Wake-up call for India

Wake-up call for India

The debate is almost as old as our awareness of the pitfalls of industrial development

Credit: Reuters Photo

Fear-mongering is not a good thing to do but when we gather again within a month or so at the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, UK, we must be honest in assessing the significance of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that has signalled “code red for humanity,” warning of increasingly extreme heatwaves, droughts and flooding, and of a key temperature rise limit being breached in just over a decade.

Among some of the major projections made by scientists, from which a country as big as India can hardly remain immune, is an increasing occurrence of some extreme events "unprecedented in the historical record" even at the warming of 1.5 deg C above 1850-1900 levels, which would be reached by 2040 “under all emissions scenarios.” By 2100, extreme sea-level events that occurred once a century in the recent past would occur almost annually at more than half the tidal gauge locations.

Growth and development entail various processes of production, such as making steel, cement and chemicals, energy generation, transportation of goods and agriculture that account for a large volume of CO2. As there is an inherent link between inequality and the climate crisis, efforts at a global agreement on emission control must also confront inequality, which needs an adroit balancing act between two incompatible imperatives – the conventional economic approach of using growth as the basis for improving living standards in material terms, and the approach of reducing relative inequality while confronting the climate crisis.

The debate is almost as old as our awareness of the pitfalls of industrial development. Talking of which, Amitav Ghosh in his book The Great Derangement said: “The humans of the future will surely understand, knowing what they presumably will know about the history of their forebears on earth, that only in one, very brief era, lasting less than three centuries, did a significant number of their kind believe that planets and asteroids are inert.” A glaring proof of this criminal oversight lies in the Sunderbans, where 75% of its mangroves are liable to be destroyed due to a rise in the sea level, a reminder that limits set by nature had been forgotten for some 200 years, from the start of industrialisation to the present day. In 2020, Cyclone Amphan affected 13 million people, causing $13 billion in damage, according to the Overseas Development Institute. The frequency of devastating cyclones such as Sidr (2007), Aila (2009), Phani (2013), Bulbul (2019), Amphan (2020) and Yaas (2021), that hit Sundarbans and destroyed thousands of farmlands and homes, are grim reminders of the days to come.

India's own first-ever climate change assessment report (“Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region” prepared by the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences) last year found that both the frequency and intensity of droughts had increased significantly between 1951 and 2016. It warned that heatwaves would intensify four-fold by the end of the century. Elaborating on human-induced climate change, the report notes how India has witnessed a rise in average temperature; a decrease in monsoon precipitation; a rise in extreme temperature and rainfall events, droughts, and sea levels; and an increase in the intensity of severe cyclones, alongside other changes in the monsoon system.

Distress signals continue to pour in, be it a glacial collapse this year in the higher reaches of Uttarakhand after a portion of a ‘hanging glacier’ on the slopes of the Nanda Devi broke off and triggered flash floods, or the June 2013 flash floods in the state, caused by a cloudburst near the Kedarnath shrine, which left nearly 700 dead. The Western Ghats has long been affected by fragmentation, unregulated mining, diversion of forest land for commercial activities, etc., though the ecosystem of this famed hotspot of biodiversity which, alongside the Himalayan mountains ranging from Kashmir to North East India, and the Sunderbans, the largest delta in the world, is known to be fragile. The recent landslide on Bengaluru’s popular tourist spot Nandi Hills where, despite protests from environmentalists, stone quarrying and crushing have continued, is a pointer to the dangers of unsustainable commercial activities in the name of ‘development’. It is important to note that the report submitted in August 2011 by the Madhav Gadgil-headed Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), was labelled favourable to the environment and environmentalists but not for development. How the report rankled the sand mining and quarrying lobbies in Goa and other influential quarters is indicative of how the discourse of development is often made at the cost of the environment.

So, the kudos notwithstanding for whatever brownie points we score at international fora like the upcoming event in Glasgow, there is simply no getting away from the known vulnerabilities that continue to bedevil us. They have been enumerated ad nauseum. India is one of the 17 countries where water stress is extremely high, according to a 2019 global report by the World Resources Institute. Our overdependence on the monsoons continues apace, and as has been observed, fluctuations in the GDP are caused by variations in the monsoon. Our long coastline (along which some 250–300 million people dependent on climate-sensitive livelihoods such as agriculture and fishing live) and the poor health of Himalayan glaciers (impacting on water availability to hundreds of millions of people across our Gangetic belt, disrupting crop production, and affecting rainfall patterns) are our other two vulnerabilities. Most worrying is our dependence on natural resource extraction, with most of our core mining areas lying in the heart of our densest forests. Sadly, our paradigm of development is not governed by canons of sustainable development but by corporate greed.

And there is another compelling reason why the pandemic could be used as an excuse for procrastination in coming up with carbon reduction targets. As India, one of the worst affected countries by the pandemic, is seeking to kickstart its bruised economy, any date to become carbon neutral or to come up with new reduction targets may not be forthcoming anytime soon as the justification of restoring the economy might defeat the cause of environmental evangelism. But experts relentlessly warn that any attempt to reboot economies battered by Covid by the rampant burning of fossil fuels will be counter-productive.

The pandemic has amply demonstrated how vulnerable our social systems are to the natural world. In view of the fact that climate change is anthropo-generated in this era of the Anthropocene (and the Capitalocene) and extreme weather events are being turbocharged by climate change, the need for a policy reboot of our governance systems — how we set about dealing with both inequality and climate crisis — could not be any more pressing than it is now.