Since January 2021, I am writing on Environment and Science in the 'Chatusutra' weekly column of Loksatta, a Marathi language newspaper. This weekly series contains four different themes being written by four different authors in a four-week cycle. My first article was published on the second Wednesday of the year, and thereafter my articles are coming every four weeks. One of the request from the readers has been to provide English translations for those who are not able to read Marathi. Meera Rotti took on the task to do this, and therefore I am launching this monthly mini-series. Every month, I will post the English translation of one article in the same chronological order that the Marathi articles have been published in Loksatta.
02. Battle of India's Survival
The original Marathi article published on 10 Feb 2021 can be found HERE.
On 20th January, 2021 Joseph Biden took charge as President of the USA, and on his very first day of work he initiated the process of bringing the USA back into Paris Agreement. The treaty adopted by 196 parties in the global conference on climate change that was convened by the UN in Paris in 2015 is known as the “Paris Agreement”. The USA, under the leadership of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, had played an instrumental role in negotiating the terms of this treaty. Obama's successor Donald Trump, whose win in 2016 was quite unexpected, was part of the climate denier community in the USA, and soon withdrew the USA from the pact. The new president Joe Biden has taken a number of strategically important policy decisions for climate change mitigation within first 10 days of assuming the office. This clearly indicates that bringing the USA back into Paris agreement is not just a token move in global politics.
Although the Paris agreement was signed in 2015, it officially comes into force from this year. Participation of the USA in this treaty is crucial for achieving the targets agreed in the pact.
Climate Change Crisis emerged over the course of industrialization driven by fossil fuels. Developed countries that have utilized the fossil fuels without any restraint over the last 150 years, and the countries which mine these fuels bear the maximum responsibility for creation of the global crisis. Though the industrial revolution originated in Europe, the USA accelerated its pace to the peak in the 20th century, and is also amongst the key producers of petroleum and coal. Though today it has been outpaced by China in industrialization, it still remains the second highest contributor to climate change. If the European union along with UK is considered as a single entity, then they are the 3rd and India is the 4th highest contributor to this crisis at present.
If the key problem creators are not involved in the process of resolving a problem, the chances of resolution fade away. This is exactly what happened in the case of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. This Protocol obligated 37 developed countries to reduce their contribution to climate change to safeguard the world from an impending crisis. However, when it came to actual adoption of this protocol the USA revoked their decision of commitment, and subsequently none of the parties delivered on their agreed terms. Failure of this deal necessitated another pact.
The global crisis that seemed as a lurking problem in the late 1990s has now struck us with conspicuous signs. If the annual volume of fossil fuels, which continues its trajectory upwards, does not start to decline over the next 10 years, we will have to face catastrophic climatic changes at the end of this century. This precarious situation compels all the nations - whether among the primary contributors to climate change, or not - to be party to the Paris agreement.
China, EU and India showed a positive attitude towards the Paris Agreement; however, the sudden withdrawal of the USA had left them in the lurch. In that sense, existence of the entire human civilization was at stake in the 2020 presidential elections of the USA. Defeat of Trump has made wise people all over the world heave a sigh of relief.
These events are indeed positive from India’s perspective, and at the same time add to our responsibility. While India is one of the top 5 current contributors to climate change, it also ranks amongst the first 10 countries most vulnerable to the crisis. No other country faces this kind of a conundrum.
As a part of enforcement of the Paris agreement, India has been mainly focused on increasing the share of renewable energy in electricity generation. The efforts are on track towards the set target; however, according to some experts, the target itself is set considerably below the capacity and scope. Expanding the forest cover is also one of the commitments by India under the Paris Agreement. Misleading calculations by including agroforestry and fruit orchards under forest cover are being used to create an impression of the target being reached. However, in reality this is not going to achieve the desired end result as long as encroachment and destruction of natural habitats continues relentlessly leading to shrinkage of the true forest cover.
India has a vast coastal belt which is home to nearly 40% of its population. Sea-level rise induced by global warming is going to affect this population. The northern perennial rivers, which have enabled our food security, originate in the Himalayas. Global warming is causing melting of the glaciers, which are the origin of these rivers. Due to this, by the time the much-touted river-linking project is completed, the rivers in the North India will run dry, rather than having excess water to transfer to the southern drought-prone river basins. Climate change has led to an increase in the intensity as well as frequency of disasters like hurricanes, locust-attacks, forest fires etc. Weather-cycle too has altered. Excessive rainfall events are happening more often, and the dry spell between them is also increasing. Adverse effects of these are seen on agricultural and industrial activities as well as on cities and towns. Intensity of such events is only going to increase in the upcoming years which can severely damage the economic, social and political systems of India.
The wrath of the climate change impacts will have to be faced primarily by farmers, fishermen, tribals, daily wagers as well as the disabled, women, elderly, and children across all sections of the society. The situation experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic will be repeated during such circumstances. Those who created the problem - the urban rich (international travelers in the context of COVID, people with fossil energy driven lifestyle in the context of climate change) - will be able to protect themselves from such blows; however, those who had nothing to do with the problem will be the most vulnerable to a series of catastrophic impacts. This will result in a surge of helpless refugees.
What can we do today to avert this destructive future? Urban privileged citizens should introspect about their energy consumption. It is crucial to limit and optimize the use of energy, and also to use renewable energy as much as possible. The same principle applies to use of all resources and services as well. Furthermore, anticipating possible effects on the local ecosystem, and designing and implementing appropriate community-level emergency response systems can prove extremely beneficial. Nevertheless, only individual and community efforts cannot mitigate climate change crisis. These must be actively supplemented by science based and prudent policies.
Unfortunately, government policies are not shaped by recommendations from scientists. They are largely influenced by voters’ aspirations, or extreme pressure from either big business interests or international community. India’s climate action policies are largely shaped by the pressure of international politics. Safeguarding weaker sections of the society from the adverse impacts of climate change has never been high up on the global political agenda, and so is the case with India’s climate agenda. Most of the Indians are not even aware of the intensity and scope of the problems arising from Climate Change coming our way. As a result, they are also not vocal about it.
Shifting away from destructive policies chasing delusional developmental dreams cannot be expected from a political system that is at the mercy of oil, coal, and construction businesses. Public pressure is indeed crucial in bringing about the change. From this perspective, creating awareness among the adult citizens - the voters of today - is extremely necessary. Those who understand the gravity of the problems should persistently follow up with the representatives from local to national government bodies for changes in policy-making. This is the true battle we need to fight for India’s survival.
Author: Priyadarshini Karve
English Translation: Meera Rotti