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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Can India confront the climate crisis and course-correct?

Sandip Chowdhury writes: The country is uniquely vulnerable to climate change impacts and should be forming strategies to push and shame other nations into urgent actions. But first, it must set its own house in order

August 27, 2021 9:23:15 am
Climate crisis, climate change, India climate change, Natural calamities, dangers of climate change, Greenhouse gas, heatwave, Express column, Indian express opinionA further break-up showed that the maximum GHG emissions — 32% — came from the residential sector, followed by 30% from the transportation sector. (File)

Written by Sandip Chowdhury

India does not need more reminders to recognise the dangers posed by climate change. As one of the most vulnerable countries in the world, it is already living this changed reality year after year. But it is good to acknowledge the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which gives a clarion call for immediate and large-scale greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions in order to keep our country and the planet liveable in the future.

The report said that climate change is rapidly intensifying and already affecting every region on the earth in multiple ways. Natural calamities will only become more frequent and more intense if we fail to limit warming to 1.5o C – a crucial threshold that will be crossed in less than 20 years from now. No wonder the UN General Secretary called the report a “Code Red” for humanity.

India’s first in-house climate change assessment, which came out last year, warned of the same cataclysmic future marked by deadly heatwaves, very severe cyclonic storms (VSCS), sea-level rise, melting of Himalayan glaciers, droughts and an erratic monsoon which, in turn, will influence the precipitation regime causing cloudburst, floods and landslides. India is also vulnerable to increases in vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue (these vectors thrive in warmer temperatures) and new climate-induced threats like locust attacks and lightning strikes are only adding to the burden.

The farming community in India, as well as coastal fishing populations and forest-dependent indigenous people, are at the frontline of climate change because of their direct dependence on natural systems. Land, water, soil and forests are already stressed to due to overexploitation by humans but climatic pressures are further exacerbating the health of these vital resources.

Indian agriculture is heavily dependent on the monsoons but the increasing variability due to climate change puts millions of farmer families at risk of losing their livelihoods. Coastal fishermen are already seeing reduced fish-catches and sea-level rise threatens to inundate their very homes. For the indigenous people, climate change is a double blow because greenwashing concepts like carbon offsets threaten further land alienation in the name of climate solutions.

Another economic group that will bear the brunt of climate impacts is manual workers (often belonging to marginalised castes), who work outdoors to earn a livelihood. Farm-labourers, brick-makers, miners, street vendors, rickshaw-pullers, construction workers and other informal sector workers will be regularly tested with deadlier and more frequent heatwaves that will last longer. As farming, fishing and forestry becomes increasingly difficult due to climate induced shocks, the pace of rural migration to nearby urban centres will increase in future. It is a travesty of climate justice that in their efforts to escape one climate-stressed sector, they will most likely end up in a sector that will be even worse.

Climate justice is not only about poor people and class struggles. One could argue that the greatest injustice in progress is against the young generation who will inherit a hostile earth due to the greed and inaction of previous generations. If we read between the lines of the IPCC’s reports of how warming is already locked in and will continue, it is safe to conclude that their fight is more about surviving the future than about having a thriving future. As more and more children attain the age of reason, they are starting to see and realise the immensity of this intergenerational injustice.

India has a huge task ahead to balance justified development needs with indispensable climate action. However, its current stand on climate negotiations is not inspiring. India is basically saying current warming is due to developed nations and so it is their responsibility and that we are anyway doing enough. If only the earth could understand “common but differentiated responsibilities” and withhold its warming until each country had burned its fair share of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the earth doesn’t care where the emissions are coming from and climate impacts don’t differentiate between nation-states. The Indian argument is self-defeating given how uniquely vulnerable the country is. If anything, we should be forming strategies to push and shame other nations into urgent actions but that is difficult when our own house is not in order.

India talks a big game on RE (Renewable Energy) but is also pushing a gas-based economy, oil palm plantations and opening new coal mines simultaneously. What difference does 100 GW (gigawatt) or 100,000 GW RE “installed capacity” make if fossil fuels keep dominating the energy mix to keep up with rising energy demand? The systematic dilution of environmental safeguards in the name of easing business also puts a big question mark on the government’s intent and vision. In our exaltation for the superficial, real climate leadership has become scarce, not only in India but around the world.

In a world of four-minute attention spans it is difficult to find leaders who can think decades ahead, sometimes foregoing their own narrow political gains for the greater good. The pandemic demanded global solidarity and cooperation but what we got instead was more inequality, botched planning, shoddy execution, indifference and downright science denial. The fact that our best chances of avoiding a total climate breakdown rest in the hands of the same leaders should worry us.

The writer is Project Officer – Climate Justice, Oxfam India

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