A climate manifesto for the India of 204010 min read . Updated: 29 Dec 2019, 07:47 PM IST
There are no silver linings, but you can do a few things to mitigate climate change-related risks
On 10 August, the British academic and Green Party member of the European Parliament, Catherine Rowett, tweeted something about climate change which stuck like a knife in my gut. She wrote, “If you’re currently in your fifties, you’ll probably die in a war zone without medical assistance before you reach your 70s. Your children won’t grow up in a democracy. People should get real about this."
This was just five days after the Indian government shut down communications in Kashmir (it is now the longest such blackout ever imposed in democracy). Dark thoughts were already brooding about the fate of the country that we belong to. More visceral still, I turned 51 in February and have three sons under the age of 20. What will the coming decades hold for them, after the steady deterioration of the world we’ve already been compelled to witness in the 21st century?
There are no silver linings. Rowett’s tweet was accompanied with a link to a policy paper titled Existential climate-related security risk: A scenario approach, presented by Admiral Chris Barrie, the former Chief of the Australian Defence Forces.
This famously no-nonsense military man writes, with chilling effect, the “unvarnished truth about the desperate situation humans, and our planet, are in, painting a disturbing picture of the real possibility that human life on earth may be on the way to extinction in the most horrible way… A doomsday future is not inevitable! But without immediate drastic action, our prospects are poor. We must act collectively. We need strong, determined leadership in government, in business and in our communities to ensure a sustainable future for humankind."
No visionary leadership
But look everywhere in the world and it’s painfully evident that there’s no such visionary leadership and none is plausible in the near future either. The developed countries have whipped through election cycles with only the barest mention of climate change (Australia is an exception, but the “more responsible" side lost badly).
Meanwhile, India underwent yet another giant democratic exercise without the issue being raised at all, even as extreme weather events are now routine, and hundreds of millions continue to suffer the worst drought in memory, while other parts of the country were colossally inundated with record level of rainfall.
At Davos in January, climate activist Greta Thunberg shared what’s on the mind of countless teenagers, including my sons. “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then, I want you to act."
Yet, since then, the Swedish teenager has been relentlessly vilified, perhaps worst of all on Indian social media, although she was recently named Time’s Person of the Year.
What I have discovered just this past year is that when you probe the roots of any number of political or social flashpoints, it becomes apparent that climate change is the primary underlying cause of the disruption. At the recent Goa Arts + Literature Festival (GALF)—which I co-curate along with the eminent Konkani writer Damodar Mauzo—an exceptionally enlightening discussion about illiberal democracies between the Cambridge-based scholar Priyamvada Gopal and award-winning author and journalist Tony Joseph turned decisively towards the conclusion that we are almost certainly witnessing the large-scale hijacking of political systems in order to engineer ever-harder national borders, alongside the exclusion of huge numbers of people as “outsiders", precisely due to the imminent climate change catastrophe.
The great derangement
Starting three years ago, in his penetrating The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, as well as succeeding essays and interviews, author Amitav Ghosh has consistently argued that “the Anthropocene presents a challenge not only to the arts and humanities, but also to our common sense understandings and, beyond that, to contemporary culture in general."
He pointed out that what has been happening to the planet falls so far into the realm of improbability that humanity tends to ignore, rather than confront it. Thus, a profound “imaginative and cultural failure lies at the heart of the climate crisis."
In the intervening years since Ghosh made that case, a number of writers, artists, and academics have emerged to directly confront the predicament in which we find ourselves. Just a few days before Rowett’s tweet, journalist Supriya Nair wrote in the Mumbai Mirror, “when the world is sufficiently warmed by climate change, the definitive victim of the phenomenon will no longer be the polar bear, whose native ice caps are dissolving at a speed of up to 20 metres a day. It will be the human beings of the Indian subcontinent. By one especially severe prediction, about 800 million of us will die, be displaced, or otherwise irrevocably lose our way of life by 2050… the future isn’t rushing inwards, to us, from the unimaginable poles of the earth. It’s already here."
Nair wrote this in a characteristically superb review of Rivers Remember: #ChennaiRains and the Shocking Truth of a Manmade Flood by Krupa Ge, the heartbreaking investigative account of the 2015 floods which paralyzed the capital of Tamil Nadu.
In those terrifying days, the author was stranded, and so was her brother and his wife. Their parents home was submerged completely. She writes with the force of unerring prophecy. “Let me tell you now once and for all so when it happens to you —and happen it will, for our cities are not flood resilient—you can be prepared. Floods are the new norm, everywhere in the world. And what flows into your home, when it floods, is sewage. Almost always. Mostly human waste, but also other waste."
