Climate change is real. And that calls for real, deserving funds to be diverted towards mitigation and adaptation projects. But, as a report of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs shows, between 2014-18 the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds diverted towards ‘Environment, Animal Welfare, Conservation of Resources’ accounts for just a little over 8% of the total CSR funds available. Unsurprisingly, the trends for philanthropic funding towards climate change projects also follow a similar trend, as Shloka Nath (SN), the Head of Sustainability and Special Projects at the Tata Trusts informs us in this interview.
In an attempt to change this trend of funding, a group of philanthropies founded an India-led platform in 2018 called the India Climate Collaborative; Shloka is its Executive Director. She also co-founded and was the Managing Partner at Sankhya Women Impact Funds, India’s first women’s investor fund that focused on early-stage enterprises impacting women. After having spent over a decade in print and broadcast journalism with the BBC and Forbes, where she focused on sustainability and financial inclusion, Shloka shifted gears and ventured into public policy.
In this interview with Vaishnavi Rathore (VR), Shloka talks about the dismal funding for climate change projects, the need for a collaborative approach to combat climate change, and how to look out for “greenwashing”!
VR: What made you shift professions from journalism to public policy?
SN: I strongly believe that journalism is the highest form of public good. Access to information is the fulcrum of any society in a democracy. But, my career in journalism showed me the power of what policy can do, in terms of how it impacts the lives of millions of people it seeks to empower.
I was a journalist for about a decade, and in the articles and issues I was covering, I used to focus on sustainability. While I was at Forbes, I was writing about financial inclusion and sustainability at the bottom of the economic pyramid. That is why I got interested in public policy. I wanted to examine what it might be like to be more involved in the decision-making process rather than just commenting on it. So, I did a Masters in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
When I returned to India in 2014, I decided to head straight into the policy-making process in politics. So, I campaigned for Meera Sanyal, who was the Aam Aadmi Party Candidate for Mumbai (South) during the 2014 General Elections, for almost a year. It was a fascinating experience; I was her Policy Communications Director, and I created her policy manifesto from scratch. While I was there, I saw first-hand how ‘sustainability’ intertwined in the urban context, its impact on the quality of life, and the need for better infrastructure. I realised that institutions and structures need to be created and designed in specific ways, so that sustainability trickles down to low-income communities too. I also witnessed closely how poor and vulnerable communities were the worst hit in terms of climate change.
I realised that climate change is an overarching issue that affects all sectors of life, and thus could materially affect and change lives too. For instance, if you are working with farmers and agriculture, there may be interventions that can increase their crop yield, but their lives cannot change as long as climate change is not acknowledged and work towards mitigating it is not initiated. This was something that Mr. Tata realised himself and that’s why he saw value in establishing a sustainability portfolio at the Tata Trusts. That’s the work I took over as the head of Sustainability at Tata Trusts in 2018.
VR: Across the development sector in India, what share of philanthropy is diverted to climate change projects?
SN: Currently, less than 10% of philanthropy in India is directed towards climate change. This is a problem. What makes this more complex, is that the current trend for philanthropy–and even the government’s diversion of funds– is to climate allied areas like irrigation or sanitation. But, they are still not putting on a ‘climate lens’ when it comes to philanthropy, similar to how organisations and individuals put on a ‘gender lens’. Philanthropists are funding climate actions directly, which is great, but they are not accounting for climate change in their other programs, like education or health. For instance, if girls are not attending school because they have to walk miles to get water in drought-affected areas, you don’t just have an education challenge, you have a climate issue too.
‘Govt. of India has made ambitious commitments but the industry hasn’t come on-board yet!’ he says!https://t.co/Q7xNYdPWDi
— Ravi Gadepalli (@ravigadepalli) May 11, 2019
Funding is also still a challenge since the narrative around climate change is still being built in India. In the West, this narrative has mostly been around emissions and temperatures, but in India and most South Asian countries, climate change is a lot more about human interests. But, this aspect of human lives is still lacking in our narratives of climate change. Moreover, when it comes to funding, I feel that the biggest gaps are not just in finding someone to fund, but in having funders who have the knowledge or skills on how to direct their funding towards holistic interventions.
VR: Are these gaps in funding the motivation behind starting the India Climate Collaborative?
SN: Yes. The India Climate Collaborative (ICC) was formed with the motive to give the funders a reason to act. It is a call to action. There is an urgent need to build an ecosystem around issues of climate change and sustainability wherein a range of actors do not work in silos, unlike how they do presently. The situation demands the collaborative efforts of civil society, philanthropy, and the private sector to drive more funding, while generating more engagement amongst each other.
