success as this blog had predicted at its January unveiling when the tech community was almost unanimously focussed on its lack of "features" disregarding the user experience and the implications for personal computing.

Apple's introduction of iPad has been received with mixed response. While many reviewers are excited about the device, most have expressed serious disappointment with the perceived lack of "basic features". Let's take reviews by Engadet that are representative of what tech bloggers are generally saying about this device.

Out of three of their editors who got to check the device hands on, Josh called it underwhelming and unimaginative, Ross said he couldn't justify buying this device while Chris Grant from Joystiq said iPad doesn't represent sea change in quality like the iPhone. Others were less forgiving. Darren calls it one of Apple's biggest misses. All bemoaned the lack of features they were expecting.

Many people perhaps expected a full-fledged computing device so I can understand some of the disappointment. But Apple never said what they were going to release and all the hype in the media and blogosphere in the weeks and months leading up to the event was creation of these very people who are now criticising the device for not living up to their expectations. When Jobs got on stage, he made it clear from that start that iPad lies somewhere between the laptop and smartphone.

With that said, in my view, characterising iPad as simply "an over-sized iPod touch" is what is really unimaginative. Failing to see beyond their "power" needs most reviewers have shown lack of thinking. They also demonstrate that they have learned nothing from the success of iPhone and iPod.

I think iPad goes far beyond in terms of what it offers today to users, what it represents for the future of portable computing, what it means for Apple as a company and what it can do for the publishing industry. To call the device revolutionary is not an exaggeration by any measure. Here's why:

#1 The User Experience

Success of a device of this kind is about the overall user experience and not about a few features here and there. It's not what it "can't do" but how it does the things it can.

Let's rewind by three years. Apple releases a smartphone that doesn't have any new "feature" and yet it explodes in sales. What happened? Can you name any single new feature that iPhone introduced when it debuted that no other phone had? Did you say, web browsing? Well, people had been using the web on their cell phones for ages. Email? That's what blackberry did. Touchscreen? Again, lots of phones had touchscreens even then. Camera? Music player? All of these were already standard features.

If you said multi-touch, that would be spot on but why have we forgotten about multi-touch now? How many mainstream computing device can you name -- be it a laptop, PC, Netbook or ebook -- that allows you to browse the web, access files on your computer, scroll lists and read a book using a specialised interface designed for multi-touch? Sure there are touchscreen tablets but neither are they mainstream nor do they carry multi-touch capability anything resembling the iPad.

Let's get back to iPhone, what was unique about it was its user experience. The way the interface flew when it touched your fingers. While most people drooled over the demo when Jobs first revealed the iPhone in his January 2007 keynote but by the time they got home they began to wonder what kind of cool aid were they drinking. Several tech bloggers wrote in the following days that there was nothing revolutionary about this Phone. All the iPhones features could be found on other Smartphones as well. After all, they pointed out, the iPhone even lacked many things they took for granted -- it couldn't forward a text message, couldn't record video, couldn't send an MMS, didn't have expandable memory and didn't come with a swappable battery.

Forty-two million iPhone sales later, it's clear that none of that mattered.

Nine years ago, iPod debut saw a similar response from parts of the tech community. "No wireless. Less space than [competition]. Lame," said the post on Slashdot. And again, 250 million iPods later, nobody's calling the device lame. Obviously, tech bloggers don't get that the user experience is king in software just as content is in media.

Why do we discount the user experience? For one, because it's an intangible. Image transitions, ease of scrolling, surfing the web, pinching and expanding photographs, accessing information with ease, accuracy of search results and the user interface in general aren't counted as "features" and "functionality" of a device in spec sheets unlike tangibles such as webcam, USB ports. And yet it's these intangibles that make the user experience and define how the tangible "features" of the device behave.

A mp3 player with a brand new interface to scroll down long lists or a smartphone with no new "feature" might look boring when you compare spec sheets - get them in your hand and it's an entirely different experience. Steve Jobs emphasised twice in his Keynote on Wednesday that it's one thing to hear about iPad and quite another to take it in your hands.

