By Parnika Praleya
Green New Deal in the US. Climate Emergency in the UK. Greta Thunberg’s “I want you to panic” in Europe. Environment has transcended the scope of a symbolic day in its name. And yet, as another Environment Day approaches, it makes sense for us to take stock of what has been happening and what we can do.
The UN’s IPCC released its landmark report last year that was prepared after heads of small island nations, threatened by rising sea levels, asked scientists to examine the effects of a rise in temperature of 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. So far, climate negotiations focused on 2°C of warming above preindustrial levels, the accepted threshold for most severe effects of climate change to start kicking in.
The report acknowledges that many of those effects will come sooner at the 1.5°C mark. It warns of a world of worsening food crisis, wildfires and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040. A more severe climate accompanied with the intensification of drought and poverty stares us in the face.
We are more than halfway to the 1.5°C mark (human activities have caused warming of about 1°C since the 1850s as per the report). Scientists highlight that while it is still possible to avert the disaster, it seems politically unlikely. GHG emissions should be reduced to net zero by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5°C, which would require heavy taxes or prices on CO2 emissions, perhaps as high as $27,000 per tonne by 2100.
If temperatures continue to rise, then scientists have warned that at 2°C of warming, a disproportionately rapid evacuation of people from the tropics would be needed, making national borders irrelevant. One scenario is, of course, that we overshoot the 2°C target and then through lowering emissions and carbon capture technology bring temperature back down below 1.5°C threshold, but after causing irreversible damage like the death of all corals. Where does this leave us, as individuals, as a society and as a nation?
As individuals: An individual gets diagnosed with a life-threatening allergy that requires her to stay away from wheat—the choice is hers to make between dying and changing her lifestyle forever. The latter is not easy but it is her only chance. If at the individual level you would choose life over lifestyle, then why not for the planet?
Changing one’s lifestyle is difficult but we will have to do it for the sake of our future generations. Our current consumerist lifestyle embodies intergenerational theft that is depriving future generations’ right to life. We need to stop hailing climate criminals as role models to emulate. Trying our best to reduce our carbon footprint is a good way to begin our fight for the planet.
As a society: The role of society is fundamental. We can change ourselves as individuals, responding to exhortations and suggestions at greening our lives, but is that enough? Capitalism and free markets taught us that individuals respond to incentives, make it in their self-interest to work hard.
Then why are we still relying on people’s goodwill to save the planet? Adam Smith taught us that every individual working in her self-interest, guided by the invisible hand, will lead to an outcome that is efficient. However, one needs to be aware that self-interest is socially constituted—our system has created individuals with a lot of ambition and very little vision—hence the slogan system change, not climate change.
This crisis needs collective action; we have to ask difficult questions and compel policymakers to make policy for the general good of this planet, giving future generations a chance. The UN report cited earlier says that the aggressive action needed to save the planet is politically unrealistic.
It is also culturally unthinkable given the dominant paradigm of the day—competitive self-interest and hyper-individualism embedded in a consumerist society, where decisions good for the planet is bad for business. We need to start thinking of ourselves as interdependent communities living on space ship Earth.
As a nation: Mahatma Gandhi famously said nature has enough for a man’s need but not enough for man’s greed. Embodying that ethos, we need to come together to demand climate action from our government: zero waste economy, carbon neutrality, increasing green cover, economic planning which prioritises the local over the global and infrastructure planning which prioritises public transport. We need to make our government act before it is too late. We need to reverse the trend of India responding to global pressures and not homegrown demands when it comes to the environment.
Defeating climate change and preserving a semblance of life as we know it on this planet will require a lot of work. Let us address climate change with the sincerity and effort it deserves, moving beyond lip service. While the path ahead is difficult it is still not unachievable.
Liberty fraternity and equality was unthinkable till the French revolution happened. Similarly, a life can be lived, and a happy one at that, which does not necessarily leave behind a massive ecological dent. In the case of this planet, we no longer have the leeway to feign ignorance and/or make mistakes.
(The author is Independent analyst and scholar at School of International Studies, JNU)