Climate Change Comes Calling

Suddenly, scattered rain has arrived with torrential magic in the east and north of India, the first terrain longing for more, and the latter parched, hopeless and tragic, now soaked with incomplete hope. Across the Hindi heartland the relief moves like a respite, but real optimism is still far away, because the water falling from the sky is too little and too late, especially in Purvanchal, where the earth is not green, there are no natural water resources, and no canal system either, as it is in the green revolution belt of fertile Western UP, Haryana and Punjab.

Indeed, this summer has been cruel after the end of the condemnation, sorrow and isolation of the pandemic; if there was a rainbow in the horizon, it was all in the mind.

The farmers in the deep of the Hindi heartland are thirsty and in despair. The migrant labourers who are also landless labourers during the agricultural season are in eternal sorrow; they too are thirsty and in despair. With tens of thousands jobless, the economy in a relentless slump, and no light at the end of the tunnel, they look up at the sky with empty eyes, knowing so well that this tryst with destiny is becoming more tragic than ever. And there is no respite.

From the rural interiors of Sasaram and Mughalsarai and beyond to Allahabad and Kanpur Dehat, across the Eastern UP terrain of parched earth, the farmers are expecting rain with a hopeless longing which no government seems to notice. In a country where multi-billionaires are being celebrated, who cares for the farmers and landless labourers anyway?

Even green and beautiful rural Bengal, surprisingly, is crying for rain. Unlike last year, trapped in the interiors of the same home day after day, Kal Boishaki arrived with its theatrical thunder, bereft of nuance or subtlety, and filled the air with lightning, thunderbolts, roaring clouds, and  all the drama and spectacle which only this Bengal phenomena can generate.

The sky would suddenly become dark like black ink, and turn into a mystical night of great mystery and romance, the sound and fury of the season would overwhelm and overpower all forms of softer narratives, and if you would whistle in the dark, it would simply vanish into the blue. Then rain would arrive in slanted, unfinished and diagonal sentences, like a symmetrical symphony of  Bach printed in the atmosphere, amidst the clouds and the sunshine, in the paddy fields and on the streets, playing hide and seek. The spectacle itself would heal the pandemic soul, and a damned and meaningless life would suddenly seem more precious once again.

This year, this phenomenon did not happen: the theatrics, the spectacle and the sound and fury. Instead, it was day after day of suffocating heat and humidity, with not a whiff of cool winds to soothe the soul, with huge deficiency of rainfall for the current paddy crop, and torrential rain just refusing to arrive.

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An old woman who sells fish in South 24 Paragana in Bengal went to Canning near Sunderbans to check if there is water in her fields. There was none. Or, not enough for the young crop.

A woman farmer in Sunderbans called up her daughter in Kolkata. “There is water everywhere in the rivers of Sunderbans, but it is full of salt. And the paddy fields are dying for water.”

A young school teacher in an adivasi village in district Birbhum told this reporter: “This year we can just about manage. If the crop fails again in the next season, we are doomed.”

Across Birbhum, either the land is barren, or the young plants are waiting for rain: the paddy needs more and more water. Across Malda and Murshidabad, even in Burdwan, etc, it is the same story. In this green expanse, hides a story of great expectations, and hidden sorrow.

Contrast this with the ritualistic and incessant floods in Assam and Bangladesh, with villages disappearing from the map, along with the documents of the citizens, and scores of people dead. The sight of flooded landscapes with people struggling to survive has become so routine every monsoon, that the media has almost stopped covering it, routine rhetoric of reaching out to the lakhs of marooned people is not even used anymore, it seems, and if there are aerial surveys, they don’t seem to bring in any tangible relief. The army, as always, gets into action, and effective rescue operations are undertaken. It seems, thereby, all is normal.

In Europe, America and the West, the heat wave is incomprehensible and intolerable, even as the poor in London who live in poor housing, cold in winter and hot in the summer, watch their homes burning, while cars move on the highway as if all is well and happy in Tory Britain. A train moves in Spain surrounded by raging fires on both sides, and passengers huddle inside the compartment, and the Al Jazeera news clip looks look like a tense Hollywood movie. Even while the forests, whatever little is left, are crackling with the jungle fires, moving like a bad dream across the urban landscape.

Writes George Monbiot (The Guardian, July 18, 2022): “Can we talk about it now? I mean the subject most of the media and most of the political class has been avoiding for so long. You know, the only subject that ultimately counts — the survival of life on Earth. Everyone knows, however carefully they avoid the topic, that, beside it, all the topics filling the front pages and obsessing the pundits are dust. Even the Times editors still publishing columns denying climate science know it. Even the candidates for the Tory leadership, ignoring or downplaying the issue, know it. Never has a silence been so loud or so resonant….

“…This is not a passive silence. It is an active silence, a fierce commitment to distraction and irrelevance in the face of an existential crisis. It is a void assiduously filled with trivia and amusement, gossip and spectacle. Talk about anything, but not about this. But while the people who dominate the means of communication frantically avoid the subject, the planet speaks, in a roar becoming impossible to ignore. These days of atmospheric rage, these heat-shocks and wildfires ignore the angry shushing and burst rudely into our silent retreat….”

And Africa, what about Africa, the infinite dark continent? Well, in India, this darkness is never reflected in the media, as is the darkness in our rural and tribal hinterland. For the mainline media, Africa simply does not exist.

