Written by Rohit Nair
Climate change is widely regarded as the single biggest crisis threatening our collective future on this planet. A recent report published by the UN-funded Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), compiled by over 4000 experts from across the world, has reported a sure and significant rise in the mean temperature of the earth since pre-industrial times. Global “warming” of 1.5 degrees and above will have disastrous consequences, including unprecedented and extreme climatic conditions in most inhabited parts of the world. The report stressed that restricting warming to 1.5 degrees is impossible without bringing down emission rates to ‘Net Zero’ in the coming decades.
There is no doubt that such findings have led to global political discussion and mobilization around climate change. In 2015, UN countries signed the historic Paris Agreement, pledging to keep global warming levels ‘well-below’ 2 degrees. Greta Thunberg’s School Strike for Climate, which saw the participation of over 1.5 million students from more than 300 cities from across the world demonstrates the seriousness and global nature of the movement against climate change.
However, one needs to examine the drawbacks of this growing climate change discourse. To begin with, the climate change movement has transformed the ecological crisis into an energy crisis making it a race to discover alternate, ‘cleaner’ sources of energy. It ignores other factors driving the ecological crisis by limiting it to emissions and excess carbon. Thus, the movement has often produced shallow and uninformed environmentalism that does not tackle the issue head-on.
This is not to deny climate change or the disastrous consequences that excess carbon in the atmosphere will produce. Rather, it is an attempt to show how the climate change discourse has become ‘token environmentalism’ in the hands of the global elite and governments who continue to contribute to the ecological crisis while claiming to fix a small part of it.
The Ecological Crisis
Most human needs, including food, energy and medicines, are dependent on goods and contributions provided by the natural world. Ecological cycles are crucial for maintaining quality of air, water, soil and other ‘free services’ necessary for human health and well-being. Marine and terrestrial ecosystems also serve as giant ‘carbon sinks’, and their protection is key in our fight against climate change.
It is well known that the race to develop and urbanize has often come at great environmental and social costs; in many parts of the world, poor planning and gross mismanagement of resources have wreaked havoc on the natural world. Critical ecosystems like forests, wetlands and mangroves have been appropriated and converted into sites for public infrastructure, IT corridors, industries, etc. Resources are increasingly carted off to urban centres, leaving rural areas barren and empty. Such projects threaten biodiversity and traditional uses and use rights in favour of national economic interests.
Now more than ever, protecting the natural environment should be the biggest priority. The havoc left in the wake of recent environmental calamities in different parts of the world and indeed, our country, is adequate proof. In many cases, unplanned development and urban growth have aggravated the effects of these incidents. The ecological breakdown will increase social and economic vulnerability and reduce overall resilience of communities against the vagaries of climate change.
The Carbon Problem
The environmental movement against climate change places excessive focus on “the carbon problem” thus taking the attention off other pressing issues like the loss of biodiversity, extinction of species, overexploitation as well as issues of socio-environmental injustice. It transforms the ecological crisis into an energy crisis resulting in technocratic and emission-sharing solutions.
The discourse around climate change is intricately linked with global energy policies. Since energy from the burning of fossil fuels form the backbone of the modern economy, there is little push to restructure global energy policies keeping in mind long-term sustainability; this would significantly hamper economic growth and consumption patterns. The result is environmental policies that work around the situation by strengthening emission standards and/or proposing technocratic fixes that can remove excess carbon. Strategies like Carbon Dioxide Reduction (CDR) technologies and emission-sharing agreements help corporations and governments to continue exploiting and consuming at current rates while claiming ‘climate-friendly’ behaviour.
Climate change activists also place great emphasis on substituting carbon-based fuels with renewable energy like solar, wind, etc. However, this often becomes a convenient excuse for developed countries (the global north) to blame developing countries for their reliance on coal and other such ‘dirty’ fuels. This is in spite of the fact that the rates of energy use and consumption are much higher in developed and richer countries. Developed countries wash their hands off the climate crisis by committing to ‘Zero Net Carbon’ emissions although their contribution to the problem has been more severe and longer.
The climate change discourse is most powerful in the developed nations, especially among the urban, educated elite. Since environmental costs are almost always externalized, there is little incentive in sacrificing short-term gains for long-term sustainability. The result is environmentalism premised on product substitution and minor tweaks to everyday life. A growing market for ‘eco-friendly’ products is a testimony to the fact that the root causes of the crisis remain either sidelined or unexplored.
Our lifestyles and consumption patterns lie at the centre of this ecological breakdown. Current economic models, premised on unlimited growth, is not feasible on a planet with finite resources and a well-defined carrying capacity. An extractive relationship with nature forgoes long-term sustainability for short-term economic gains. Restricting the ecological crisis before it reaches catastrophic rates will require rethinking our relationship with nature, both at the individual and global levels. Preventing degradation and promoting active protection of the environment would require more than just small and comfortable changes. There is a need to rethink the current paradigm of economic growth and the narrow definition of a good life.
The climate change movement needs to expand its definition of the crisis we are facing. The protection of the natural world is critical to our survival on the planet. The time for small and comfortable changes is behind us. The environmental movement needs to acknowledge the need for drastic changes and overhaul of present systems to put an end to further destruction and work towards long-term recovery.