Climate change: What will wake us up?

Climate change: What will wake us up?

Our house is on fire and yet, we snooze with astounding nonchalance


The “hot invention” of Vinisha Umashankar of Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu is making news, even more so since it got shortlisted for the Earthshot Prize 2021, created by Prince William, to recognise people “saving the planet”.

The solar-powered ironing cart, aimed at reducing pollution, is the kind of innovation needed to upset the applecart of status-quo thinking and passive watching of disasters as they unfold right in front of our eyes. The teenager is stepping into a generation that will not only witness, but also grapple with the many impacts of climate change. More importantly, she belongs to that demography, which is increasingly looking towards solutions than just witness this “disaster in slow motion”. It is another matter that when you hear of the wildfires in California or the recent unusual cyclonic circulation in south India that disrupted life for several days, it is evident that this disaster is not unfolding in "slow motion."

Not too long ago in Italy, another young global voice was amplifying the heat as well. Greta Thunberg, the young climate activist from Sweden in her usual vitriolic style, mocked several world leaders, including heads of nations. While the global media has been repeatedly highlighting her “blah” speech, making it sound sensational and hyperbolic, one thing that it clearly exposed is the empty promises and commitments made by world leaders, diplomats and business heads. “Over 50 per cent of all our CO2 emissions have occurred since 1990, and a third since 2005." And that’s a huge indicator of how much our actions have contributed towards the severity of the impending catastrophe.

What does this mean for India?

Climate crisis is right here, staring in our face, as if giving us one last warning to put our act together RIGHT NOW! No matter how much “blah” happens around the world, the biggest evidence of the underlying inaction is the prevailing reluctance of adequate investments and capital allocation for climate action by governments, businesses and philanthropists.

The state of climate and the projection of future as presented in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is getting grimmer by each passing year. The so-called “rapid” and “far-reaching” changes to our energy, infrastructure and industrial systems to avoid the catastrophic 1.5 degrees Celsius of rise in global warming are anything but rapid and have not reached anywhere far till date. Having said that, we still have some hope to survive if at all we manage to achieve net zero globally within the next 20 years. Between 2000 and 2019, more than 475,000 people lost their lives as a direct result of over 11,000 extreme weather events globally and losses amounted to around US$ 2.56 trillion.

What does this mean for an emerging and agro-centric economy like India? The UN report says developing countries, on an average, are twice as vulnerable to climate change as industrialised countries. Even a 15-95 cm rise in sea-level could sweep off the people living in coastal areas. This year alone, we have witnessed numerous instances of disastrous damage and loss of lives due to diverse manifestations of climate change. Be that in the form of melting glaciers, landslides, monsoon floods and lightning caused by torrential rains, increased number of cyclones, scorching heat waves due to rising average temperature and so on. Increased temperatures and extreme rainfall in turn affect agriculture, forestry, and fishing that is the primary source of livelihood for about 58 per cent of India’s population, adding up to an estimated value of nearly 20 lakh crores.

Is there a silver lining?

As we witness the resounding collective failure of the global community, we realise that higher the vulnerability, higher the stakes. It should therefore translate into a higher commitment to avert the disaster. While India could be one of the worst-hit victims of climate catastrophe, the country could also rise up to the challenge and lead the fight. The Kyoto Protocol bound only ‘developed countries’ placing a heavier burden on them under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities”, because it recognised that it is the developed nations that are largely responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere. Therefore, at the face of it, one might argue that in order to be fair to ‘developing countries’ and emerging economies, they should be exempted from playing a major role in climate action.

However, that’s neither going to be helpful for the global combat against climate crisis nor help India attain development that can be sustained in the long run. But there could be a silver lining here. For those blank pages of development in the notebooks of the emerging economies, there is an opportunity to not repeat a failed script, and develop the right way the very first time. While it may not be as easy as it sounds, it will be far easier than correcting all the wrongs or bearing the brunt of repeating a wrong script.  

How to make it happen

Once we accept this, the next logical question is how to make it happen. Climate action has to be viewed from an all-inclusive lens that creates real opportunities of action and contribution from one and all. You don’t delegate or assign work and sit back when your house is on fire. Each and everyone needs to rise to the occasion. The good news is that climate change is neither an accident nor has it been created by aliens. It is very much our own creation and has been growing beyond proportions right in front of our eyes. While we can go over and over pressing upon the criticality of action and responsibility by other stakeholders, including governments, businesses and communities, the most important stakeholder that provides maximum hope is the youth. The present crisis calls for an all-hands approach with the young demography being one of the most important contributors.

Our young people are one of the greatest forces that our nation has. While it is a problem they have inherited, the sad reality is that they have the highest stake in the game. But the silver lining is that while they are the biggest victims of climate change, they are also the most significant force in our fight against it. India has the world's highest number of young people — 365 million in the age group of 10-24 constituting nearly 30 per cent of our population.

Young people are not only able to comprehend the urgency of the matter, but are also able to quickly act, adapt to low-carbon lifestyles and make choices that are eco-friendly. They are the trendsetters and capable of making net-zero the desired trend at the individual, community and the business levels. It is high time youth should be given a chance to take an active part in the decision-making at local, national and global levels.

Whether they are given the chance or not, many young people are not sitting back with their arms folded. Vinisha and her eco-friendly ironing cart is one of the most visible examples.  The powers that be have to help mobilise India’s youth for climate action and unite India’s youth for this purpose. This has to go beyond the realm of climate activism. The focus and effort have to be on bringing solutions, innovating and leveraging technology rather than condemning. This is not an us versus you situation, which tends to be lose-lose most often.  Greta’s should be one among the many voices that need to be heard and amplified. There are several other original ideas that need to surface to the top.

Not all is lost; solutions exist

A very solutions-centric approach that encompasses policy and builds resilience is the need of the hour. In the wake of this realisation, and in the absence of pertinent initiatives, a pan-India movement — India MUN — is shaping up. This can serve as the force that unites India’s youth for climate action. Efforts like crowdsourcing of ideas from the youth, industry-academia exchange, weekly climate pe charcha to spur dialogue and deliberations among the youth, and two annual conferences aimed at schools (coming up in December 2021) and colleges (coming up in May 2022) are happening at this virtual convening. Recommendations are being sent to COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference and the gathering of the powerful and the influential starting today in Glasgow, Scotland. Youth are discussing what COP26 should focus on. What do they expect out of such a gathering?

Young people can be a great force for the behavioural change needed to address the issue.  They are adept at amplifying the message, leveraging digital tools in a variety of ways — social media being just one among them. Youth can play a very important role in creating cool trends. Most of these issues are trend-centric. Environmental, Social and Governance [ESG] criteria for companies is one recent example as to how a trend in the sustainability space can catch on. Coupled with the right branding, the concept of ESG is catching up in the business sector. Everyday lifestyle is a key factor too. The youth are leaning towards sustainable fashion. Now young people are not rushing to own a car, or a house or needlessly expanding their wardrobe. 

Success stories and examples are aplenty. Vidyut Mohan, the other young social entrepreneur, co-founded Takachar to address air pollution from biomass burning, while also making it viable for farmers. Incidentally, Takachar was one of the winners of the Earthshot Prize. A programme called Wild Shaale was started in Karnataka to whet the curiosity of 10-13-year-old school-going children living in rural areas around wildlife reserves in India. The curriculum raises children’s empathy for the environment and features locally-specific wildlife. 

October 24 is UN Day. The formal launch of India MUN2021 happened on the same day, unleashing a force for change. The collective of nations have to urge each other to do better.  We have to achieve net neutrality sooner than later, aiming for 2040 instead of 2050, given the gravity of the situation. India and its youth can lead not just the country, but the entire world. The great poet William Wordsworth’s expression the “child is the father of the man” rings very true in this context. It is the young people who will teach the rest of the world that there is a different path that we all need to take to care, protect and restore. The Vinishas and the Vidyuts will show the way and illuminate it for others to follow with the bright lights of their energy and passion. 

Venkatesh Raghavendra is a social entrepreneur building partnerships to address issues of water, climate change and global well-being. Gayatri Chauhan is the founder & CEO of BuzzOnEarth and Gaia The Earth Foundation.

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