India and Climate Change: A Summary of Four, Perhaps Six Blog Posts, Ending with a Profound Question

One day I will finish consolidating my notes and bring you details of my climate change explorations in India. Apart from visiting family, in the cramped two weeks I had there, I spoke to (and in two cases attended seminars by) a number of people. Below are the highlights, followed by a story about a people who decided to ask a profound question at the heart of the climate change issue.

Pablo Solon – ex-lead climate negotiator from Bolivia, spoke to a small group of interested people at the India International Centre in New Delhi about alternatives for the Global South. It was one of the most eloquent, honest and getting-to-the-heart-of-the-matter talks I have heard about climate. Central to his point was the absurd contradiction in the idea of unlimited economic growth. How can there be such a thing in a finite system with finite resources? The economic paradigm, he argued, had to be challenged at the root and center, otherwise what we might be led to do would be superficial and pointless. He pointed out how the same way of thinking that leads to ecological devastation also brings about economic and social injustice. I’d heard about Bolivia’s constitution granting rights to mother nature, and we had a short discussion about that after the talk. Pablo Solon came across as impassioned, articulate, and gave me a number of things to think about.

Nitin Desai – former Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs at the United Nations , economic advisor to the Brundtland Commission, who introduced the idea of sustainable development – a wonderful conversation on the meaning of sustainability, and the fact that although most governments agree on the key idea – that sustainable development is one that does not endanger future generations – there is no agreement on how to get there. What about unlimited growth? “Material-based, energy intensive consumerism is not on,” but one could have growth in other ways, perhaps in services, experiences, and so on. We talked about India’s position at the climate talks, and why that position was a matter of justice (demanding that the West take responsibility for creating the problem of climate change, and since we can only burn so much more tons of fossil fuels worldwide, developing countries should be permitted to take that space, so as to lift people out of poverty). We debated the whys and wherefores of alternative positions such as taking the high moral ground. We learned (my sister was with me) about what it was like to be at climate negotiations at the UN.

One Who Shall Remain Unnamed – a talk from a World Bank environmental economist during which the gentleman, a native of this land on loan to America, droned on about how India could accomplish Green Growth. The talk was an astounding exercise in skirting the contradictions at the heart of this position, delivered in a way guaranteed to cure insomnia. I wanted to get up and shout: “Look! Look! The Emperor has no clothes!” but decided it would only prolong the agony, so instead I muttered darkly to myself about Jevon’s paradox, and watched a magnificent kite that was perched on the verandah outside, staring unblinkingly in the direction of the speaker. Somehow nature had been forgotten at that table – that kite needed to be inside the room.

Policy and Science people at The Energy and Resources Institute, a think-tank headed by Rajendra Pachauri who leads the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). The young people I spoke with were articulate and enthusiastic about their work. The scientist was a climate modeler who gave me an interesting picture of how climate change science was done in India, and its historical beginnings in the science of weather. How the driving force had been the need to better understand the Indian monsoon, and how that need was even more immediate now that climatic changes were increasing the unpredictability of the monsoon. I asked about meteorological databases in India, since I’d played around with some created by NOAA while taking my climate change science online course last fall. Apparently it appears that all border and river region data is classified, since India is surrounded by hostile nations – which means most of the Himalayan data is not accessible – so scientists have to deduce the conditions from such things as satellite data.
The policy folks were equally interesting – I got a little more insight into India’s position in climate negotiations, and about the difficulty of the alternate position, that of taking the high moral ground and working toward sustainable development. The presence of vested financial interests to which India was inextricably bound, both intra- and internationally, were a major roadblock. We talked about societies building resilience to change, and how that might be achieved.

A policy person at Centre for Science and Environment, another think-tank active in environmental advocacy, spoke to me at length about climate change policy in India. He also knew a fair amount about the state of climate change research in India, and said that unfortunately there were only about 150 scientists at the most working on the issue. There are far larger numbers working on weather and other short term aspects of climate, which science is in a much more robust situation. I also spoke to a policy person at the Centre for Policy Research, who very kindly gave me copies of reports on state climate adaptation plans. One of the folks at this institute has collected in one volume several papers on various aspects of climate change, a tome my father obtained for me that I still have to go through.

Thanks to having a family with more than its fair share of bureaucrats and academic types, I was able to meet with an uncle who had been economic advisor to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, who gave me a tottering pile of material to work through. More on that anon. I also had a wonderful conversation with the former head of the National Council for Educational Research and Training, a family friend who is a geographer by training. Over home-made samosas of unmatched deliciousness, we chatted about how climate change is approached in the environmental curriculum in the Indian system of education.

Last but not least, I met with two activists. Learning from people who are on the spot, in the field, is quite a different experience than speaking with people who decide policy from distant offices in cities. One of the activists, a friend I hope to interview about his experience, had studied the plight of fishing communities and other village communities in the face of climate change, and was preparing/ distributing materials to inform those most affected about what was happening to them and why. People who live close to the land are the best observers of local changes, but they also need the global context in order to fully understand what is happening. I learned – most usefully – what the people ask about, the questions they have, and the barriers in the way of understanding. The other activist was an old friend, now a major Indian environmentalist. Among the things we discussed was a story he told about a forest community in the eastern state of Odisha that had invoked the Forest Rights act to prevent a coal-mining company from moving in. Their victory was sweet indeed. When asked (somewhat incredulously, I imagine) whether they didn’t want development, with cars and TVs and pukka houses, they answered “No.” But the question got them to think: What do we want? What does well-being mean for us? To dare to redefine well-being for themselves instead of unquestioningly accepting the meaning ascribed to it by modern consumerist cultures – what audacity! And how refreshing! My friend was planning to travel to Odisha to witness this community conversation.

What does well-being mean to you? What makes you happy? A profound question that is at the heart of the issue of climate change.

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