Moneycontrol
Last Updated : May 09, 2020 08:14 AM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

Book review: Mridula Ramesh’s new book on climate change makes us sit up and clench our teeth

The book tells of how unequal the consequences of climate change will be for us, depending on whether we live in a developed or developing country, and depending on whether we are well-to-do or whether we are poor.


The Climate Solution: India’s Climate Crisis and What We Can Do About It
by Mridula Ramesh

Paperback
352 pages, Rs 399

Hachette India         

Mridula Ramesh is Executive Director of Sundaram Textiles, which is part of the multi-billion-rupee TVS Group. It is perhaps her background that accounts for her firm belief in the power of private enterprise to foment change in society. It seems her conviction also makes her the rarest of rare angel investors – she invests in cleantech startups, or those startups that innovate in the clean technology sector. Clean technologies are those which “reduce negative environmental impacts through significant energy efficiency improvements, the sustainable use of resources, or environmental protection activities”, according to Wikipedia. The background to this is that India is among the countries most vulnerable to climate change, according to the World Bank. In this scenario, Mridula Ramesh’s angel investments are market-based interventions to tackle the problem. Ramesh’s debut book, The Climate Solution, is partly a primer on the causes of climate change. Partly it is a manual on how to build resilience to climate change; as one might expect, the writer expects private enterprise to assume the bulk of this responsibility. The book is well worth the time of the general audience, as well as policymakers, entrepreneurs, government officials and politicians.

A breezy tour of climate science

Close

The book has two parts: ‘Understanding’ why we must care about climate change, and ‘Action’, which mentions the various ways in which the writer wants us to build resilience to climate emergencies. In the first part called ‘Understanding’, we get a breezy tour of climate science, its origins, its history, its first moment on the world stage, all in a beginner-friendly manner. We are told how, in 1896 (!), Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius predicted that climate change would take place and even welcomed it for causing more equable climates. Fast-forwarding to the Fifties, we are told of American scientist Charles David Keeling’s important discovery that carbon dioxide was steadily increasing in our atmosphere. Further on, the book documents how, from 1988 onwards, the worldwide coalition against global warming was forged, as well as lobbying efforts to defang measures that could potentially combat global warming but also hamper the bottomlines of the energy industries. Adequate attention is given to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, its role in fomenting a global coalition to tackle climate change, and the attempts to cripple the coalition by most major polluters.

Using clear and simple language, the writer says that human activity has all but exhausted the possibility to keep global average temperature from increasing by 1.5 degrees. Now the best bet may be to keep the global average temperature from breaching the two-degree mark – for which “wholesale changes to our way of life” are needed. This, too, may be a difficult thing to ask. Given that many countries that are leading polluters do not support climate initiatives, it looks as if prevention measures alone will not do the job of limiting temperature increase. Moreover, even if all countries cut emissions drastically, some portion of the carbon dioxide emitted today will linger in the atmosphere and will continue to cause global warming.

Moving on, the book tells of how unequal the consequences of climate change will be for us, depending on whether we live in a developed or developing country, and depending on whether we are well-to-do or whether we are poor. We are informed of the four major regions that contribute the most to climate change – China, the USA, the European Union and India. We are told of the major activities that cause global warming, including electricity generation, manufacturing, agriculture and transport as currently practised.

It would be useful to say here that the book is a list of impending climate-related catastrophes, some of which can be averted and some perhaps cannot. The disappearance of groundwater sources because of overuse, the rampant problem of untreated sewage, and water scarcity are covered in harrowing detail. The scary prospect of wars over water in the Indian subcontinent and in the Sino-Indian region is also dealt with. China’s propensity to dam the Brahmaputra will cause untold havoc in India and Bangladesh, as will the fate of rivers that flow through India as well as Pakistan.

The interplay of climate change with social and cultural issues comes to the fore as the writer discusses the effect of climate change on India’s women and girl children. Indian society, which already makes women “vulnerable,” in the writer’s words, with rampant female foeticide, lack of education and nourishment for the girl child, and stunted social status and work opportunities for the women, is especially poorly equipped to deal with the effect of climate change on women. Climate change will reduce the work available to Indian women by crippling agriculture, which is where most Indian women work. Falling agricultural income will lead to increased demand for dowry and therefore more dowry deaths. Rising temperatures will contribute to domestic violence as well.

This concludes the first half of the book, which paints several harrowing scenarios that make us sit up and clench our teeth. The remaining half of the book details proposed measures to boost resilience to the impacts of climate change. The major contributors to climate change – transport, agriculture, power generation are covered.

Various measures are described, among them making water a central government portfolio instead of a state-by-state subject, reducing water wastage and selling water to citizens at varying prices. Here the writer advocates that agro-industry players reach out to farmers and to incentivise and educate them to raise their yields. Here the writer also pushes the case for genetically modified (GM) seeds, saying that GM seeds with their high yields will mitigate the effects of reduced agricultural productivity caused by climate change.

