Individual Choice, Collective Fate

March 04, 2016 12:00 am | Updated 02:07 am IST

With the series coming to conclusion, we need to consider the important choices before us -- what climate change is, what it will mean for India and importantly, what we can do

Climate change is much more than One degree C increase in temperature. A consistently warmer temperature fundamentally alters the way air holds moisture: warmer air can hold more vapour resulting in more intense rain alternating with multiple droughts. When coupled with unwise urban planning, this intense rainfall results in floods. Plants cannot adapt to such different patterns of rainfall. Agricultural yields fall steeply if we don’t adapt and it will and has caused extinctions of many species. Seas will rise and there will be salt water intrusion into ground water in coastal zones. There are and will increasingly will be frequent, deadly heat waves, with each new year setting a record in soaring temperatures.

It’s virtually certain that humans have caused this warming through the greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels like coal or diesel and increasing our livestock populations. Carbon dioxide tends to be long lived which makes it important to consider cumulative emissions when assigning blame and enlisting action.

Most importantly, this is not going to be an easy problem to solve. Why? Because each country is affected differently by the warming climate: warm, poor countries suffer both because of their already hot climates and their inability to cope, while cooler, wealthier climates suffer relatively less and importantly have the means to cope. There were celebrations about the Paris accord saying it was the tilting point of climate change action, but little has happened since then with richer nations not agreeing to legally binding cuts in emissions.

This means curbing climate change will need a “miracle” as Bill Gates recently called it.

With this in mind, and given India’s relatively small share in emissions and our current developing state, India should focus on adapting to a warmer world and taking “low-hanging” mitigating actions or those with substantial non-climate benefits. Here, it is important to bring up the oft-ignored concepts of “Attention” and “Execution”. As a country, with so many “urgent” to dos, the availability of both talented manpower and capable institutions are serious bottlenecks. This means, it is better for India to focus on a small set of actions and execute well.

There is another matter to consider. Climate Change is a classic example of what economists call the tragedy of the commons. This is a theory that says that individuals acting independently and rationally according to each one's self-interest, behave against the whole group's best interests by depleting some common asset. India is particularly vulnerable to this. Farmers pump out water with impunity with no care of when that water might run out. FMCG companies make sachets for rural markets with no care of the disposal costs of those sachets. We export cubic kilometres of our ground water with the beef we export without receiving compensation for it.

Why is this?

One reason could be that we have so very little skin in the game. As Indians, we have one of the lowest tax bases in the country or tax share of GDP. The poor fall under the bracket, many others evade. We have one of the lowest rates of volunteering or giving charity. We don’t have a mandatory army service. We don’t have a jury service. It’s not mandatory to vote (details on

In several measurable dimensions, we are poor citizens. This is so clearly manifested by the common site of a shopkeeper sweeping the front of his shop clean while pushing the garbage onto the common road.

Why do I bring this up now?

Because so many of the actions needed to adapt to a warmer world need collective action – not dumping garbage into waterways, not building over water bodies, pumping ground water judiciously, executing a rapid bus transit system.

Tagore said it beautifully when he wrote “Where the world has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls”.

This is a personal, independent decision each of us has to make. Is each of us an island? Or are we fellow citizens of a country? The answer to this question determines your actions. And the collective weight of these actions determines the fate of our country.

(Climaction is a fortnightly column that is published in MetroPlus Weekend on alternate Fridays. The views expressed in the articles are those of the author.)

The last article in this series will appear on March 18, 2016.

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