Climate change and being chased by a tiger
Imagine an accident; say a person slips into a crevice during an expedition to the cold and dangerous mountains. When he/she cannot be rescued within a few hours, we pray that they “somehow return”. When we don’t hear from them for an entire day, we pray that they “return in one piece”. When after a week of waiting and praying, they do return, with an arm and leg missing, we clap, cheer and stand around them. Because? Because “human spirit”.
On 8th of October, 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C” (SR15). The report can be found here and is a must-read considering that hundreds of scientists contributed to the same and thousands of voices of scientists, experts and the considerate, who for no less than half a century have been crying hoarse about how human-induced climate change is for real.
“Better late than never” is not a proverb that suits this publication. The IPCC SR15 is that mountaineer who has returned with missing limbs and we seem to stand and and cheer while trying not to give away our “sympathetic and worried look”. It is like the Mumbai that “bounces back” after torrential rains each season. It is like the Kerala that “fought spritedly”. All very good material to keep the “human spirit narrative” going so that we do not need to actually change anything.
This is not to say that the SR15 has no assertions or actionable items; definitely not. It has plenty of assertions, confirmations and and action items. The problem I see is that, like many blunt weapons of the past that have been hailed to “decidedly change the course” of a generation, this one also will remain pure rhetoric; not that the people who worked on it intended to; not that the thousands of others who pushed for it from years intended to.
Economic status quo
A document that proposes solutions such as nuclear energy as the “alternative” and worries about “how the growing populations can be fed” fails to talk about what sort of changes we need to make to our economic systems. How can we rethink the way in which we extract, consume, share, use and return energy from and to nature? Money is the tool we invented for keeping our energy transactions with nature opaque and dispassionate and Capitalism is the garden we ploughed with that tool. But how do we rethink these concepts?
Capitalism, globalization and the free-market, which caters to the selfish individual and sustains competition would not have been possible without the dawn of the industrial era; without the robbery of world’s resources and its conversion into products that feed consumerism and eventually produce waste. Anyone who knows a thing or two about climate change will agree that this “problem of climate change” shares its birthday with the advent of such economic systems.
We cannot accept the SR15 as a realistic actionable document unless it proposes changes to how the world runs today. If the top businesses and the richest individuals continue to hold the same power in world politics, how are we to believe that the supposed policy makers and politicians won’t have their arms twisted? When we ask for a “borderless world” the rat-from-the-rat-race looks at us with the “what are you talking about” look; the bureaucrat/apologist gives us explanations on administration or governance; the nationalist/fundamentalist chides us for not being patriotic or sectarian enough. At the same time, for the rich and powerful businessman — the ones who keep the economic system and hence the climate change alive — the world was/is “always borderless”; if only for the sake of exploitation.
By talking about climate change in isolation and in terms of numbers such as 1.5 or 2 degrees we are:
(a) reducing it to something plain and simple but unrelatable
(b) ignoring the other “number game” called economics
Hence, actionable items need leadership, thinking and understanding of the economic systems in place. Which countries should volunteer to stop working with the US? Which of the countries should come together and protect/help the others who are trying to protect themselves from the US? What kind of economic and governance systems are success stories that usually do not merit attention from mainstream? How can we hold the US accountable? It is a bit tragic that US keeps coming back into this debate while it comfortably takes no responsibility for the mess. Yet we can bet on our lives that many countries are soon going to adopt “alternative measures” wherein big businesses from the US will descend on the poorest of poor “selling” them them “energy strategies” they don’t need and “solutions” that are only money spinners for the US alone.
Secondly, where are the actionable items that will help us get GDP off its undeserved throne? GDP as the commonly understood and accepted way in which economic progress and thereby progress and development itself are determined, is reductionist if not entirely incorrect. While the aware, sane and “uneducated” (unschooled and de-schooled) think beyond the GDP, the society lives and continues to be haunted by its intended misery and intrinsic charm; which usually means people are constantly made to feel poor, incompetent and sad because they did not meet the bars set by someone else for them. Thereby, the definition of poverty, along with GDP needs a re-imagination too. Are we poor because we lost our forests or are we poor because we don’t have products made out of the minerals mined from there?
An economic status quo is exactly what we should maintain if we do not intend to act on climate change. Climate change has set the stage for us to be chased by the proverbial tiger. And we need to be warned that the capitalist-opportunists simply want to put a distance between them and this tiger filling the space with anyone who does not heed that warning. You already know how that story ends.
Don’t expect the policy makers to fix it for us
The IPCC SR15 does not talk to the person at the very end of this chain. It does not do so because that would be radical. And as we can imagine about him, a radical like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi did speak to that “end user” quite a lot, especially so in his most important (yet oft less-read) “Hind Swaraj”. He repeated that in many of his later-writings too, but all of that fell on deaf ears as soon as everyone realized that to “change the world” we only needed to pass the baton from one “exploitative capitalist” to another.
