Nearly every news story about climate change paints a picture of incredible devastation: thousands of lives lost, entire communities displaced, massive economic instability, worsening conditions for vulnerable populations, lack of relief funds, slumps in agricultural yield, suffering with no end in sight, etc.
It’s the sensationalisation of tragedy that sells—it always has—but with climate change, it truly is real, and very near. It makes sense that the only way to shake people out of inaction is to scare them with facts of cataclysmic, impending doom.
We don’t need to exaggerate the dangers of climate change to make people care. Its impacts are already being felt all over the country: the recent floods in Kerala, Nagaland, and Uttar Pradesh, the persistent layer of toxic smog in Delhi, the rising number of heat waves in the south, and melting glaciers in the north; these are only a few cases in recent years.
Ignorant masses aside, we know that the planet is in danger, that we have to do something about it; and we also know that simply turning off the lights in our homes isn’t going to do it.
Climate change is man-made, but it’s not just the few pieces of chicken you wasted at dinner that wreaked havoc on the world.
Will the real culprit please stand up?
The pressing worry of the hour is capitalism-created climate change, because the real culprits are none other than ruthless corporates.
The majority of carbon emissions comes from oil and gas companies, and India is the fourth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
India is also one of the largest consumers of electricity in the world; however, given that most of India’s power is privatised, millions still don’t have even basic electrical supply; this means most of the electric consumption happens in the industrial sector.
The government has paid heed to all this, of course, pledging in the Paris climate agreement to source at least 40% of its electricity from renewable, non-fossil fuel sources by 2030, as well as plant trees to sequester over 2.5 billion tons of released carbon dioxide and reduce industrial carbon by 35%.
While these figures seem too ambitious, India is already one of the largest producers of renewable energy, according to government data, generating as much as 13% of the world’s total hydroelectric, solar, and wind power.
A massive number of wind turbines and solar plants are manufactured here and exported worldwide—a programme that continues to expand rapidly, having already doubled its output since 2016.
From zero-emission transportation projects, like the Hyperloop, to initiatives, like UJALA, which aims to give every household energy-efficient LED bulbs, on paper, it seems that India has cracked the code to solving climate change.
But what all these initiatives offer are token remedies; the root problem, particularly in developing nations like India, is the inability or unwillingness to address the deep economic and social inequalities capitalism fuels and climate change exacerbates.
Who are the most severely affected?
Country’s most vulnerable feel the most tangible effects of global warming—farmers depend on stable weather for their crops, but their lands have become prone to floods and droughts, while rural women have to walk further and further in search of clean water.
A World Bank report estimated that changes in temperature and rainfall over the next few decades will affect over 600 million Indians, largely from the underprivileged strata of society.
Renewable energy, too, is less efficient and more expensive; so, access to it will remain with the affluent. Employment in these sectors will likely favour those with educational and social capital; farmers and agrarian labourers will need to find alternative farming techniques to survive.
“Little thought is given to what the transition to renewable energy should look like; we have to radically change the way we produce energy while ensuring justice for the millions of mining and industry workers whose livelihoods depend on the fossil fuel industry,” says Aneesa Khan, executive coordinator at SustainUS and a climate and social justice activist based in Chennai.
“The fossil fuel industry across the world has an immense amount of money and power, which invariably feeds governments. In India, it has huge decision-making power over our politics and policies that civil society simply does not. Fossil fuels will always be cheaper and more profitable for corporations and governments alike; that’s why we organise at every level of society to force positive action.”
She and her team have been to the last three climate conferences; at last year’s COP24 in Katowice, they held sit-ins, protests, and panel discussions to make sure India was on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals it committed to.
Who’s leading the change?
In fact, the rising tide (no pun intended) of passionate and effective youth movements, activists, and organisers are changing Indian consciousness on an unprecedented scale.
While rigid capitalist beliefs have become ingrained in the older generations, millennials have embraced the fight for radical equality and are campaigning for increasingly leftist, rights-based approaches to governance that push back on capitalism as a whole.
Young politicians like Kanhaiya Kumar and Shehla Rashid are bringing the conversation on environmental sustainability and aggressive climate change mitigation strategies onto the table for the first time, and the youth is echoing these sentiments with great fervour.
“Where our parents blame politicians and bureaucrats for ruining the environment or not building adequate infrastructure, we will be the generation that makes them do it. And if they don’t, we will build solar panels and design green cities ourselves,” says Sweta, a high school student who participated in the international #FridaysForFuture walkout on March 15.
“I came to realise that much of the conflict, poverty, and inequality in India stemmed from the issue of scarce resources and our indiscriminate misuse of it; hence, I have decided to commit a good part of my life to help fight it,” says Padmini Gopal, a climate policy researcher working at an environmental think tank in Delhi.
Her work focuses on identifying policy measures to help Indian farmers become more climate-resilient. She also organises several talks and events to increase awareness among the public.
How are organisations contributing?
A number of innovative projects and grassroots initiatives supplement the energy from these movements. From organisations like The Climate Action Network South Asia, which is one of the biggest networks of civil society groups implementing long-term solutions like the de-risking of solar power and the protection of climate migrants, to other technology-based startups, like the Vasudha Foundation, which is building an online analytical tool to map India’s energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, millions of engaged citizens are picking up the slack and holding the government to a higher standard.
Is it helping?
But as is often the case, the question is: will it be enough? The fossil fuel divestment movement, which started in US colleges, had a global impact worth over 6 trillion dollars—meaning mobilisation of youth can produce tangible results.
There’s merit to being optimistic; what India does now will affect the entire planet. Green technology created here can expedite sustainable development across the Global South, and the benefits of a clean India will be felt in every country.
It’s the millennial generation that will be most deeply affected by climate change, and we are rightfully the generation driving this conversation and seeing results in local communities and international politics alike.
We’re on the precipice of real change, and every individual on the planet should be inspired to join this fight. There can no longer be room for apathy, complacency or ignorance.
“The biggest challenge is political will and behavioural change,” says Gopal. “Political will won’t change unless everyone changes how they view climate change, and capitalism, and actually transform that into meaningful action.” India is at a climate change crossroads. The path we take now will determine the future for generations to come.
Paroma Soni is a visual journalist, writer and activist with a passion for human rights, media and gender politics.