The reason many people aren't enamored by the device today is that they are used to multi-touch on their iPhone and its novelty value has long worn off. On phones, that is. Wait till they actually get to do the same things on a computing device. Although the iPad isn't a full fledged computer, if the videos are any indication, it does some of the key tasks exceedingly well.

Apart from the user experience of reading/ viewing/ browsing/ accessing content, the entertainment experience especially gaming is going to to be completely unmatched by devices of this kind. SGN Holdings is planning to bring "Xbox 360-quality 3D multiplayer game" to iPad. They are also said to be planning games that will let users "handle their iPhones like a Wii-like game controller for an iPad."

That is the kind of experience you can look forward on an iPad and this is why the iPad is revolutionary.

#2 The End of Laptop Form Factor

If the iPad does succeed in capturing a large market, and I have no doubt that it will, it'd be hard for Apple to limit the tablet form factor of the iPad to the current device. I see no reason why there can't be full fledged portable computing devices of 15" to 17" size in the tablet form factor ready to be used either as a touchscreen iPad or as desktop with standup monitor and split keyboard configuration or even as traditional laptop with removable wireless keyboard plus touchpad inside a tablet jacket.

While Apple hasn't made any explicit statements to this effect but its lead designer Jonathan Ive did offer hint of such future development when he said referring to the iPad: "this defines our vision, our sense of what's next."

After seeing how iPad works, it's really difficult to imagine that this will not happen. Weight of the device might be an issue for large screens but most people will still use it on some kind of a platform such as tabletop, kitchen counter or simply on their knees rather than holding it with one hand. The possibility of ending portable computing's most famous form factor of the last two decades, the laptop, is what makes the iPad revolutionary.

#3 Breaking The $500 Price Barrier (also called The Netbook Effect)

Figures released last month show that in 2009 while Laptops lost revenue by 7%, Netbooks grew 72% in sales and over 103% in units sold. The data clearly indicates that people are not just buying them as secondary machines but their primary computers -- a fact that "power users" (especially those who dominate tech blogs and media outlets and who were the first to crticise iPad as lacking "important features") might find hard to digest.

The point is, success of Netbooks amply demonstrates that if you give them a really low price consumers will happily ignore lack of few features.

Introduced in late 2007, a Netbook is a small form factor, low performance portable computer sans an optical disk which became a phenomenal and unexpected overnight success. Steve Jobs himself deningrated the Netbook in his Keynote when he said they are not better at anything. He's generally right if he's referring to the user experience. With low resolution screens, slower processors and cramped keyboards, netbooks leave a lot to be desired.

But even Jobs knows that netbooks are still good at one or two things. Portability and price. At around 10 inches in size and $300 in price, on average, Netbooks are 70% the size and 50% the price of traditional 15" Windows laptops. This -- the price in large part, and portability closely following -- explains their unprecedented rise to prominence.

It's easy to see that Apple has recognised these factors behind the phenomenal success of Netbooks because the iPad seems to be designed to compete in the same market with the same key characteristics. Starting at $499, the iPad is priced at a price-point which is precisely half-way through Apple's entry level laptop, the Macbook priced at $999. Not coincidentally, the iPad is also 10 inches in size.

By crossing the $500 price barrier and ensuring portability, Apple's iPad appears destined to experience the same explosion in sales that Netbooks are experiencing. This is why the iPad is revolutionary.

#4 The App Store

Here's another question for the skeptics: name another computer manufacturer that makes money from sale of third-party software written for their device, completely controls this software ecosystem and successfully thrwarts all competition. With over 140,000 apps, three billion downloads and Apple's infamous approval process with the golden clause that rejects any application with "duplicate functionality", the app store for iPhone is a money minting machine for Apple Inc.

About one third of all revenue generated from the app store goes into Apple's pockets. No other hardware maker has anything that comes close. And once again, we've gotten so used to it that we forget the genius of an invention it is for Apple.

Free from the limitations of a mobile device, the iPad will guarantee one thing for Apple, many many more new apps and zillions of downloads. If Apple discontinues the Macbook and Macbook Pro line and converts them into iPad's tablet form factor over the coming years, as I predict above, there will be serious temptation to continue with the app store's closed ecosystem model simply because it's just so profitable.