Ge also attended GALF, where we spent some time in disconsolate conversation about our collective plight. Later, she told me via email, “My father turned 70 this year. A few days after the ‘water’ left our home, he told me something heartbreaking. He said he never imagined that in his lifetime he would have to extend his arms in a queue for hot food, seeking refuge. What I want to say is, my father has already had to seek relief while in his own home. Considering the way the state abandoned us, before and immediately after the floods, I do think at least once in our life, we will find ourselves in the midst of an extreme weather event."
I asked Ge whether there is something we can do to mitigate our circumstances. She wrote back, “The first thing I have decided is that I will not now, nor in the future, look at living in any home that boasts a ‘view’. No Sea view. No lake view for me. There are also small things I learned from the floods. I don’t park my car in my basement when it rains heavily. Not just to protect the vehicle but to have something that works to leave home in case something goes wrong. Having also been a part of this year’s drought, we have learned a very valuable lesson around water. Frugality. Frugality. Frugality. I think the best case scenario is that those in power take this seriously. Or those who care come to power. Or that we can, with our voices, force them to care. Or they allow us to take care of it and act, instead of making things worse, or coming in our way. Political will is at the heart of so many of these things."
Thoroughly disconcerted by reading her comments from my family’s apartment, which happens to be unnervingly close to where the Mandovi river meets the Arabian Sea in Panjim, I reached out to the renowned ocean biologists Joaquim Goes and Helga do Rosario Gomes (they are married to each other) who work at Columbia University in New York, but also own an apartment in Goa just down the waterfront from mine.
Gomes shocked me with her prompt response. “We would certainly not invest in another property close to the water. I suspect that my apartment isn’t going to last even my own lifetime, and, if it does, it will not be pleasant to live in." She added, “the most powerful way that the average person can combat climate change is to become informed. If you educate yourself, you can make much better choices, and vote for the people with the power to make big decisions, who can actually implement the necessary large-scale policy changes and solutions."
Goes—whose work focuses directly on climate change in the Indian Ocean—was even less sanguine. He told me, “The future is very uncertain. This government in New Delhi wants to increase our GDP to 5 trillion dollars, and it will do so with little consideration for the environment. In 30 to 50 years, we will lose much of our shoreline as sea levels are rising very fast in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. I am surprised that we hear nothing about this from our Indian scientists. Another warning sign is our sea is losing its oxygen—but our scientists are unwilling to accept this, nor are they willing to accept the fact that the outfall from India’s sewage treatment plants are partly to be blamed. I have not seen a single article from India about sardine mortality along our coasts. I was hoping not to sound dire, but I am convinced that if India does not take its environment seriously, it could risk wiping all its economic gains of the past 20 years."
The scientific consensus
After corresponding with Gomes and Goes, I reached for my copy of their Columbia colleague Adam Sobel’s excellent 2014 Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate , and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future which made for uncanny reading alongside Krupa Ge’s book. The American scientist pulls no punches, “The scientific “consensus" that human-induced global warming is real is not the result of a tallying of opinions. It is the hard-won result of long and careful study by a large community of scientists. Some people—I prefer the term deniers to sceptics—still claim that there is significant doubt about the basic conclusion that our greenhouse gas emissions are significantly warming the planet. This is simply false."
Reading more about Sobel, I discovered the unlikely coincidence that we graduated in the same year from the same college (Wesleyan University in Connecticut). So, I asked him what he thought of Rowett’s disquieting tweet, with its implications for people who find themselves in our age group.
He responded, “I do think that such things are becoming rapidly more likely overall, and even in my own case, I can’t rule it out entirely. Climate change is only one factor (if a big one). We see democracy being threatened now in the US, and to some extent elsewhere, in a way I never thought possible in my life up to now. (President) Trump’s autocratic, corrupt and anti-democratic behaviour, enabled by the Republican party, makes me genuinely concerned that we are heading towards one-party rule in the US, much as in Russia, Turkey and elsewhere. The news from India and the UK don’t make me feel great about those countries’ directions either."
Then, my newfound classmate wrote something that resonated with me powerfully. “We are at a moment broadly comparable (if different in many specific ways) to the rise of fascism in the 1930s, and that motivates me strongly to think about what I should be doing with myself. How would my life look (like) to future historians? The youth climate protest movement is also driving me here. When these kids accuse my generation of having neglected our responsibility up until now, that really gets me. They are not wrong. I don’t have an answer yet to the question of what I should be doing, but I’m trying at least to do those things that are easily accessible. I express myself in the media, I vote, I give money to causes. But I feel that is not enough, still. I’m not yet at the point of engaging in major civil disobedience. I have a lot of responsibilities to a lot of people in my work and life and I don’t want to renege on those by starting to battle the law—but I may get there."
Vivek Menezes is a Goa-based writer and photographer.