Our politicians in climate change denial
It’s springtime in Delhi – the three weeks spanning mid-February to early March when all Delhi residents experience an exhilarating optimism about their lives and their future. The air is simply “moderate” to “poor” (not “severe”), according to the various Air Quality Index (AQI) apps on our phones. The Mughal Gardens are in full bloom and open to the public. Our public gardens are jam-packed with picnickers amidst graves, roses and preening peacocks.
Life is Beautiful. The Supreme Court operates primarily in physical mode, and the temperature is pleasant enough for us lawyers to drink tea while chatting under the high domed ceilings and in the open-air hallways, wearing our multi-layered lawyer uniforms. , mostly black, without the sweat running furiously down our foreheads. It was in the midst of this period of relative joy that I read excerpts from the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released on Monday. Maybe I shouldn’t have.
The IPCC, a body of nearly 270 experts from 67 countries, convened by the United Nations, has drawn a grim picture of the future of our planet and our species. In its Sixth Assessment Report, titled “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” the IPCC discusses increasing extreme heat, rising oceans, melting glaciers, declining agricultural productivity, resulting food shortages and the rise of diseases such as dengue fever and zika. Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, quoted in the New York Times, describes the IPCC report as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning condemnation of failed climate leadership”. He added: “With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people and the planet are being beset by climate change.”
Now those of us who live in India don’t need the UN Secretary General to tell us that climate change is knocking us out. We live in the future predicted by the IPCC. Our cities are experiencing more frequent extreme heat waves. In Delhi, the AQI for the winter months averages between 300 and 500, which is equivalent to smoking one to two packs of cigarettes a day. Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata feature in the list of the 15 most polluted cities in the world, according to Swiss climate change group IQ Air.
The IPCC warns that if our planet warms by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times (we are at 1.1 degrees now), then there will be an irreversible impact on ‘low resilience ecosystems’ such as polar, mountainous and coastal ecosystems “impacted by melting glaciers and rising sea levels”. This will lead to the devastation of “infrastructure in low-lying coastal settlements, associated livelihoods and even erosion cultural and spiritual values”. Increased heat will lead to an increase in diseases such as diabetes, circulatory and respiratory disorders, as well as mental health problems. Clearly, adverse climate change is a global condition that damages our minds, our lungs and our livelihoods.
The IPCC also points out that climate “maladaptation” will particularly affect “marginalized and vulnerable groups, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, low-income households and informal settlements” and those in rural areas. Therefore, India, with a majority of its people falling into these categories, will be particularly devastated.
Esha Roy and Amitabh Sinha in their reports in The Indian Express note that the IPCC points out that India is a vulnerable hotspot, with several regions and cities facing climate change phenomena such as floods, sea level rise and heat waves. For example, Mumbai is at high risk of sea level rise and flooding, and Ahmedabad faces the danger of heat waves – these phenomena are already underway in both cities. Vector-borne and water-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever will be on the increase in subtropical regions, such as parts of Punjab, Assam and Rajasthan.
When the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, the grains we eat, including wheat and rice, will have reduced nutritional quality. But that assumes that we will not face a food crisis. Hidden in Annex I of the IPCC report, I found a chilling fact: Over the past 30 years, yields of major crops have declined by 4-10% worldwide due to climate change. Therefore, India, which continues to be predominantly agrarian, is likely to be particularly affected.
Yet it is not just our agrarian segments that will be affected. Anjal Prakash, one of the lead authors of the chapter on cities and settlements, wrote that “urban India is more at risk than other regions with a projected population of 877 million by 2050, nearly double 480 million in 2020. The concentration of population in these cities will make them extremely vulnerable to climate change.
We Indians know that we experience the adverse consequences of the impacts of climate on a daily basis – extreme heat, dirty air, poor quality food grains. Our seniors are mostly diabetics and our streets are congested with gas-guzzling vehicles. Yet our political class lacks a cohesive and urgent policy roadmap to address rising emissions and declining life expectancies.
The problem is that tackling climate change requires budget spending and policy changes fueled by political will that will deliver results in a decade. That’s two election cycles too many for our politicians. Therefore, the main election issues will continue to revolve around temples and mosques, dress codes and prohibited foods. Problems that assume we will continue to live as we do, ignoring the obvious question: will we survive?
This column first appeared in the print edition of March 5, 2022 under the title “Climate of denial”. The author is senior counsel at the Supreme Court.