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Burning Earth: A Climate Crisis Unfolds

How global warming changes the lives of Indians, and the unequal ways it affects the population

The Resistance Movement: Artwork by Prabhakar Pachpute
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She burnt his coldness with her warmth

He melted and she drowned

Temperature is at the heart of creation, survival and destruction. After the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago, cooling allowed the formation of the first protons and neutrons and later atoms, leading to the creation of the first elements, hydrogen and helium. On Earth, cooling created the conditions for life to emerge. Excessive cooling during the ice ages left many species extinct. Temperature is one of the essential drivers of change, the only constant in life and beyond.

When the temperature changes abruptly, it triggers chain reactions among interacting elements. Higher temperature accelerates chemical reactions. Flowers, food and dead bodies decompose faster. Water reacts faster with minerals. Naturally, a warmer world will see many changes in the natural environment, just like a person whose blood is boiling may act unpredictably.

Over the past few years, the yellow spring flower known in the Kashmir valley as Gul-e-toor has been blooming about a month in advance and so has the spring flower of red rhododendron locally called Buransh in Uttarakhand. These did not mean early celebrations; people heard the footsteps of a calamity approaching.

In this journey into a new, uncertain world, a polar bear sleeping on a melting glacier is on the same ship as the unnamed 40-year-old factory worker from Bihar who lived in New Delhi in a room without a fan and succumbed to heatstroke on May 29, the day the mercury crossed 52°C.

Existence is all about chain reactions. Slow changes reach a tipping point and open up a cascade. That’s exactly what has happened to the world with the recent rapid warming. Meghalaya, the abode of clouds, has long been known as the home to two of the wettest places on earth—Cherrapunji and Mawsinram. The hilly northeast Indian state is getting drier. In northwest India, Rajasthan, home to the hot and arid Thar desert, is getting wetter. The cold desert of Ladakh in north India is recording more rainfall and less snow. The Indo-Gangetic plains of northern and eastern India known for their fertile land and sufficient rainfall are staring at rain deficits.

Heat affects us all. In the words of Craig Santos Perez, a poet from the US island territory of Guam in the western Pacific, “We are of one ecology/Like a planet/In which there are 200,000 glaciers.” If glaciers die, they will take many of us to the grave. If forests vanish, they will carry our water and oxygen with them.

Chain Reactions

One unusually hot and humid afternoon in the last week of May, a bus in Kolkata moved slowly. The driver and conductor kept looking for passengers on an almost empty street. Inside, heavily sweating passengers got impatient. An altercation started between the conductor and some passengers.

The driver stopped the bus, left his seat and joined the brawl. Someone slapped the conductor, who threw a punch at someone else. The traffic police had to come in to control the situation. Some passengers tried to cool things down, saying no one was at fault; heat turned everyone crazy. In the end, the driver conceded that he was driving slow not only because they were looking for passengers but also because he was feeling dizzy: he had got little sleep the previous night, the daytime heat had drained all his energy and he had difficulty concentrating.

If we consider such incidents as trivial, unrelated to climate change, we need to rethink. Remember, in Algerian-French novelist Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Meursault, the protagonist, blamed the harshness of the sun for the murder he committed?

Science has over the past few decades provided enough evidence of the relation between heat and violent behaviour. Excessive heat triggers aggressive, impulsive or irritable behaviour. “Uncomfortably warm temperatures increase aggressive cognitions and feelings, what we call ‘irritability,’” notes a 2019 paper by Andreas Miles-Novelo and Craig Anderson of Iowa State University. A 2015 paper by Dennis Mares and Kenneth W. Moffett concludes that a degree Celsius increase caused by climate change would increase homicide rates by 6%.

The social life of human beings is based on weather patterns. What happens when the weather changes? Life changes. Global warming is a life-altering phenomenon.

The social life of human beings is based on weather patterns. What happens when the weather changes? Life changes. Global warming is a life-altering phenomenon for a majority of mankind.

All of India’s warmest years on record have been in the last decade. This summer, more than three dozen urban centres recorded above 45 °C temperature—and some above 50—a historic high. People were advised to stay indoors unless necessary. Not many could afford that. Several dozen died, many were hospitalised, some lost their daily wages. Millions of Indians are facing a great test of endurance.

According to a new analysis by Climate Central and Climate Trends, two climate research organisations, people without cooling facilities at home lost several nights’ sleep in cities like Jalpaiguri and Silugri in West Bengal and Guwahati, Silchar and Dibrugarh in Assam, as night time temperatures in India have increased even more rapidly than daytime temperatures.

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Those lacking sleep are connected with the over 100 people who got swept away in a glacial lake outburst flood in Sikkim in October 2023. And the birds that dropped dead in the summer. And the forests that burnt in wildfires.

A Hostile New World

The Earth’s climate has warmed and cooled in cycles. In the last 800,000 years, there have been eight cycles of ice ages, spanning thousands of years each, punctuated by warmer periods. This cyclic change is largely attributed to the variations in the amount of solar energy the Earth receives. The modern climate era started about 12,000 years ago with the end of the last ice age. It is in this warmer period that human civilisation began.

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But the rate of warming in recent decades has been unprecedented. During the shift from the last ice age to the current warm one, the temperature rose by about 5°C over 5000 years, with a maximum warming rate of about 1.5°C per thousand years. In contrast, there has been approximately 1.1°C warming in less than 200 years. Human activities, especially industrial production, have interfered with the natural cycle of warming and cooling by releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

As a result, glaciers are melting and sea levels are rising faster. Extreme weather events like floods, droughts, heatwaves, cyclones and lightenings are increasing in span or intensity or both. Amidst all these, recent legislations in India have made forest-felling for infrastructural projects even easier.