In an unprecedented effort to address India’s climate challenge, over 10 of the country’s foremost philanthropies joined together to found the India Climate Collaborative, the first ever collective response by industry leaders toward a shared climate goal: https://t.co/J7zm7GAlDV pic.twitter.com/u13RNmTFc7
— Manish Bapna (@ManishBapnaWRI) January 22, 2020
The need for this in India is more acute, given that we have so many more vulnerable people. [A study ranked India the fifth-most affected by climate change out of 181 countries in 2018]. Today, we have cyclone Amphan knocking at our doors, and we are just sitting ducks in the face of it! Even during the lockdown and the current migrant workers’ crisis, we can’t forget that one of the reasons these migrants left their native areas in the first place was because of consistent droughts or floods. They had migrated from places of extreme climatic duress.
While civil society has stepped up tremendously during these times, it is very evident that the overarching system still isn’t ready to deal with these outcomes. There are still no processes for resilience or protecting these communities. When we speak of the ‘post-pandemic recovery’, we need to acknowledge that this recovery needs to be green—there is no pathway to the future without sustainability.
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Climate change is not going to happen 30 years down the line. It’s happening now. The ICC envisions to help inspire this sense of urgency, to build a collaborative platform for diverse voices that lead to informed actions.
VR: How have the responses to climate change differed across South East Asian countries who seem to be in a similar boat?
SN: Countries like Singapore have emerged as a great example. Singapore has chosen to become one of the greenest nations in Asia, which is evident in its government’s policy-making and actions [In 2017, Singapore ranked first as the city with the highest density of greenery amongst 17 cities worldwide]. In Indonesia, very serious climate talks on preparing for the future are happening. But in India, the response towards climate change has been very haphazard.
The problem in India is also bigger, owing to the huge number of lower-income populations that would be impacted by climate change. It is important to note that this population is not limited to rural areas. Our urban areas are equally under threat, whether its air pollution in Delhi, or the rising sea levels of India’s coastal cities like Mumbai. [A 2019 study warned that Mumbai and Kolkata are on the list of global cities that face the risk of being wiped out by 2050 due to coastal flooding].
According to a new study, #Mumbai is at risk of getting submerged under Arabian Sea by 2050. This is terrifying and heart-breaking news for me who’s born and brought up in this city but I’m not surprised cos in recent times this city is getting flooded so often during monsoon. ? pic.twitter.com/cgiXELty8m
— Tejan Shrivastava (@BeingTeJan) October 31, 2019
But are we preparing our cities for that future? No! Instead, we are building a coastal road. There is still no direction when creating climate-resilient cities. [A proposed 9.9-km coastal road in Mumbai, stretching from Marine Drive to Worli, or the southern end of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link would reclaim 90 hectares of land from the sea.]
More such direct contradictions are visible. On the one hand, we are investing heavily in solar energy, and on the other, we are still increasing our investments in coal. This shows that in some spaces we have very clear leadership, while in others, we have none. Even in our national plans, and international commitments, we are nowhere near to meeting our goals of sustainability.
But having said that, while this is a large challenge, there is also tremendous hope. These climate problems have originated in the Global North, but I strongly feel that the solutions to them will have to come from our part of the world–because all the people are here.
VR: It is often argued that CSR projects, which are funded through 2% of the annual profits of a large corporate body, do not compensate for the larger environmental problems that the company may be incurring through their other projects. What do you think about this?
SN: I believe that one should judge corporates on their ability to move from brown to green [‘brown’ referring to high carbon, or climate-risk inducing, and ‘green’ referring to low carbon, or climate resilient]. You have to see how genuinely a company is committing itself towards sustainability, and how they are transitioning towards greener operations beyond their CSR activities. The corporates have to be judged on how climate-friendly they are—do they run on solar? Do they harvest water?
I agree, there have been a lot of companies involved in damaging the ecology, but what is done is in the past. When we talk in the future, we have to be careful to understand their intentions while functioning. Success can’t be judged by CSR alone. We cannot fall prey to ‘greenwashing’ [The practice of making a misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology, or company practice led by CSR activities].
— The River Bride (@ChrisMoodyDraws) June 1, 2020
SN: How has your experience been as a woman in the field of CSR funding and philanthropy?
VR: This space has really welcomed me. I have dealt with a lot of men leaders who are not nurturing towards women, but, I have also had the chance of meeting men who have done so, and who have challenged me professionally. But, at the same time, I would love to see more women in this space as peers, and even as leaders. I would also like to see more women behind funding sources, operating their own organisations, and as entrepreneurs leading their own funding.
I see hope in collaborations and in building bridges. I believe in having a more optimistic and hopeful language, and in being able to connect the dots, women are more adept. They make it more about the issue, than about themselves. Of course, men do that too, but I have seen it come more naturally to women. Because women can truly do it all. It’s all about the will and determination, but most importantly, it’s about the heart. The women I know don’t hide their heart. We wear it on our sleeves like a badge of honour. To us, it’s not a sign of weakness, but a sign of courage. With every beat, it reminds us that there is still a moment, a chance, a possibility. The challenge now is to find more ways of doing things together.