Gandhi in “Hind Swaraj” does not mince words when he talks about the problems caused by industrialization. Fancy words like global warming and climate change were alien to him but the effect of those on the poorest of the poor was something he could empathize with. So his appeal to all of us who were both the cause and sufferer of the problem was to shed our ego and along with that to shed our material yearnings. The clarion call for degrowth (again, not his vocabulary) came from him while we were busy putting him on a pedestal and our currency notes. Gandhi, along with J.C.Kumarappa — a pioneer of “economics of the right kind” — have been discredited, ignored and forgotten. But unlike the self-centered experts who need their name etched on everything, we can rest assured that the Gandhis and Kumarappas of the past would not care if we did the right thing whenever we had to; regardless of their epitaphs.
At the same time we cannot have actions thrust upon us abruptly and unfairly. Nor can we take up managerial roles and thrust actions on a populace; sometimes entire populations that have never knowingly or unknowingly contributed to the problem. I don’t intend to say that we opt for some form of resource-exploitation-equity (“they did, so we will screw up too”), but we can have equitable distribution of labour and time when it comes to solving the problem. That can happen only if the products of capitalism, industrialization and globalization, which is all of us first boycott that space and start looking at opportunities to “ease the pressure” on the others who are currently under the tremendous pressure to “just live”. This might mean different kinds of actions depending on who we are already and what our skill-sets are.
Let us not sit back and wait for policies to fall in place and governments to get elected (or toppled) before action can take place. What the SR15 does not talk about in the latest version — at least not explicitly — is that we are way beyond repair. The latest report is only talking about deadlines, after which it is pointless to even “try” taking actions.
Not saying the P-word is not an option
A report that asserts and admits that climate change was/is caused by humans and also predicts the dent that the humans are going to make on the environment, should help us discuss population. A “fair amount” of human beings on this planet would not have caused problems of this scale. The usual tactic to avoid a conversation on population among the intellectuals is to play dodgeball with the “global-north-west and global-south-east argument” or the “coloniser and colonised” argument or an “equity argument”. What we need to understand right now is that the essential ingredients that provide mutual exclusion to such groups have fragmented and entered the conscience of a globalised world. Now you find colonisers among the colonised, a south in the global-north and ostracised among the marginalised.
In this geography-irrelevant logical space the greedy and the comparatively better-off ones are still procreating; and they are essentially stealing resources from their neighbor. But that topic is a big taboo for intellectuals because many of them contributed to the problem itself by having children. Although it is important to note that the population-problem is not just a birth-rate problem, we will be kidding ourselves if we denied that we have the power to solve that aspect of it. Conversations in that area lack urgency and intent among intellectuals is what I have found and I have been disappointed more than ever by the lot whose objectivity and courage ends when it comes to this one topic.
As for the masses, middle-class and the upper-middle class, they continue to have children since half of a century without ever batting an eyelid since there either there is no knowledge or understanding and even if those are available there is no sense of connect to the problem and ultimately no sense of participation in the solution. We can understand the apathy when we clearly see that the selfishness that leads to having children is connected to capital, private-property and inheritance which are all interlinked. A socialist mind would look upon the children in the neighborhood as their own and nurture them. But why would the IPCC SR15 discuss these matters? Aren’t they too personal? But wait a minute. Isn’t climate change personal?
Population, like climate change is an old problem. And old problems, when they won’t go away, cannot be solved with even older solutions. What we need is to come out of denial that we have been creating (and continue to create) resource-consuming-machines thereby putting the planet under extensive pressure. Anyone who is not at the very bottom should decide to walk their talk and stop with the madness of procreation instead of putting the blame on the ones with lesser privileges. It is only after that that we can even attempt to outreach.
Another distraction that is commonly used, is to compartmentalize this problem into administrative boundaries (“country-x has lesser youth so needs to procreate more” vs “country-y needs to stop”). These arguments contradict the fact that climate change is a global, borderless phenomenon. Also, the above viewpoint does not consider migration. People born in country-x are not guaranteed to stay put. They will travel the world, exploiting its resources from elsewhere and god forbid some of them may turn into greedy business minds who will keep the problem alive. And hence the distraction that poses as a valid argument can easily be proven to be counter-intuitive for climate change solutions.
We have too many of us on this planet and that is the simple truth. Instead of presupposing that our numbers will increase — while we do nothing about it — and then projecting other numbers such as “forest cover area required” or “energy required” or “resources required”, what we need to focus on is to reduce the rapid growth that our species is having and hence the accelerated pressure felt by the planet. This is impossible to do if it does not start with the self.
There are no right and wrong answers when it comes to our actions towards our society and our compatriots. But there is definitely something fundamentally wrong about our self which also happens to be the kernel of this entire problem space. That is also the reason why more often than not the best of the best scientists can only give you hints about the future this planet holds. No one is going to be willing to stick their neck out in this matter. We are a society that is capable, smart and intelligent enough to still understand that there is truth in the matter called climate change. We also need to see the truth about a very bleak future and take it upon ourselves and take necessary steps so we can face that future with honesty.
All of the dimensions and perspectives mentioned earlier (and more) needs to be part of a personal actionable list if the IPCC SR15’s existence needs vindication and realisation. Our collective success in acting towards climate change will come at a personal cost. But it is not the kind of cost that is extracted from us like today. It is a cost, a personal sacrifice that we have to joyously make for long term benefits. Only then will we be safe, together or safely together when the wave hits us strong and hard.