India should view climate change as an opportunity

India should view climate change as an opportunity

In June last year, the respected Delhi-based NGO Centre for Science and Environment published an analysis of temperature trends in India going back to the beginning of the 20th century. The study was a scientific confirmation of what most adult Indians already know from their experience: India is warming — and warming exponentially.

The annual mean temperature in India, the data shows, has risen about 1.2 degrees Celsius since the beginning of the 20th century. More worryingly, the fastest pace of change has come in recent years: 2016 was the hottest year in India since temperature data began to be measured, while 2007 to 2016 was the hottest decade on record.

At this rate of warming, the CSE study explains, India is set to breach the 1.5 C increase above the pre-industrial baseline in mean temperature — which was the target set by the 2015 Paris Agreement as the limit within which the world must try to contain global warming — within two decades.

The consequences of that development would be world-changing, since India is more vulnerable to climate change shocks than countries in the developed world. Along with rising temperatures and extreme weather events would come a decline in rainfall, making the livelihoods of several hundred million Indian farmers even more perilous than they currently are (60 percent of Indian agricultural land is rain-fed). Forests and ecosystems would be drastically degraded and many species of plants and animals would disappear.

Melting glaciers in the Himalayas would cause widespread flooding in summer, even as rising sea levels endanger the lives of people on India’s 7,500 kilometers of coastline. Agricultural distress would create a huge number of “climate change migrants” flocking to the cities, which would also be waging their own water and energy wars. The economy would take a giant hit (except those sectors dealing in disaster management). Several decades of steady economic growth would be undone.

India must learn to see climate change as an opportunity to live in a more mindful and meaningful way.

Chandrahas Choudhury

One would have thought, then, that the CSE study would have made headlines in India and served as a trigger to educate the wider public about the science of climate change. Not so. Most newspapers only found some room for the study in their inside pages. The TV channels were even more reluctant to speak of a looming disaster not linked to a face, organization or country. The Indian media’s low take-up of the implications of climate change is, however, reflective of media practice around the world. Climate change, clearly, is bad news — in more ways than one.

But our general inability to treat climate change with the seriousness it deserves may not be just because of how we are cultured by modern life, but how we are made by nature. Science has shown that the brain is hard-wired to deal with immediate challenges to our wellbeing, but much less so to long-term threats with a diffused source (in fact, with climate change, the problem is us). The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says that, if an alien civilization wanted to conquer Earth, they wouldn’t send men in spaceships to fight a war; instead they would invent something like climate change and watch us slowly waste away.

Of course, even if global warming was to be a more central topic in the Indian public sphere, India would confront a particularly tricky trajectory in dealing with it. Although the country is the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide emissions in the world, hundreds of millions of Indians still live in energy poverty. Economic growth and material wellbeing is closely linked to the carbon-based economy, and in the coming decades India’s energy needs will only rise. Present and future Indian governments will have to find a delicate balance between supplying those needs while also transitioning out of a fossil fuel-based economy and allocating resources for the shocks stemming from the almost inevitable reality of a warmed-up world.

Thankfully, India is already taking some far-sighted steps in the war on climate change (although it may be time to retire this widely used metaphor, as I will explain). There are many problems with Prime Minister Narendra Modi when it comes to his political beliefs, but thankfully he is not a climate change skeptic. In fact, his emphasis on scaling up solar and renewable energy may be the most progressive aspect of his entire policy agenda. That has encouraged the media to focus on the issue of renewable energy.

Measures to reverse climate change can be taken in the unlikeliest of arenas, far away from the technological sphere. In his recent book “Drawdown,” the environmentalist Paul Hawken points out the link between global warming and the education of women. Research shows that educated women exert greater control over their reproductive rights and typically have fewer and healthier children. The sooner we can get the world’s population to peak, the easier it will be to minimize per-capita emissions and allocate the planet’s scarce resources sustainably.

Finally, though, the challenge for the environmental movement in India is to find a mass media-friendly way of presenting climate change not as a crisis, but as an opportunity to live in a more mindful and meaningful way. The phrase “climate change” today is loaded with negative associations, with the language of reproach and foreboding. It is hard to get people to respond practically to goals such as “limiting world temperature to a 1.5 degree increase.” India still awaits the climate change crusader who can break the link between warming and warning.


• Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi, most recently the author of the novel “Clouds” (Simon & Schuster, 2018). Twitter: @Hashestweets

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