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As we enter this new world, a hostiler one, many questions cloud our minds. Who is to be blamed for this? What’s the full range of the catastrophe? Who suffers? Who takes responsibility? Who can prevent? And how? And why didn’t the people who caused it act till now?

In the words of Jim Skea, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “Climate change is the result of more than a century of unsustainable energy and land use, lifestyles and patterns of consumption and production.”

The blame lies primarily on the wealthy who indulged in excess lavishes and caused limitless burning of coal, gas and oil. “The richest people, corporations and countries are destroying the world with their huge carbon emissions, while people living in poverty, those experiencing marginalisation, and countries in the Global South are those impacted the hardest,” says a 2023 report by the global research and advocacy group Oxfam.

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It points out that in 2019, 7.7 crore millionaires in the world caused CO2 emissions equal to what was caused by 500 crore poorest of the people. “The world faces twin crises of climate breakdown and runaway inequality,” says the report, adding that these twin crises are “interlaced, fused together and driving one another.”

But indirectly, every consumer had a role—everyone trapped in the race to buy things they could do without. Every production emits carbon. The higher one’s stature as a consumer, the greater their contributions and responsibilities. Unfortunately, those with the least responsibilities are left with the least wherewithal to deal with the changes.

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India, a developing nation, has a relatively low historical contribution to the warming process. Even as India has emerged as one of the world’s biggest economies, an average Indian emits one-seventh of carbon that an average American emits and nearly one-fourth of an average European.

However, India’s challenges are Herculean. How do we protect mountain habitats from increasing flash floods? How do we protect coastal people from the advancing sea and intense cyclones? How do we save cities like Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai from the acute water crises in peak summer? A change in rain pattern and groundwater availability impacts the drought-flood cycle and, effectively, farming. Crop losses will make food dearer. Warmer water will impact aquatic food like plants and fishes.

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How would people work outdoors in the peak summer months in the noon and afternoon hours? For slum-dwellers living in tin or asbestos-roofed tiny rooms in a concrete jungle, staying indoors will be hardly better than being outdoors. Think of women cooking amidst that uncomfortable heat. And queuing up for water. Besides, many government infrastructures—from primary schools to primary health centres—lack the necessary cooling facilities.

The biggest question is: where would the money for all these preventive and precautionary measures come from?

Class Politics?

In his book Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet, geographer Mathew Huber argues that climate crisis is a class problem rooted in who owns, controls and profits from material production. “The carbon-intensive capitalist class must be confronted for producing climate change,” he says.

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Since climate change is a global problem that requires a global, consensus-based solution, belling the cat—getting the money— becomes the arena of diplomacy. The basic demand of climate justice programme or activism is that polluters should pay. But the polluters are also the more powerful ones—whether the rich of a country or the developed nations. What can the marginalised victims do to make them pay?

The biggest question is: where would the money for all these preventive and precautionary measures come from?

Following consistent pressure from poor and developing nations and civil society organisations, developed nations agreed during different United Nations climate management events to finance the energy transition, adaptation and resillence-building efforts. But most of those turned out to be empty promises.

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“Bonn has flopped. The UN climate talks are failing,” the Climate Action Network International (CANI) said in a statement after the latest round of discussions (SB60) in Bonn, Germany, in June. “The June intersessionals (discussions) were filled with more air than a hot air balloon.”

Climate activist Harjeet Singh, Global Engagement Director for the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, echoes the sentiments. “We are on the brink of a catastrophic failure of climate talks, harming those least responsible for the crisis,” he says.

Singh suggests it is time for wealthy nations to confront their obligations head-on, integrate substantial climate finance commitments into their national budgets, and impose punitive taxes on fossil fuel corporations and the super-rich.

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The United Nations has acknowledged that fighting climate change requires lifestyle changes. We need to consume less to reduce production. The UN has a series of suggestions—conserve energy at home, hang things to dry instead of using a dryer; live car-free and use bikes, public transport and carpools instead; reduce travel; buy fewer things; shop used items and repair whatever you can, from clothes to appliances and accessories.

However, reducing consumption is akin to turning the wheel of economic growth-based development and challenging the worldview in which owning more things tops individual pursuits. Production-centric growth is heavily dependent on consumption—not just need-based consumption but the needless ones. Industries use advertisements to stoke the desire to buy more. If people, indeed, get inspired to buy less, it would impact the economy. Many civil society organisations have demanded high taxes on carbon-emitting luxuries to discourage such lifestyles. But governments rarely show such political will.

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In 2023, India recorded a 26 per cent growth in the sale of SUVs. Average SUVs consume about 20 per cent more fuel than the average medium-sized cars. What’s worse, the wealthy are going one step ahead and opting for private jets. The demand for private jets in India is set to increase exponentially, according to Club One Air CEO Rajan Mehra and Hunch Mobility’s commercial director Payal Satish. Mehra has been all praise of the government for easing to path to growth in business aviation.

“Private jets have a disproportionate impact on the environment. In just one hour, a single private jet can emit two tonnes of CO2,” says a 2021 report by the European Federation for Transport & Environment. An average Indian emits two tonnes of CO2 annually.

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In Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang valley, people from the Idu Mishmi tribe promise their forest deity to take from the forests only what they need. There are similar practices in West Bengal’s Sundarban region. These need-based social systems—as opposed to greed-based—have helped the survival of forest ecosystems for centuries despite forest-dwelling people being primarily dependent on them for most of their resources.

Is it not time when we take a break from the rat race and ponder whether we do not need a worldview of minimalism, a counter-consumerist culture?

(This appeared in the print as 'Burning Earth')

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