The Guardian reports from Senegal: “There’s no water, there’s no grass near our homes so we have travelled now for a month,” says Sow, 18, who is heading for Tambacounda, a town that has long been on the route for Fulani herders. “We don’t have a choice. Our goats and cows need to eat and drink so we follow the road to wherever is greener. We don’t know where we will end up.”

The Indian farmer in many parts of the country, might be saying the same thing.

Hope From COP

Despite general frustration with COP 26, there are some milestones achieved, some targets that are worth looking forward to and some hope that future COPs will moving in the right direction. To have expected an exceptionally ambitious plan to address climate change would have been naïve particularly as it would have meant considerable disruption to normal life.

Perhaps the four developments that are worth considering are the commitment to deforestation, the setting up of a fund for developing countries to mitigate climate change, India’s commitment to source half of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources and China offering to work with USA to deal with climate crises.

India is one of the main countries along with China and USA leading the world pollution table. Both China and India are continuing to rely on coal significantly. Both have also signalled to change from coal and other fossil fuels to non-fossil sources. India has a growing population and its middle class base in expanding with needs such as cars, refrigerators, mobile phones and other high tech equipment. It is also developing economically. India has a significant challenge to balance the needs and appetite of its population for energy hungry technology and reduce carbon and methane emissions on the other hand.

Unlike western countries where energy needs have reached near peak point, India’s needs are on the up. Developed countries have to change their energy needs from carbon dependency to non-carbon fuels. India cannot just ditch all fossil sourced energy and invest in non-Carbon energy sources. The expense would mean giving up on development or delaying it significantly.

Hence Prime Minister Modi’s commitment to ensure that half of India’s energy will be sourced from non-Carbon fuel by 2030 is significant. This will be around 500 gigawatts. The sheer scale of this new energy sources will make it cheaper all around for the world. It is quite possible that as this alternative fuel sources become cheaper, India will reach its target much sooner and commit to a greater percentage of non-carbon energy by 2030. Cheaper non carbon energy will encourage other countries, including developed countries to invest in non-fossil sourced energy. Currently it is still expensive. It needs exponential increase in numbers.

India has further committed to reduce its total carbon emissions by 1 Billion tones. This is a significant target. Although PM Modi also said that India will reach net zero by 2070 which disappointed many. There is hope that once the escalation to renewable energy takes place, the 2070 target will be reviewed.

India however refused to agree to the para to phase out coal. India along with Russia and China are still dependent on coal. The para was weakened to read ‘phase down’. Nevertheless it is moving in the right direction.

Similarly the setting up of a larger fund for developing countries to change to non-fossil fuels and a fund for small Islands is a step towards the start of a serious drive to assist countries highly dependent on fossil fuels to transfer to other energy sources and become self-sufficient. The Fund is likely to grow as more countries chip in and current developed countries reach deeper into their pockets.

Small Islands facing extinction with rising oceans and temperatures however came out with a punitive lifeline. A mere 2 million has been pledged to them. It is likely to increase.

As significant is the commitment to deforestation. Deforestation has been a major cause of carbon emissions and climate change. Countries such as Brazil and Russia have significant forests. There are many smaller countries in South America, Africa and South East Asia who have large forests but also need land for farming as well as living space for their population. In a competitive world they try and balance their budgets with developing whatever resources they can. A commitment to stop deforestation with appropriate compensation will encourage many countries to scale down encroaching on forests.

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The hand of friendship by China to work with USA is another welcome development. Both countries have faced significant consequences of the climate change. China has put the United States in a spot to some extent by this offer. Instead of accusing China of damaging the climate, the USA can cooperate to set achievable targets.

Critics say that the agreements fall far short of efforts needed to keep temperature rise to 1.5° C by end of century. Based on the current agreement, the temperature will probably rise by 2.4 leading the world towards disaster. Critics say that the solutions agreed do not rise to the challenge. This may well be, but the agreements in themselves are a step in the right direction.

The world economy has been dependent on fossil fuel for over a century if not more. The corporations in control of production cannot change overnight without significant damage to economy and jobs. However they feel the heat of public opinion and know that they cannot carry on as usual. COP26 has shown that the tide is beginning to change and both developed countries and Transnationals are beginning to give undertakings to be responsive to reduce Carbon and Methane emissions.

If the pressure continues and the damaging consequences of climate change keep on recurring, within a year or two, the atmosphere will change. More dramatic commitments will be made either in COP27 or by COP28. It also gives enough time for countries and the corporate sector to begin restructure their investments, productions, sourcing etc to be compliant with change to reduce temperature rises. Both developed countries and corporations know that the mood of the public has changed and will not tolerate their intransigence.

A subtext of COP26 was that the Britain under the current Prime Minister is not much trusted around the world. UK itself is investing in a new coal mine. It has cut overseas aid thus depriving poorer countries even further of means to cope with climate change. Britain further failed to join an alliance to phase out oil and gas. To many it seemed the United Kingdom was asking others to commit to targets that it wasn’t interested itself to adopt. Not surprisingly, the largest emitters have postponed their commitment to another day. Its politics.

Nevertheless COP26 gives hope. It has shown that unlike the Paris Agreement where grand gestures and ambitions were made, the mood now is to get down to business. The polluters know they cannot ignore public opinion or media cacophony on climate. They know the science is against them and they have no answers to the growing evidence that has been finding its way into headlines. They know that the Paris Agreement is not something they can ignore. If the Paris Agreement set targets, the Glasgow COP26 has started the journey on the path.