With the first closed ecosystem of applications for a major computing device in the iPad, Apple has just redefined the rules of engagement with its competitors like Dell and Microsoft. Neither of them are poised to respond likewise because unlike Apple, neither of them makes both software and hardware. This is what makes Apple's iPad revolutionary.

#5 Old Media Saviour

Finally, with the iPad, Apple is set to forever change how newspapers, periodicals and textbooks are read. While Jobs' keynote did not venture much beyond books, it's been widely reported that he's working closely with several bigtime publishers.

Old media has long been grappaling with new media and how best to employ it to their advantage. Yet, they have failed to make it work for them. Meanwhile, as news aggregators and free online news sites gain readership, real world newspapers' and magazines' subscriptions are falling, advertising rates decreasing and publishers are closing shops.

For the first time, they are provided with an opportunity. All of a sudden, print publishers get to be on a platform that can push them inside homes of people who have their credit card ready and who are accustomed to paying for consumption of media content and software. The number of payment transactions of songs, movies, TV shows and applications through the iTunes store and app store run in billions. Apple could possibly do to publishing what it did to the music industry. So a seriously troubled, if not dying entity now gets a good chance of revival. That's revolutionary.

Update: Digg this

About the date mark: While I started drafting this post on 28th Jan, it was first published on 1.30am [IST] 1st Feb 2010.

Past Apple posts on this blog

Design of an Apple Badge
iPhone: Apple's Most Profitable Product Ever?
Steve Jobs' iPhone: What's the Big Deal?
Steve Jobs, an artist of the highest order
Lessons from Steve Jobs' life
On Jef Raskin
Unveiling of iPod Nano
The Great Apple Turnaround
User Experience as competitive advantage

January 19, 2010

On IPCC Inaccuracies and Inadequacies

Yes, IPCC is inaccurate but not just the way the media has been projecting it in relation to melting of Himalayan glaciers.

Joe Romm has a great post on his popular Climate Progress blog in which he counters recent criticism that IPCC overestimated the date of Himalayan melting. He accurately mirrors my feelings when he says:
It isn't news that the 2007 projections by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are not accurate. The real news is that the 99% of their "mistakes" are UNDERestimates of likely impacts.
Since the IPCC is said to be reviewing evidence regarding this issue, Joe suggests they review all scientific literature regarding sea level rise and ice melt. That would be a good idea but limiting it to only sea level rise and ice melting does not make much sense.

Those of us who have been tracking climate science closely know that if one considers all the evidence that has come to light over the last three years, much of the IPCC edifice would crumble. In fact latest scientific assessments of literature published over this period, such as, The Copenhagen Diagnosis (Nov 2009), Scientific Congress Climate Change (Mar 2009) and to some degree Climate Change Science Compendium (UNEP Sep 2009) have been critical of IPCC.

It's not just sea level rise and ice melt in the poles that have been underestimated in IPCC AR4 projections but its reports are found lacking in several other areas as well.

  • Emission growth scenarios - underestimated
  • Oceans' capacity as carbon sinks - overestimated 
  • Methane forcing - underestimated
  • Forcing of geological and geomorphological hazards - inadequate
  • Tipping elements and general irreversibility of climate change - inadequate
  • Emission reduction approach - inadequate

New research and evidence on each of these areas show IPCC projections and its approach to be either deeply conservative or largely inadequate. So yes, IPCC needs to re-analyse evidence regarding the extent of melting in Tibetean-Himalayan glaciers -- the mistake occurred as they included a paper that did not go through the peer-review process, something that is supposed to identify errors such as these.

However, this is more of an exception than the rule. Almost all of IPCC research is based on peer-reviewed research. And as Joe says, most of the time IPCC has made a mistake, it is an underestimate of impacts. The important point is that it is these mistakes, the underestimates, that are much more dangerous than any inaccuracy that turns out to be an overestimate because the former lull our policymakers into thinking they have more time when in fact the time to act is long gone.