It is a vote for the planet, silly!

It is a vote for the planet, silly!

Known Unknowns

President Trump’s recent comments about India’s air being filthy left some gasping for breath. He clubbed India with China and Russia on this metric. It is true that India and China have the worst air quality indicators for our cities and towns. We do need to improve. India needs to determinedly handle crop-burning issues, provide clean public transport options, clean its sewer and municipal solid waste, prevent lake encroachments by builders, and strictly implement environmental norms for industries which freely spew gaseous waste into the air, liquid wastes into our rivers, and solid wastes into illegal landfills! For this, India needs to get beyond sloganeering and sweeping leaves on the streets to creating meaningful budgets for a truly clean India. For this, activists need to get off from doing one-time self-glorifying selfie-time events to participating collaboratively with the government.

However, the topic being discussed during the presidential debate, when the comment was made, was climate change. America is the biggest contributor globally to climate change on a per capita basis. America is the second-largest contributor to climate change, behind China, even in absolute terms. In fact, the US emits more than eight times CO2 per capita than India does. On an absolute basis, the US emits twice that of India.

Air quality measures are based on the particulate matter below a certain size which is detrimental to human health. However, ozone depletion and climate change do not work based on measures developed solely for human health benefit. Spewing gases away from cities, when you have large land masses, will keep the cities clean but will cause no less damage to the planet. Also, over the past 120 years, the US has emitted 12 times more total CO2 than India in absolute terms, and 5-6 times more than European countries like UK and Germany. This is important because there is an atmospheric residence time associated with greenhouse gases. For CO2, the residence time ranges from five to 200 years, depending on the removal process. Carbon tetrafluoride, or CF4, which is used as a low-temperature refrigerant, has a residence time of 50,000 years!

It is shallow and shortsighted for a country like the US to deal with its current excesses and its historic debt to the planet by viewing selective data through a tinted lens. Developing economies will need a different emission budget to even provide minimum living standards to its citizens, compared to developed economies that have already significantly over-drafted on their emission budgets through unbridled consumerism. The Paris Agreement was hence fair in identifying differentiated responsibilities for developed and developing economies. By backing out from the Paris Agreement, the Trump administration abdicated from America’s position as a global leader on the issue of climate change. By backing out from technological research associated with greener energy, the US lost decades of progress towards mitigating climate change.

After the 2016 US presidential elections, one of my American collaborators who identified himself as a ‘Mexican-Jew Energy Researcher’ went into a depression for weeks and then left a top university in the US to move to Canada. He felt that each aspect of his identity, beliefs and profession was counter to the direction the US would take under Trump. I had then felt that my colleague was being too extreme in his reaction to the election of Trump as President. I was wrong. Trump is for fracking and against wind turbines, he is for unfettered use of water in commodes and against curbing super pollutant refrigerants. Trump is for protecting jobs that have gone past their expiry dates and he lacks the vision to see jobs as they should be. Trump is for protecting medieval gender roles and is unable to take a strong anti-racist stand. Trump is for building walls around the US, and he has no plan for inclusive healthcare for even those within those walls. Trump just wants to get re-elected, the planet be damned.

To the Native American Ute Tribe of Utah is attributed the saying, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Our planet is a beautifully balanced system. It amazes me how every aspect of our earth and its environment are interconnected. The earth can well regulate harmful issues it faces using various defence mechanisms. New diseases, raging fires, devastating floods and destructive tornadoes are all part of the earth’s defences and are here to stay till the point of safe return for the planet. As glaciers melt, we are exposed to new viruses in the uncovered layers, almost as if they were stored away to be released as a control mechanism. As we encroach on forests, we are more susceptible to diseases jumping species. Disrupting natural water cycles cause more frequent and more destructive floods. Small changes in temperatures transform gentle winds into destructive forces. The human ability to collaborate with planet earth continues to diminish as the planet takes back control from its irresponsible citizens.

Another four-year term for Donald Trump as the head of the world’s most polluting country, with his cowboy, wild-wild-west approach to the environment, will be disastrous and will certainly result in more severe natural calamities globally than we have already seen. While the November 3 elections are about individual pompousness versus inclusive humbleness, about international isolationism vs global leadership, about intellectual bankruptcy vs a learning population, and about pandemic response vs opening up the economy, the elections are even more about a planet worth living on versus generations of climate change adaptation! The outcome is a known unknown for the next few days.