Since Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN yesterday, the world (of social media) has exploded. The 30-year-old debate on Climate Change has resurfaced and how! Around the turn of this century, a film ‘Inconvenient Truth’ by Al Gore took the world by storm. I still remember an enduring image from the film, when Al Gore, an extremely prolific speaker, actually climbs the ladder on the stage to show how the temperatures have risen over the past few centuries. It had had a huge impact on me. The doomsday seemed to be near and we, as a human race, seemed to be walking right into its trap.
This was around the same time that I had recently completed my Masters in Environmental Planning in the US and thus professionally accepted that I would be a part of the scene that will help create solutions, come up with innovation and planning and management techniques to curb the threat of Climate Change.
Thankfully, in due course of professional and academic pursuits, I worked with experts and mentors who guided me, no, coaxed me to look at the Science of Climate Change and also the dynamics of its politics in greater detail. So the impact of the ‘Inconvenient Truth’ wore off quickly to arrive at a conclusion that the narrative that’s being built around Climate Change needs greater scrutiny than what it is getting. This started as a mere thought at the time but reinforced itself as the world bypassed doomsday predictions of Climate Change easily. There had to be something more if the science is not supporting the narrative. This is exactly what professionals should do, right? They wait for conclusive tests and trials before pronouncing a malady. But, the world was not in a position to listen. The frenzy around Climate Change just grew and grew until it became the ultimate truth. Every child, since kindergarten started to parrot the words. And we, professionals, were sometimes left floundering. For want of conclusive science, I particularly could not diagnose nor prescribe the narrative of Climate Change, but laypersons around me swore by it.
Even the early readings about the North versus South divide on a Climate Change give an insight into the politics around this issue. And of particular interest to me was the unfairness of it all to India and other developing countries. In fact, Greta’s outburst yesterday, once again, brought back memories of those early readings in greater force, as it did for so many people around the world and thus the world (of intellectuals on social media) exploded into primarily two parts – the Climate Change believers and the Climate Change skeptics.
In a nutshell, the entire Climate Change narrative can be summed up to say that we, as a world, have reached a level of CO2 emissions where we cannot/should not add more. While this is the premise of the narrative, skeptics will argue that this is so far unproven scientifically. So developed countries started sending out messages through international conferences and educational programs that ‘developing’ countries should not add to this pool of global CO2 by wanting to develop like they themselves did in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The argument most commonly was and even today is, “Don’t make the same mistakes”, of course, never ever accepting that they made a mistake. So as not seem too unfair, given that China and India are two powerful nations, the narrative revolved vaguely around a concept of Carbon Credits, a monetisation of pollution. But that failed to take off as well because science and economics did not support it adequately. There are many allegations about vested interests and means for accessing Green Funds by Climate Change influencers etc, but I will not delve into those since these are unproven as well.
In the meanwhile, in a typical Chinese fashion, China refused anything and everything the world had to say on Climate Change and developed at a pace that’s unprecedented in the history of the world. Within a single generation, the country brought poverty under control by giving her citizens adequate infrastructure to run the economy for its billion-plus people. Done. No one dared ask questions.
Now as India reared her head ever so slightly under PM Modi’s leadership since 2014, showing signs of development, the Climate Change narrative gained momentum. The developed world, once again, seemed to ask, “why are you developing?”. We need to keep our CO2 emissions low, you know. And then the same parroting of platitudes – we are not anti-development, but what about sustainability? I keep asking this question – can anyone in this world show how any nation can develop her infrastructure without increasing her carbon footprint? It’s inevitable and the only recourse is to optimise!
A teenager’s monologue and emotional appeal yesterday brought into my mind a typical teenager in my country. And this is not a teenager in an Indian city in an upper-middle-class household. A typical teenager in India is still in a small town somewhere, just larger than a village, who is struggling to reach school for want of a better road or suffers an iron deficiency for want of modern healthcare. A typical teenager in India is the one who aspires to be educated and find a good job in a city, even travel abroad, if lucky, and improve her parents’ lives. My first thought was, will and should an emotional appeal from an entitled European teenager, with a carbon footprint around 9 (German average) be allowed to set a development narrative for a teenager whose carbon footprint is 1 (Indian average)?
Earlier, I was confident that science will catch up with the unfairness of global politics and we, as a humanity, will correct our course. But since this has not happened so far, I am further worried about the damage this Climate Change discourse will do to India. And the worst part is, the world from outside India never tells us what to do. It does it through the medium of foreign-educated intellectuals (like me) and thus successfully thwarts development from within.
Having said this, as a professional in the field of Environment, there is no denying the fact that we are polluting and degrading our natural resources. Whether this leads to Climate Change or not may be up for debate, but the fact remains that we are rapidly dirtying our air, our water and depleting precious natural resources. And hence the focus of my professional journey has been to find local solutions – innovations, planning and management techniques to reduce pollution of our activities, to optimise the use of natural resources. Constantly, find ways to optimise rather than say NO. Instead of looking at every activity in the shadow of the Climate Change narrative, we have chosen to provide solutions so that India can continue her quest of offering liveability, access to basic services such as electrification, water supply, housing, healthcare, mobility etc, but we do so in a responsible manner.
And hence, I have often circumvented discussions on Climate Change, at the peril of losing credibility, just as a doctor would look at unproven science, even if there is a strong narrative around it amongst the patients. We have tried to look at this objectively, much to the chagrin of Climate Change enthusiasts. This issue is similar to the quandary we feel when the scientific community makes its constant flip around eating an egg. First, an egg was great then it was bad for cholesterol and once again now it’s apparently good for the heart. Just like all this while, we continued to eat it in moderation, so should we continue India’s quest for a liveable country that offers basic services to all her population.
We should be mindful of local pollution that will threaten peoples’ well being but also allow for a broader judgment of overall economic and social well being, through mitigation, management and remediation solutions. We should accept the fact that India’s addition of infrastructure to meet the requirements of her people will add to CO2 emissions. We should just try to ensure that these are optimum, offsets made through compensatory actions. Any narrative, emotional or otherwise, and especially, an unproven one, is set to hinder India’s quest for economic growth, should not come in India’s way.
Architect-Planner. Pune & Arizona State Univ Graduate. Sustainability consultant. Public Policy. Green Buildings. Teacher. Writer. Tedx.