Precision agriculture

She further advises us against considering all pesticide use bad, and all chemical fertiliser use as harmful. She makes the case for what is called ‘precision agriculture’ – applying science to farming in order to boost farming yield while reducing environmental impact. As transportation accounts for a large chunk of greenhouse gas emissions, the writer extolls the virtues of public transport, going thoroughly and lucidly into the characteristics of a good mass transit system. She also points out why buses are better than metro railways, and also why politicians prefer metros to buses. She chronicles various measures to reduce wastage, offering her own example as inspiration. She tells us how her household became ‘zero-waste’, that is, producing no waste for the landfill. She also recommends that households be made to pay for their wastage to be treated in an eco-friendly manner. Electricity generation through coal-fired plants is covered, of course; it is good that the writer also focuses on how we use electricity and offers plans to reduce and rationalise our use of electricity. It is good to see that the writer focuses on the neglected aspect of urban water use, that is, sewage treatment and recycling of sewage water, which is one of the many hopeful parts of the book. Rainwater harvesting is given due emphasis, as is reducing water waste. Here, too, the writer offers us her own example with a thorough case study of her factory, in which water use was reduced from 2.5 to 3.5 million litres of water a month to 1.2 million litres a month, using a combination of sewage treatment, good plumbing, and water harvesting. Speaking of food production as a cause of climate change, the writer echoes Michael Pollan’s advice to eat ‘mostly plants’ because considerable emissions are generated through livestock rearing, deforestation is caused, and water is used. The writer says that 112 litres of water are used in producing one gram of bovine meat, 34 litres in producing one gram of chicken, and only 19 litres for producing one gram of pulses.

The writer documents several case studies from the nation that is among the world leaders in managing water resources and boosting agricultural productivity, that is, Israel. This country has a single, central regulatory authority for water supply, relies hugely on recycled water, and has several technological innovations to cut water wastage as well as to boost agricultural productivity. The writer would rather that India go the Israel way. She devotes a number of pages to analyzing why India lags behind in innovation – shortcomings in India’s education system. These make for interesting if also harrowing reading.

The writer says: “Given the amount of dangerous warming ‘baked into the system’ and the peculiar vulnerability of India to that warming, would it, therefore, be more prudent to shift the focus of the narrative to building resilience – in our farms, our cities and our lives?” Here the writer does not advocate abandoning measures to mitigate climate change, such as reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. She says that these measures won’t be enough by themselves. Resilience needs to be built into human society if it is to stand up to the challenge of climate change.

Controversial solutions

Surely the writer’s logic and her focus on mitigation measures cannot be faulted. But it is her solutions that are controversial. The writer believes in the ability of what she calls “competitive forces” to save the planet. By “competitive forces” she means companies, that is, capitalistic forces. The writer acknowledges that capitalist organisations are responsible in a major way for global warming; she also believes that “the breathtaking power and speed of unleashed competitive forces” can help build resilience to climate change. The problem, of course, is that we don’t know this for certain.

Improving the yields of Indian farms and reducing their usage of water are two things that she thinks will build climate change resilience. To this end, she advocates opening India’s “agricultural and waste markets” to competitive forces in what she believes is a liberalisation-style moment. Here the writer is advocating radical agricultural reform. She says the small Indian farmer is squeezed by various people, usually unscrupulous moneylenders, many of whom are also the buyers of agricultural produce and suppliers of seeds. Their actions manipulate the farmer into financial distress. The solution to this according to the writer is empowering the farmers through the marketplace. The writer’s idea of a good marketplace is Amazon.com, and she advocates having a similar setup using which farmers can buy seeds and farming inputs and sell their produce. She presumably wants a company or companies to set up and run this portal. She suggests this radical change because, in this book, “[o]f all the sectors to be hit hard by the warming climate, agriculture is perhaps the worst”.

Is it reasonable to say that a system that in most part created the climate change problem can also solve it? Maybe, if it were radically reformed. The writer clearly wants private enterprise in Indian agriculture – she wants startups to revolutionise Indian agriculture. She says, “… there is perhaps room for placing some weight on market-driven technological solutions”… some room, some weight. Yet the book places emphasis mostly on solutions driven by the market, without telling us much about the other solutions, the non-market ones, that can also help in building resilience to climate change. Were these also mentioned in adequate detail, the book, which is comprehensive, would have become complete.

There simply aren’t enough books talking about the effects of climate change on India, so we lack multiple opinions on the subject. We need these and fast. This book is highly recommended not only for its own merits, which include thorough research and accessible writing, but because it will also get a conversation started on its urgent topic. It’s a conversation that we desperately need right now. Conversation precedes action.

Suhit Kelkar is a freelance Journalist. He is the author of the poetry chapbook named The Centaur Chronicles.
First Published on May 9, 2020 08:14 am
Sections