Climate change and its ripples
Climate change is changing everything. Everything: the tideline in the Maldives, the price of onions, the flight path of geese
Imagine three circles, one inside the other. The first circle is very large, as large as our wonderful planet and its atmosphere. This is the circle of climate change. It is a sobering circle. It is filled with greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases, and it is changing everything. Everything: the tideline in the Maldives, the price of onions, the pathogens in that mosquito on your arm, the flight path of geese. Our children might only be able to imagine polar bears, penguins and possums. Storms, sudden strange flowers, Bollywood sunsets…climate change is a universal drama. Perhaps, to make it concrete, we can paste a few photos into this circle: some smokestacks, some traffic jams, some melting glaciers. Smoke, water, a particle of this and a particle of that.
The second circle sits inside the first. The photo for this one is a shot of two men shaking hands: The leaders of India and China, agreeing on cooperation between our neighbouring countries. One of the things they’re considering is building giant industrial parks in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Cooperation is good, and we do have a lot in common. For instance, China is the world champion of carbon emissions. According to the Global Carbon Project, it produced 28% of the globe’s carbon emissions in 2013. These emissions were the highest in human history. China is nothing if not equitable, as its emissions don’t occur only in China: there is plenty to spare for its industrial collaborations in Africa, for instance, such as oil drilling in Chad where the China National Petroleum Corporation was fined $1.2 billion (around Rs.7,320 crore) for polluting the Bongor Basin. India is fourth in the line-up, after the US and the European Union, with 7% of the world’s emissions. Our environment minister recently stated that we have no intention of stopping growth in the service of environment concerns: the West didn’t, why should we? A fair point, but I hope at least we learn from some of the mistakes of the West when we pursue growth hand-in-hand with China. Of course, we need to stop squabbling about borders first, but there’s nothing like some good old-fashioned land-grabbing to foster bonding.
The third circle is very small, and sits at the very centre. It consists of a sparkling September morning in Maharashtra, a perfect day for our last little picture. Let’s make it a video: Mati, the Adivasi woman in Raigad district, going crab-hunting.
In September, when the rains are lessening but not yet gone, land crabs are plentiful.
She goes behind the village and through the fields to the forest. On the way, she picks a couple of stalks of lime-green grass with tiny exquisite purple flowers. She goes into a stream and bends double with her sturdy feet in the water, hands on hips, head down, fishing like an assiduous egret, with the mountains behind her and the sun on her bare back.
She catches six or seven large snails, puts them on a dry rock, cracks the shells and pounds the soft shining mollusks to a pulp (some Indian land snails trace their lineage back more than 4 million years, by the way. A small circle but an ancient one). Then she crushes the grass and purple flowers into the snail-mash, and makes a goopy grape-sized ball. She takes a long piece of white string out of the fold in her sari, and ties the snail pâté ball to her bamboo stick, humming contentedly.
She enters the jungle and is immediately engulfed by a thousand sounds. Peacocks rustle in the bushes. Blossom-headed parakeets squawk in the mahua trees. A drongo calls out, a bulbul sings, the streams and the banks are dappled with morning sunshine. Mosquitoes buzz and bite. A monkey surveys her from above. Scientists recently discovered 14 species of dancing frogs in this area.
She goes up to the side of a big hole, about six inches wide, on a muddy bank. Her feet don’t make a sound in the squelchy mud.
She takes the stick with the gooey ball of bait and slowly angles it towards the opening. She puts it in about a finger’s width, and starts to sing: a serious, contemplative, persuasive song in her oddly broken voice, luring the crab out of its hole.
Suddenly she darts the stick forward. She waves the defunct snail slightly and starts to chant, “Come out, come out of your hole, come, come, where else will you go?” A big yellow claw comes slowly forward and she inches the snail back towards herself. Crab forward, snail back, crab forward, snail back, in a mesmerizing dance until suddenly she swoops down, snatches the snail away just in time, and grabs the palm-sized creature expertly in her hand. She drops it in her bag, and moves on. If it were too small, she would have released it so it could grow up and make babies for the next season.
Living her life in her piece of our collage, Mati has no idea the other two circles outside her even exist. China, emissions, climate change (to which she will unwittingly contribute with her cooking fire) are not the topics her family will discuss over crab curry tonight. But they matter, as they will affect the forest, the weather, the crabs, the land, her home, her fuel, and everything she knows.
I hope our government remembers the inner circle when it sets out to achieve its ambitious agenda. Our Prime Minister has stated that he is a simple man, and I trust he will remember that simple things matter. Dancing frogs matter. A crushed snail matters. A crab in its hole matters. An observant monkey matters. A woman setting out on a September morning matters.
Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century
Also Read | Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns