In India, more than half the households in severe hotspots are involved in agriculture, and farmers comprise about 55% of the voters. How long before climate change worry forces its way into politics in India?
Humanity has never really faced a problem as vexing as climate change — a crime in which we are both the perpetrator and the victim; an offence on which we sit in judgment and yet fail to apportion punishment and grant justice. We expect the incoming storm to change course and bypass us. This is perhaps a testament to both our unassailable hope and resounding stupidity.
There’s no escaping the blowback from all that we have unleashed on this planet since the industrial age. It is no longer a weather forecast from the next century but a statement on what to expect in the next two decades. It is well within my lifetime and most of the global population to expect record-breaking storms, wildfires, droughts, massive coral bleaching, heat waves, and floods around the world with just 1°C of warming above pre-industrial levels. Thereon after, effects snowball on each other with each half a degree of warming, with various tipping points leading to melting of permafrost and no Arctic Sea ice for decades.
The latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report on global warming of 1.5°C categorically states that climate change mitigation needs to start right now and how we act in the next few years will determine our future. Even if countries stay on track with their current national promises (Under the Paris agreement) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), global warming is expected to surpass 1.5°C. It is amply clear that action has to be immediate, uncompromising and universal if we want to avoid runaway climate change. Globally, by 2050 we need to get to net zero CO2 emissions.
South Asia is going to be a hot spot of climate change impact. Almost half of South Asia is vulnerable to climate ‘Hotspots’. Several multi-sector impacts (droughts, coastal flooding, extreme weather, unpredictable monsoon, shrinking glaciers) will be prevalent in South Asia, and beyond a 2°C increase, the world’s poorest will be disproportionately impacted, particularly in areas of high inequality (Africa and South Asia). The IPCC-suggested mitigation pathways will need huge reductions in energy-demand and agricultural emissions, replacement of fossil fuels, plus some form of CO2 removal (carbon storage or sequestration) — India is prepared for none of these.
Apart from the sheer enormity, imminence and intensity of the problem, for the first time, an IPCC report has indicated the “rapid and far-reaching” sacrifices we need to incur if we are serious about climate change. Life as we know it will not be the same. For the longest time, governments/politicians/ technocrats have believed that climate change can be avoided by barely-felt tweaks, and we can continue with business-as-usual.
But, we can’t. We need changes in every aspect — land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. For such transitions to be successful, every person will have to bear some weight. The IPCC report says that low demands of energy GHG-intensive goods are essential for a 1.5-degree goal. It isn’t going to be about opting for organic scrambled eggs for brunch every Saturday. This will mean changes in the food we eat, the way we travel, what we wear or consume every single day.
More than 27 years ago, American political scientist George Rathjens said, “…even putting aside the complicating fact of great uncertainty (of climate change), getting agreement on some instrumentality to ensure that everyone — or at least a significant number — makes an appropriate contribution to a group effort to achieve the benefits of a well-maintained commons will be more difficult than in the usual case” of a commons problem.
And yet, around the world, individuals and groups are taking collective action, pricking tiny holes of light in a dark, despairing frame. Veganism, once considered a joke, is now a veritable business. In Great Britain, the number of vegans quadrupled from 2014 and 2018, for many the climate crisis is the reason. Global meat and dairy production are one of the biggest contributors to GHG emissions, and reduced meat and dairy consumption will be indispensable for reaching a 2°C target.
Frustrated by the failure of governments, some citizens are even signing up for rebel action. For instance, the Extinction Rebellion (backed by almost 100 senior academics) in the UK is planning a campaign of mass civil disobedience starting this month. Spanning a wide age group members are ready to get arrested.
In wider collective action, citizens are taking governments to court over inaction. A Dutch appeals court last month upheld a landmark ruling that ordered the government to cut GHG emissions by at least 25% by 2020 from 1990 levels. The Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law, Columbia University has now logged more than 1,000 climate cases around the world. Also, “attribution science”, which can directly link an event to climate change, has vastly improved in the past five years, which will be used in global litigation.
Lastly, voters, the ultimate bugaboo for politicians, are changing. Climate change communication studies say that “worry” is the most important predictor of policy support than other emotions — and worry is escalating. In the US midterm elections, there are several constituencies with very close electoral races where climate worry ranks high. In India, more than half the households in severe hotspots are involved in agriculture, and farmers comprise about 55% of the voters. How long before climate change worry forces its way into politics in India?
A sliver of good news is that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. This is perhaps good news for those who want to lobby and affect change. The success of the Montreal Protocol (the only other comparable international agreement) shows the importance of key nations and leadership in such global problems. Pressure can be effective, targeted pressure even more.
Around me, I see ageing, conservative parents who have grudgingly changed habits to ‘hipster fads’ such as vegan diets, cloth bags, (cycling to work!) because of their children. Perhaps just as important as the climate conference agenda, is the dinner table conversation or the street-side chat with a neighbour. The IPCC has said, “Every extra bit of warming matters…”. It is an important message, I think, that places us in the middle of a maelstrom and gives us agency to prove that, after all, we had the power to change.
(This is the first in a series of articles on climate change, based on the recently published IPCC report)
Padmaparna Ghosh is a freelance writer. Views are personalFor more Opinion pieces, click here.