Nero fiddling while Rome burned is a well-worn metaphor. Nothing represents better the Indian political elite’s utter disinterest in the impending doom faced by human civilisation before the juggernaut of climate change. In March, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a ringing warning that unless governments acted fast the world could see the most serious crisis to food stocks and to human security in recorded history. The Indian-born chairperson of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, while releasing the blockbuster report, which was compiled over three years, involving more than 300 scientists, said: “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impact of climate change.”
Yet, somehow, the manifestos of India’s political parties for the 2014 elections showed spectacular disdain for the single issue that could burn down our todays and tomorrows, and transform our collective foreseeable future into an Armageddon — climate change. We politicians love to pack a lot of lust into our cries of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. But we fail to understand that there may not be a ‘Bharat Mata’ within as close as 50 years from now because the continuance of a viable ‘Dharti Mata’ — the cradle of human civilisation — is in extreme doubt.
The ‘tipping point’ scenarios painted by Pachauri, former Irish president Mary Robinson, Nasa chief James Hansen and a host of other scientists warn world leaders to leave everything aside and initiate within a window of two to three years, programmes that could, if pursued with utmost sincerity and unbreakable political will, yet change our destiny.
Let me put it in real ‘roti’ terms. Pachauri has made it unequivocally lucid that climate change has already cut into the global food supply system. However much we politicians promise to bring down prices, the stark fact that global crop yields are declining — and fast — is inescapable. Wheat, the staple of more than 40% of Indians, is already vanishing. Climate change is acting as a brake, slowing down yields dramatically. Add to that the warning sounded by plant scientists at the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization that wheat is facing a serious threat from a fungal disease that could wipe the entire crop off the world unless quickly contained. They warn of ‘wheat rust’, often dubbed the ‘polio of agriculture’ ,which is showing symptoms of having spread from Africa to South and Central Asia and on to Europe. This represents the biggest ever threat to global food security. Interested in more? It’s not only wheat, but even maize production is falling at a fast rate. The IPCC also foresees 40-60% fall in the fish yields of tropical countries — like India.
In 2007, I joined a small body of political and quasi-political figures, some big, some not-so-big and drawn from various political parties, to form an informal platform called ‘Green Forum’. We were genuinely moved by the unrealistic basis of our political system that this comprehensive divorce from Earth issues rendered us. Not even one of our registered parties — whether they called themselves ‘national’ or ‘regional’ — had a cell comprising political leaders educated on environmental issues. This situation continues in spite of the growing problems of inter-state water rivalry, the critical dependence on non-renewable sources of energy, the inexplicable aridity of once-bountiful agricultural tracts and the rising tide of environmental refugees to our cities. These are political issues caused by our indifference to the planet and since we are a democracy our responses to them must be devised keeping in mind the political fallout. But in India ‘popular wisdom’ dictates that the environment is an esoteric abstraction hostile to set notions of ‘development’ while ‘hard politics’ was about keeping a keen eye on ‘winnables’. With the clock to disaster already ticking, the political establishment of India should formulate actionable policies aimed at ending their apathy to the environment.
Green Forum did not last long because of lack of patronage from ‘above’, its inability to attract greater participation doomed it. But what can be done to end the utter disconnect between the demand for urgent action and utter inaction? According to the IPCC, the world has only about 15 years left in which to begin to bend downwards the emissions curve. In the words of the IPCC’s co-chair, the German economist Ottmar Edenhofer, losing any more time would be unaffordable. “If we lose another decade it will become extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization.”
What should governments do about this? The IPCC leaves that to the better judgement of governments and offers a window up to the scheduled Paris summit of December 2015 when world leaders are to meet to ink a brand new climate treaty. As usual, the Indian side would scramble to make clichéd bluster rooted in our officialdom’s crazy confusing of regulating emissions with ‘nasbandi’ on development. It is as if putting a brake on the runaway use of private cars amounts to curbing ‘growth’ — and therefore a most treasonable idea. Under successive Congress regimes, the ‘consensus’ on the climate discourse was arbitrated by the industrial lobby. We went to international forums and demanded to know why India should not get a chance to do the same wrongs as did the big bad West. This seemed to dwarf all other logic. And since this resonated well with the concerns of similar lobbies in other developing countries, the Indian government wore the tin hat of ‘leadership of the developing world’ quite ridiculously.
I think that the need of the hour is to transform Parliament itself into a giant Green Forum. We must view climate change as a war situation for the nation and come together sinking our mutual exclusivities on caste, identity and region to articulate a common vision that could save both ‘Dharti Mata’ and ‘Bharat Mata’. And yes, more jobs can be generated in the process and economic growth of far greater width achieved by saving the planet, than by killing it.
(Harsh Vardhan is a former minister in the Government of Delhi and president, BJP Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal)