Five thousand years ago, nomadic people settled in the Indus basin and developed one of the earliest Bronze Age civilisations on Earth, centred on the cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. By 1700 BC, the civilisation had descended into oblivion as desertification devoured the landscape. The fall of the Indus Valley Civilisation is ascribed by many scientists to climate change – though only marginally, perhaps, contributed to by the humans of the day. Today, however, the entire blue planet faces the crisis of climate change, and this time we are all to blame.
Back in 1991, Himal’s wry cartoons of a gushing ‘Khumbu Waterfall’ in place of the stupendous icefall that comes off Mount Everest, and a submerged Maldives, were perceived as good albeit farfetched jokes. But in 2009, with global warming looming as one of the greatest threats to humankind, a prediction of Himalayan atolls, perched atop a submerged Subcontinent, represent not necessarily fantasy, but only the extreme extension of what is already being forecast in terms of sea-level rise. Undoubtedly, dire predictions are no longer droll. When over 10,000 heads of state, scientists, policy pushers and climate-change wallahs gather in Copenhagen this December (in the process generating more than 16,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide at a meet that will cost upwards of USD 65 million), it will be crucial to separate the hot air from the rhetoric.
Thus far, the negotiations have been mired in a false dichotomy between environment and development, the latter position best represented by India and China. When agreeing to cut emissions according to international targets is interpreted domestically as weak-kneed and short-changing economic growth, it is only the boldest governments that can make legally binding commitments to reverse global warming while simultaneously reviving flagging economies. President Barack Obama is evidently in no position to take those giant leaps forward, as evidenced by his platitude-filled address to the UN Climate Summit on 22 September. Good intentions in the absence of specific targets and commitments will not bring down the global temperature. China’s promises at the Summit, meanwhile, while representing a shift from earlier obduracy about binding international instruments, likewise need to be translated into action or risk being interpreted as mere greenwash on the international stage.
That climate change does not respect national boundaries is a non sequitur, making the governmental negotiations laced with ultra-patriotism that much more short-sighted. While many in Southasia have urged a regional approach – hobbled in no small part by India’s economic and political dominance – this must go beyond capitals, because those who are quite literally feeling the heat are the poor and marginalised in each of these countries. Indeed, pointing fingers at the industrialised world for its contributions, past or present, to global warming must likewise make distinctions. For even in the developed countries, it is the poor and homeless, and mostly coloured, populations that have and will continue to bear the brunt of extreme climate events, be they hurricanes, typhoons, droughts, floods or acute winters.
There is some good news. We are finally past the relevancy of the discussion over ‘whether’ global warming is taking place; neither are the base causes any longer in dispute, despite the industry-backed pseudo research that has been churned out over the past decade. It is clear that the emission of carbon dioxide – and its equally damaging equivalents – must be reduced to prevent further warming. As such, the mass complexity of the entire issue really boils down to a one-point agenda: it is only mitigation of emissions that can reverse human-induced climate change. Yet while the targets and timeframe are debated ad nauseum, it is equally important to consolidate the incontrovertible scientific facts, identify gaps in knowledge and work towards filling them in. For in the absence of credible data – be it on the extent of glacier retreat, or the volume of change in precipitation – fear-mongering is rife, as is the tendency towards denial.
Back in the mid-1970s, the science writer Erik Eckholm came up with an overly pat idea dubbed the Himalayan Environmental Degradation Theory. By linking population growth in the mountains with deforestation and soil erosion leading to floods downstream in Bangladesh, the HED theory assigned blame to struggling hill communities eking out a precarious living. Eckholm and his ilk have since been proved wrong by scientists of the Himalaya. The floods came to be blamed on a host of complex factors, including the simultaneous ‘peaking’ of rivers in the plains; the contribution of the hill peasantry turned out to be minimal. While deforestation and soil erosion must indeed be dealt with for the sake of the local inhabitants, the lesson from the HED experience is that the politics of resource use and iniquitous consumption must be disentangled in order to correctly assign responsibility. And the tendency to blame the poor and under-represented must be abandoned.
Which brings us to the bogey that is today grabbing the other end of the stick: that of the large populations of Southasia and China potentially expanding their countries’ carbon footprints to take the globe into crisis. To take issue with one significant element of this line of thinking, the fact is that large families are a symptom of under-development, not a cause of it; children in subsistence economies are actually contributing to the family economy, not draining it. Yet with neo-Malthusianism rife in today’s environment circles, strong-arm tactics to reduce population growth in the developing world are being prioritised over cutting emissions in industrialised countries. Such victim-blaming must be jettisoned, through an understanding of the iniquitous societal arrangements in societies such as India’s, where the growing ranks of the wealthy are able to ‘average out’ their per capita emissions on the backs of millions of rural poor.
In this way, in developing societies, ‘luxury emissions’ (which must be reduced) should be clearly distinguished from ‘survival emissions’, which can be lessened only through the transfer of energy-efficient technologies. In a global ranking of wealth, India, ranked sixth with 24 billionaires, is also home to the largest number of hungry people in the world. It is estimated that India will have over 400,000 dollar millionaires by 2017, and will be the eighth-largest global wealth market. Yet it is unlikely that this model of economic growth can occur without a heavy carbon footprint. It is therefore incumbent upon New Delhi not to succumb to narrow nationalist arguments that reject the need for mitigation efforts to curb the emissions of the rich.
Across the region, it is not difficult to understand the immediacy of climate change and its direct relationship to life and livelihood. Indeed, in our region the words for weather and climate are most often synonymous: aab-o-hawa, mausam, jalvayu. And this makes good sense, for it is the communities of farmers, fisherfolk, hunters, porters and artisans that are most immediately affected. But in the international cacophony about climate change, it is easy to forget that development – that by now beleaguered notion – has also bypassed the large majority in the region. While tackling climate change is advocated today from every podium, programmes for afforestation, watershed development and agricultural improvement take a backseat, unless they are garbed in the language of ‘adaptation’. It is interesting that the ways and means of sustainable development through small-farmer credit, community forestry, participatory decision-making, alternative energy – indeed, all the low-key activities that go towards alleviating poverty at the mass level – are also the kinds of activities that, with the low-carbon footprint, will now help to save the world. All the more unfortunate, then, that the climate-change lobby has hijacked funds from development.
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) estimates the global cost of adapting to climate change to be upwards of USD 500 billion. But to what extent old-fashioned development will continue to be funded, in the face of dire predictions of extreme weather events and a looming crisis, remains to be seen. And reduction in development assistance would be truly disastrous, given that the industrialised countries have been intent on debating the ‘square bracket’ nitty-gritties rather than putting their money where their mouths are. For all the talk on assisting technology transfer and funds to ensure cleaner energy in the developing world, little action has yet been forthcoming.
Helping the potential victims of climate change adapt to the disastrous transitions in livelihoods must be a priority. This includes the technology transfer from the West to the South. But prioritising adaptation by ‘buying off’ some Southern countries would be wrong, for we would then be ‘adapting’ forever, even as climate change accelerates in the absence of effective mitigation efforts. The historical culpability of the West, going back to the Industrial Revolution’s coal-burning, naturally requires moral accountability. At the same time, the massive middle class of the South seeking to emulate the consumerist North must not be allowed to have its way. There must be a commitment to mitigate, by all of the West and the rich of the South, including Southasia. Indeed, no adaptation without mitigation!