Facing the climate emergency

May 15, 2019 12:00 am | Updated 03:33 am IST

The politics of the climate crisis needs a radical transformation — people’s movements are a spark of hope

Sujatha Byravan

Sujatha Byravan

A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. shows that global warming during the past half century has contributed to a differential change in income across countries. Already wealthy countries have become wealthier and developing countries have been made poorer in relative terms during this time. India’s GDP growth penalty between 1961 and 2010 is in the order of 31% for the period, whereas Norway gained about 34% on a per capita basis. More recently, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has reported that, worldwide, the abundance of species has reduced by at least one-fifth, about a million species are under threat of extinction in the next few decades and 85% of wetlands have been lost.

None of these stunning scientific findings made banner headlines. The Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister did not hold an emergency meeting to discuss the loss of economic output because of climate change or the effects from loss of biodiversity in India. The manifestos of the political parties contesting the Indian general election barely took note of questions relating to climate and environment. Instead, it is “business as usual” or “life as usual” in the familiar news cycles of bickering and politics.

Instances of collusion

What we have, moreover, are numerous instances of elite networks that are taking advantage of the situation to consolidate their control. These networks often involve governments actively or quiescently colluding with fossil fuel companies, agro-industrial elites, financial elites and other big businesses that are ignoring climate change and making a fast buck often even from the growing disasters. The International Monetary Fund estimates in a recent working paper that fossil fuel subsidies were $4.7 trillion in 2015 and estimated to be $5.2 trillion in 2017. It goes on to say that efficient fossil fuel pricing would have reduced global carbon emissions by 28%.

The Arctic is melting rapidly and the tenor of the recent discussions among Arctic countries suggests that even as increasing glacier melt is responsible for opening up shipping in the area, superpowers are angling to access wealth from the oil, gas, uranium and precious metals in the region.

Mozambique recently had two successive intense cyclones, Idai and Kenneth, with widespread devastation. In an article in The Nation , Dipti Bhatnagar, a local activist, describes how big oil and energy companies have been eager to tap into Mozambique’s liquid natural gas, with large banks from many countries involved in the financing. In 2013, bank loans for $2 billion were guaranteed by the Mozambican government. When the government defaulted on its loans and the currency plummeted, it left behind a trail of woes. The story in Mozambique is of how “corrupt local elites collude with plundering foreign elites” and enrich themselves and their partners, while the people are left to bear the burden of debt.

While this kind of corruption may not be new, various versions of this are played out in other countries. Governments’ corporate cronies and plundering elites, of course, need not be foreign. Environmental laws can be broken by old boys’ networks with impunity as penalties are cancelled by a party in control. It is the poorest and those without access to power who become victims of the fallout from these situations. Another recent example is the draft Indian Forest Act of 2019, which enhances the political and police power of the forest department and curtails the rights of millions of forest dwellers.

Ear to the ground

Policies and commitments make it clear that most governments and businesses are not interested in dealing with the climate and ecological crises. They will certainly not give these the central attention they deserve in these times of an emergency; they barely even acknowledge them. Luckily, what we are witnessing is a large-scale movement for “planet emergency”, climate and ecology. Greta Thunberg has been leading this among school-going children, and Extinction Rebellion has been organising “die-ins” in many parts of Europe and now in Asia. Their non-violent civil disobedience is just what is needed and it is indeed inspiring to see children and grandparents protest together. People’s movements, whether made up of students or adults, cannot be ignored for long and governments will have to pay attention.

The atmosphere now has concentrations of over 415 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide, compared to 280 ppm in pre-industrial times. But then, fossil fuel companies and politicians have known about climate change for at least 30 years. They have funded misinformation regarding climate directly, taking lessons from tobacco companies that propagated lies for decades about cigarettes being safe. The documentary film Merchants of Doubt describes how a handful of scientists have obscured the truth on global warming so that business profits can continue to flow. The fossil fuel industry has also funded politicians, so their words and laws are already bought.

About a major overhaul

The only solutions that governments and business are looking for are those that enable them to carry on as before. But the planet is well past that point where small fixes can help take us on a long path to zero carbon earth. We are now at a stage where we need major overhaul of our lifestyles and patterns of consumption. The U.K. Parliament became the first recently to declare a climate emergency. It remains to be seen if appropriate actions will follow this declaration. When a 16-year-old speaks with far greater clarity and conviction than the thousands of dithering policy wonks who have been debating for over three decades, we know the politics of the climate crisis must undergo a radical transformation.

Sujatha Byravan is a scientist who studies science, technology and development policy

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.