It wasn’t so long ago that global warming — climate change hadn’t become the phrase of choice then — was seen in India and across the global South as something of a first world problem. In 1991, environmentalists Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain described a report by a US-based think tank and the UN as “an excellent example of environmental colonialism” (in the paper “Global Warming in an Unequal World: A Case of Environmental Colonialism”). They wrote that the report tried to blame countries “like India and China” for the rise in global temperatures. This view, articulated in 1991, formed the bedrock of India’s climate diplomacy, and, for a long time, India stuck to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR). Simply put, the argument was that countries whose time had come would not sacrifice their development to pay for the excesses of the developed world.
India in a Warming World (Oxford University Press), edited by Navroz K Dubash, 52, a professor at the Centre for Policy Studies in New Delhi, who has worked on climate change for about three decades, shows how far we have come from that position. But the collection of essays by leading experts in the field also highlights the complexity of the problem.
The apocalypse is nigh, it has come with a bang and far too much of the world is whimpering in response. Yet, by what moral right do we tell people that they must not aspire to the patterns of consumption that define “the good life” for much of the world?
The science is now definitive: emissions caused by human activity are responsible for a warming world, which will have devastating consequences for many Indians. But, according to Dubash, the degree to which climate change is responsible for extreme weather events needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis. In heat-related events such as frequent flooding, it is often the “dominant stressor”, while in the case of flash floods as in Uttarakhand in 2013, it can be a “sub-stressor” and the devastation is magnified by land-use patterns.
Dubash, though, remains optimistic. For one, he believes, unlike many critics of the Paris Agreement, that the 2016 global climate pact is not in contravention of CBDR. “One big change over the last few years has been that renewable energy is now, by and large, cheaper than coal. We were already developing clean energy for financial and energy security reasons. Second, a large swathe of India’s population is vulnerable to the effects of climate change…the poor have been devastated more. And, finally, India’s development works are at a juncture where what is good for the country (independently of consequences in terms of greenhouse gas emissions) is beneficial in terms of climate goals as well. For example, do we want to live in cities choked by traffic and pollution?” he says. Developing a robust system of public transport isn’t just about the Paris Agreement.
Many essays in India in a Warming World focus on the need for the government and policymakers to adapt to and mitigate the effects of global warming. These strategies must cut across ministries and levels of government, says Dubash. What complicates matters in India is that we cannot sacrifice development — poverty alleviation — at the altar of climate change.
But a deeper question beckons. In a time when Swedish teenaged environmental activist Greta Thunberg points to the price her generation will have to pay, has the urgency of the problem set in? Are enough people willing to sacrifice their lifestyles for the planet? And, is the logic of private corporate profit compatible with the actions necessary to deal with the climate emergency?
Dubash navigates the bluntness of these questions with subtlety. There is a view, he concedes, in which “climate change is seen as a manifestation of development”. For India, the needs of its people must be balanced with climate goals. “But globally, we are certainly in a climate emergency,” says Dubash, “In fact, it is precisely because India has not completely committed to a particular path that it can build on its strengths, and people can alter their patterns of consumption.”
Take food, arguably the most basic unit of cultural identification, along with language. “We encourage people to build on the largely vegetarian diet in India. And globally, meat substitute companies are growing. The production of beef globally, for example, puts a huge stress (on the environment),” he says. There is also a need to make sustainability profitable. Dubash admits that it is naïve to expect otherwise. Policies like the proposed Green New Deal in the US can incentivise companies to be more climate-friendly. And in certain industries, “being green is now profitable.” Most optimistically, Dubash says, “Corporate leaders are also human beings. They will want to leave a better world for their children.”
But, more than anything else, what the climate emergency needs as a response is a “new imagination”. “This must come from the arts, from civil society and the media,” says Dubash. This radical change, though, might need more than trust in politics, diplomacy, and corporations. And more than social media posts. Earlier this month, a study by the French thinktank, the Shift Project, reported that watching 30 minutes of Netflix releases carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to driving 9.9 km. There were no young protesters boycotting binge-watching.