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Think global, act global

A Delhi school administrator gives us the slogan of our times. It could help India develop, profit and save the Earth, writes Samar Halarnkar.

india Updated: Dec 09, 2009 23:25 IST
Samar Halarnkar

Earlier this week, a clear-thinking young woman said something that got me thinking. “When I was in school, we were told to think global, act local,” said Reena Sachdeva. “Now the time has come to think global and act global.”

Sachdeva is an administrator with West Delhi’s Manav Sthali school. She was a student here once, before going on to a university gold medal, a Phd in English literature, and a job as lecturer at Delhi’s elite Lady Shri Ram College. One day, she turned her back on it all to return to her alma mater. School Principal Mamta Bhatnagar smiled as she narrated Sachdeva’s journey. “I asked her,” said Bhatnagar, “‘are you mad?’”

The world, and India, needs this madness.

We need people who will push the boundaries of reason, tradition and established thought and action. We need them to stand up and speak. We need to listen to them.

This is especially important because long-held positions will do India and the world — which, it appears, is in worse shape than we thought — no good. Wade through the deluge of information and opinion from the great conference of Copenhagen, and it seems apparent that major policy shifts are imminent over the next 10 days, much to the alarm of those who created them.

Despite Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh’s protestations in Parliament — he could not, obviously, admit to an almost overnight change of stance — India this week smoothly moved from an inward-looking, rigid, no-unilateral-action position to a new, flexible approach. This startled its own negotiators, some of whom are still sulking in Copenhagen.

In the US, faced with a rebellious Congress, a struggling economy and a resentful world, President Barack Obama’s administration indicated on Monday that action against domestic emissions from American cars, power plants and factories is imminent, even if the world’s superpower isn’t yet ready to commit anything on paper.

For the Earth these are still too slow. On Tuesday, a day after India’s negotiators glowered and US industry appeared to be in shock, a slew of studies revealed why:

The current decade, the first of the 21st century, is likely to be the hottest since record-keeping began in 1850, the World Meteorological Organisation announced.

As many as a billion people stand to lose their homes over the next 40 years because of climate change, the International Organisation for Migration said.

India is now the seventh most-at-risk country from climate change, up three places since 2008, revealed the annual Global Climate Risk Index, released by an NGO, Germanwatch.

What is at stake? No less than the future of humans to live, work, dream and achieve.

That’s why it is time for some madness.

This madness must upend all we do, the way we live, work and develop. Like the Ford Model T, penicillin, the personal computer, the cellphone, the Green Revolution, micro-credit, this madness must be disruptive; it must make us question our dreams and values. But it must be greater than the previous revolutions because climate change forces us to join all the dots.

The method behind this madness is to think global, act global. This does not negate the “Think global, act local” slogan, first used by the environmental movement in the 1970s, before spreading to global companies trying to spread local roots (thus the term “glocal”) in the roaring 1980s and ‘90s.

Acting globally is an acknowledgement that a warming world is really a very small place, and every sector must be connected in the coming low-carbon economy.

One example comes from the dirt-poor district of my birth, Kolar, in southern Karnataka (I was born in Kolar Gold Fields, now shut but once host to Champion Reef, Earth’s deepest gold mine). The people of 356 villages over the last year had their lives transformed after biogas units replaced their inefficient, cow-dung-fired stoves. Cow dung releases methane, a gas some 20 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The biogas digester lets the methane be burned as cooking gas, and it allows a French energy company to buy carbon credits that let both company and country meet emission targets. This is sound business, environmentalism, globalisation, rural development all rolled into one.

Even if you argue that the Clean Development Mechanism, under which the United Nations issues carbon credits, will fall apart if it is not ratified in Copenhagen or beyond, there is no question that new mechanisms will create global linkages among countries, communities and companies.

What will it cost to recreate the global economy in line with the proposals that may flow from Copenhagen? More than $10 trillion (Rs 467 lakh crore) over 20 years starting 2010, says a new estimate from the International Energy Agency. That is not as daunting as it appears, the agency argues, because (a) private investment will largely pay for it and (b) the costs will be compensated by new technology, jobs, better energy and a safer planet.

The truly enlightened in India Inc see this as an opportunity that could, like the software revolution, jump India to a new low-carbon era of cleaner energy, cutting-edge technology, involved communities, responsible business and enlightened government.

This will not be easy, especially the last part.

Only yesterday, Delhi schoolchildren out to quiz MPs on global-warming challenges asked Rashtriya Janata Dal MP Subhash Yadav what he expected from Copenhagen. It would, he said in all seriousness, be a “good tourist opportunity”.