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Hope in the face of climate change

Sibi Arasu | Updated on January 05, 2020 Published on January 03, 2020

Hazy future: High pollution is seeing many leave Delhi for good   -  THE HINDU/RV MOORTHY

Extreme weather conditions threaten India as a new decade unfolds, but there is hope yet as activists young and old step up to the fight for the planet

“I’m afraid we’ll have to carry oxygen tanks instead of school bags,” bemoans Ridhima Pandey. The 11-year-old from Haridwar became the face of young India’s protest against climate inaction last year when she, along with Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg and 14 other youngsters from around the world, filed a complaint with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child against countries that were guilty of doing the least to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

Since August 2018, when Thunberg skipped school to protest in front of the Swedish parliament, there have been hundreds of similar ‘climate strikes’ by students around the world. There’s urgency in Ridhima’s voice when she says, “I think after 10 years, many species in India might become extinct and conflicts between humans and animals will only increase because of deforestation. Sometimes, when I think about my future, India’s future, I get scared. My aim now is to get more young people to participate in climate strikes by going to various schools, and also posting messages on my Instagram feed.”

Extreme weather such as unpredictable monsoons, extended periods of drought and frequently recurring cyclones have become the new normal. Yet, at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 25th Conference of Parties (CoP) held in Madrid last year, global leaders were unable to move forward to fulfil the commitments they’d made in the 2016 Paris agreement.

Although India has been more proactive than many other nations in seeking to deal with the global climate crisis, it has fallen short on implementation. For instance, while the country levied an ambitious carbon cess, it diverted the money to make up for the shortfall in the collection of Goods and Services Tax (GST). And the downsizing of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has crippled its ability to handle the enormous number of environmental cases brought to it.

The decade that we are embarking on threatens to bring a lot more trouble, but, at the same time, there are silver linings.

The facts to the fore

Ever since its establishment in 1988, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been providing the world with objective, scientific information related to human-induced climate change; the natural, political, and economic impacts and risks entailed; and the possible response options. Its assessment reports have helped determine the threshold for irreversible change, including the 1.5-degree Celsius warming barrier — namely, that if the planet warms beyond this threshold, the climate would reach a point of no return.

“Our knowledge of what is happening to the planet is based on many independent lines of evidence, which include observations of present-day climate from Earth and from space, and observations of past climate changes on Earth, as seen in trees, in the shells of animals, in old ice that hasn’t been exposed to the atmosphere for hundreds of thousands of years,” says V Balaji, a climate scientist at Princeton University in the US.

Balaji’s work on ‘climate science models’ has been instrumental in preparing several IPCC reports. “The models are important because they allow us to explore what the Earth might have been like without human emissions or human-caused deforestation — what we call ‘counterfactual’ Earths. In recent years these multiple lines of inquiry have yielded overwhelming evidence of human influence on climate, and the models continue to get better,” he says.

The IPCC’s sixth assessment report (IPCC-AR6) is scheduled to be released in 2022. “Initial results seem to indicate that maybe the planet warms more than we thought for a given amount of carbon dioxide (what is called ‘climate sensitivity’), but the interpretation of these results is still being furiously argued about. Clearer answers should emerge this year,” he explains.

In India, too, the focus of climate science study is now on ways to equip Indians to cope with the anticipated fallout in the future. Sandeep Sahany, assistant professor at the centre for atmospheric sciences in IIT-Delhi, says that this decade will see India dealing with issues ranging from extreme rainfall to heat waves, tropical cyclones and rising sea levels. “The Arabian Sea has become very active and we’re seeing a lot of increase in cyclones on that front,” he says.

The catalyst for disasters, Sahany stresses, is not just global warming but a combination of global and local factors. “Local land-use patterns, urbanisation and other similar factors have an effect too. The same amount of rainfall will have different effects in urban and non-urban areas, so we will also have to take on some of the responsibility for the disasters. I do not think India as a whole is well-prepared, going into this decade; there are a few states which are doing well and the other states should follow their example. Things are bound to get more difficult, but if we are able to plan well we can cope. Currently, I don’t think we’re planning well.”

Crossing a rubicon: Extreme weather events such as floods can turn millions of Indians into climate refugees in the coming decade, experts warn   -  THE HINDU/NISSAR AHMAD

An economic crisis

An oft-cited solution for climate change is a switch to renewable energy such as solar and wind power. This line of thinking is popular in India, too, with big money being invested in developing a renewable energy infrastructure. However, not everyone supports this. “The climate crisis is not an energy crisis, it’s an economic crisis. So any attempt to fix the crisis by singling out renewable energy and so on is bound to fail,” asserts Nityanand Jayaraman, Chennai-based environmental activist. “As to how the crisis will unfold, I think the unravelling will be a lot more rapid than what we thought it would be. This means there is an urgent need for local communities to dig in and fight against degradation of local landscapes and, where possible, fight for rehabilitation of their landscapes.” This includes planting and restoring native plant species, and protecting village commons from exploitation in the name of ‘development’.

Moving into the next decade, the conflict between entities that have invested greatly in renewable energy and the local communities and environmental activists who see little value in it is bound to increase. Godwin Vasanth Bosco, a restoration ecologist based in the Nilgiris in the Western Ghats, questions the efficacy of renewable energy. “People tend to think this is a solution because of renewable energy not emitting greenhouse gases, but the fact that this has an enormous resource impact is being overlooked now. The resource impact [of renewable energy] is probably greater than that of even fossil fuels,” says the author of Voices of a Sentient Highland — a detailed study of high-altitude ecosystems in South Asia.

Bosco believes that it is time policy-making is driven by ecological considerations, rather than just business interests. “If the ‘business as usual’ scenario persists in this decade, then there will be millions of climate refugees. The rich will begin moving out. Already people are leaving New Delhi. The number of urban poor will increase, the situation in cities and rural areas will worsen. Frankly, I’m quite afraid of what’s in store,” he warns.

Slivers of hope

Amid the growing voices of despair, there are those who believe that the damage can be reversed. Jigmet Takpa, joint secretary, ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEF&CC), tells BLink that India has made significant commitments towards halting land degradation and restoring degraded land. “Once this is carried out, it will have great positive effects on our biodiversity and [in] dealing with issues such as poverty, public health, hunger and livelihood. If we can take care of our land, we can take care of most issues. It is also important to note that our per capita emissions are among the lowest in the world,” Takpa says.

Ulka Kelkar, climate director at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a global non-profit, also chooses to look on the bright side for now. “For some geographies in our country, it is already an existential threat, but I’m an optimist at heart, so I do feel it’s possible to adapt and take sensible action.” She points to the inherent links between the climate crisis and other pertinent issues. “In India, you have a large population entering the workforce every year; we need to provide jobs for everyone. Therefore, slowing economic growth is a major issue. Also, providing a good standard of living, a quality of life is important. We still have large populations living in abject poverty. So a key element is energy access.”

In India, the problems as well as the solutions are known to many, but the question is who will bear the costs and how the changes will be implemented, she says. Jayaraman underscores the role of the young in taking things forward. He says, “If you look at the ongoing protests in India [against the citizenship law], young people have really taken it upon themselves to make a change. With the climate movement, I think the youth still need to do more. The older people of my generation have sold out to a different economic model and they are trapped in it. They do not have the imagination, creativity or the courage to dream differently.”

Ridhima knows this too well. As she says, “I believe in voicing my opinion about the climate crisis because, so far, the leaders have not done what is needed. Unless they begin making serious changes immediately, it will be too late for all of us.”

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru

Published on January 03, 2020
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