Why I’m Terrified of 2016

New Years is a usually time for optimism. Heading into 2016 though, I’m far more wary than I usually am.

A Tale of Four Cities

I call four cities/regions of the world home. Here’s a look at what each one of them endured last year:

  1. Chennai: Hit by the worst floods seen in decades, the city came to a standstill for several days. Some of my nearest and dearest were in mortal danger, communication lines were cut off for days, homes became swimming pools, and my own family began rationing food and water since supply lines were cut off. 300+ people lost their lives and many more lost their life savings.
  2. San Francisco / California: Faced with prolonged drought, California is in a state of emergency. Regular wildfires, rising food prices (projected to rise 6% in 2016), popular foods under threat (almonds!), groundwater drilling frenzies, hundreds of millions of dollars of losses, and more. Farmers have been the most affected to date and it might not be long before urban dwellers are hit where it hurts.
  3. Singapore: Blanketed by haze for more than 3 months, the country faced one of its worst air pollution crises to date. Good friends of mine awoke daily to acrid smells, poor visibility and pollution masks; imagine the impact on the population’s mental health, never mind the economic and respiratory health effects. The haze was particularly bad this year because of dry conditions caused by a climate-change powered El Nino, and doesn’t show any signs of abating in the years to come. Smoggy summers are now a regular feature of the Singaporean calendar.
  4. Dubai / the Arab world: Dubai hasn’t been directly affected as the other cities on this list have, but it does have its own looming economic threats thanks to low oil prices and instability in neighbouring Arab regions (Syria & ISIS — need I say more).
Chennai Floods (Left — credit AFP) & Singapore Haze (Right — credit Vivian Balakrishnan Facebook)
Loved ones under mortal threat. Rationing food and water in case of disaster. Life savings destroyed overnight. Skies clouded by suffocating smog. This was 2015, not some futuristic disaster scenario.

Textbook Climate Change

On the surface, the individual causes look disparate — government inefficiency in Chennai, lack of rainfall in California, Indonesian slash-and-burn in Singapore and oil prices + conflict in the Arab world. Look closely though, and you’ll see one clear thread connecting all of these events — climate change. Classic textbook climate change in fact:

  • Direct Impact — Check!: Extreme weather events (droughts and floods) characterized by dry spells (as in California and Singapore) and short but intense periods of rainfall (Chennai had water shortage issues before the floods).
  • Consequence — Check!: Altered surface temperatures and rainfall that affect agriculture and food prices leading to rising costs of living, causing majorities to lash out against minorities (anti-immigrant sentiments in the USA/Gulf/Singapore and anti-Muslim sentiments in the USA), leading countries to economic strife (need I provide examples?) and military conflict (war in Syria and the West’s retaliation against ISIS).
  • Suffering — Check!: The poorest people in the poorest countries affected the most (4–5 million Syrian refugees) as affluent people and richer countries use economic muscle to protect themselves (during Katrina, Sandy and Chennai, the rich had protected homes or had the option of driving or flying away at will while the poor suffered).

Misplaced and Apathetic Responses

What scares me the most is that the reaction of the people and systems that ought to lead the fight against climate change is almost universally off the mark or apathetic:

1. Western Media

The Western media’s lack of focus on climate change in comparison with its obsession with ISIS and terrorism beguiles me. In the last 5 years, < 200 Americans have died due to acts of terrorism across the globe. Climate change, on the other hand, is estimated to be the cause of as many as 400,000+ deaths each year across the world.

“Terrorism can’t and won’t destroy our civilization, but global warming could and might.” — Paul Krugman

It doesn’t help that the discussion is framed as a fight of good vs. pure evil without much discussion of the underlying intricacies (something that even progressive internet poster boys such as John Oliver are guilty of). When you’re told that there’s a big bad monster out to get you, it’s far more convenient to prowl the streets in pursuit of the monster than head home, take a closer look in the mirror, and exorcise the monster in you that’s more likely to get you.

2. Western Governments

The media’s affinity for sensationalist issues is somewhat understandable — climate change is depressing and doesn’t sell copies. But the fact that politicians aren’t willing to drive the debate back to what matters is astonishing. I’ve been surprised by how little climate change, renewable energy and even the Paris talks / COP21 featured in the US Democratic debates (the less said about climate change rhetoric and denial in the Republic debates, the better). Polling and short-term public sentiment, in turn driven by media bluster, seem to drive discourse a bit too forcefully — my only solace is that priorities will reset when it comes down to actually governing.

3. Asian/Indian Government

Emerging Asian countries like India have been unable to postpone the effects of climate change the way the West has done. For example, since India hasn’t outsourced its manufacturing, it bears the immediate impact of its own carbon emissions. Similarly, since India’s irrigation and agricultural systems lack sophistication, it feels the pinch of droughts more viscerally.

As a result, the consequences of mismanaging the climate are certainly front and centre in public psyche, be it directly (air pollution in Delhi) or indirectly (farmer suicide in Maharashtra and water shortages in most cities). The problem, however, lies in the scale of the challenge combined with the reality that historically, Indian government machinery has been incapable of dealing with the complexities of the issues that it faces. Although the machinery has started to crank up pace of late, I fear that ineptitude combined with the scale of the problem, exploited by greed, might veer the country really off course.

4. Global Middle Class

Perhaps the biggest culprit is us, the global middle class. As long as all is well in our own lives, we by and large stay apathetic. When things go wrong, we blame governments, opposition parties, foreign countries, terrorist groups, bankers, colonialism and more. Analysing our own behaviour and taking remedial action is, however, rarely an option since we’d rather continue down our own paths of maximizing economic utility and not be inconvenienced.

This accusation extends to both personal choices (driving less frequently, flying less frequently, tweaking our dietary habits, carrying our own bags to the supermarket, avoiding disposable coffee cups) and civic duties (researching the issues that matter, questioning our own biases, being more involved in political life, supporting causes that appeal to us, using our creativity to tackle problems we find compelling). These are certainly not easy to execute — personally, I struggle with fact that my efforts to lead a low carbon life come undone when I make my bi-annual trips from San Francisco to Bangalore. However, such measures can go a long way towards alleviating crises that we ourselves have fuelled.

2016 and Beyond

The more I read about climate change, the more I realize that our world is very unprepared for what lies ahead. Our political and economic systems are programmed to deliver short-term (usually 5-year) benefits, not towards rectifying civilization defining problems that require a long-term view. This is not to say that there aren’t concerted efforts to combat the problems we face — I take solace in the promise of COP21 and in the work done by thousands of activists, scientists and volunteers who make these problems their full-time consideration. Yet, considering the events of 2015 and our reaction to these events, unless we can first collectively acknowledge the problem and then turn things around, I remain terrified of what awaits us in 2016 and beyond.