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Climate action for lives and livelihoods

Settled human civilisations have never experienced the kind of climatic changes that are going to unfold because the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have never been as high in at least the last two million years. REUTERS/Yves Herman (REUTERS)Premium
Settled human civilisations have never experienced the kind of climatic changes that are going to unfold because the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have never been as high in at least the last two million years. REUTERS/Yves Herman (REUTERS)

  • Whether it is the loss of lives due to extreme climate events, or the loss of the ability to sustain livelihoods, the climate crisis hits at the core of modern society — and legitimate governance

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In the Arthashastra, Kautilya outlines two functions of the State: Protective and promotive. The State must protect the lives of its citizens, maintain law and order, and redress grievances. It must also promote the material welfare of the people, promote agriculture, industry, the arts, and regulate the means of livelihood. In Confucian thought, the State acts as a guarantor of people’s welfare with its main function to educate and transform the people. Whether it is the guarantee of liberties under the Magna Carta or the civil procedures protecting people and property under the Napoleonic Code, for millennia the role of the State has been about protecting lives and creating the conditions for prosperous livelihoods. Climate change threatens these two functions of the State. 

Settled human civilisations have never experienced the kind of climatic changes that are going to unfold because the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have never been as high in at least the last two million years. Therefore, whether it is the loss of lives due to extreme climate events (and their associated impacts), or the loss of the ability to sustain livelihoods (thanks to degraded agriculture, at-risk industries or weakened infrastructure), the climate crisis hits at the core of modern society — and legitimate governance.

Crises that are evident, such as a pandemic, signal the need for urgent action. But many crises unfold with a mix of chronic debilitation of human, natural and state capacity, and acute moments of intense impacts, say from extreme weather. How must State and society respond to the chronic as well as the acute?

First, assess the risks on continuous basis. Paying attention to climate change only when it hits us in the form of extreme events might help to avoid loss of life with early warnings but will not build resilience for livelihoods to bounce back. Imagine sending troops to the border only when an aggressor nation attacks, ignoring potential security threats at other times. Ignoring the long-standing strategic risks that climate change imposes is akin to not stationing troops to always guard our borders.

Second, build an economy that is inclusive, creates jobs, attracts investments and delivers on growth. India has set out an agenda for climate action that is ambitious in scale and progressive in substance. In the near-term it aims to reach 500 gigawatts (GW) of non-fossil electricity capacity (more than the entire power system today) or reduce emissions in absolute terms by a billion tonnes. It aims to reach net zero greenhouse emissions by 2070. For this, solar power would have to grow 120 times its current capacity of 47 GW, most transport would have to become electric, and industry would have to be heavily decarbonised. If India achieves this goal, it would have been friendlier to the planet, emitting 59% less CO2 during 1850-2100 than China or the US and 49% less than the EU.

For this political commitment to be backed up by action, an economic transformation must unfold. Climate change cannot be treated as an agenda only for environmentalists. We can no longer think of the economy in silos with certain sectors such as energy and transport being relevant for climate action, while others carry on as usual. This is akin to switching diet to fruit for breakfast but gorging on junk at other mealtimes. 

We must make our economy more healthy and more conscious of the resources used to deliver jobs and growth. In addition to measuring our carbon footprints we should also measure our resource footprints—land, water, air, and minerals. This way we can develop a much more robust circular economy and resource-efficient paradigm for development. 

Third, consume sustainably. Individual choice should come under the spotlight. It is much easier to blame a polluting plant at the edge of town than pay a premium on the products that a cleaner industry might produce. Increasingly, markets will have to offer sustainable choices to consumers while penalising environmentally irresponsible consumer behaviour. This will drive the mass shift towards sustainable production and consumption.

Fourth, youth must shift from being emissaries of future generations demanding change to becoming agents enabling and enacting change in the present. The exuberance of the youth and India’s so-called demographic dividend must combine with the need to develop new technologies. The young person who demands climate action can also become the young employee in a clean energy firm, or become a young innovator developing solutions to reduce carbon concentrations in the atmosphere. This is not just a feel-good exercise in youth mobilisation. They would have to learn new skills, develop new business models, disrupt existing industries but create jobs for millions in a new climate economy.

Fifth, none of this will be possible without a change in our politics. Notwithstanding sustainable production and consumption or the agency of younger generations, the State will be needed to ensure sustainable development is inclusive. Mahatma Gandhi urged us to ‘recall the face of the poorest or the weakest man’. Can we adopt a ‘climate talisman’ that nudges us to ask if any policy measure envisaged or administrative action contemplated will protect the life of that last man or woman bearing the brunt of a heatwave or a prolonged drought? Or whether that action would support a more prosperous livelihood for the most vulnerable? If the answer is negative, then we would know that we are not on a sustainable pathway environmentally, economically, or politically. 

This shift of sustainability from the margins of our consciousness to the mainstream of our political discourse will not occur thanks to international negotiations or in response to cyclones slamming the coasts. These are episodic. The political sustainability for sustainability will strengthen only when interests of the elite and the climate-vulnerable converge. The climate crisis threatens everyone. Once we have internalised this message, we can begin a very different conversation about the role of the State and the responsibility of citizens. Then we can collectively protect lives and promote livelihoods by creating the capabilities for sustained human development.

(Dr Arunabha Ghosh is CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water )

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