Trade-Offs: How to eat, dress, live and work in a changing climate landscape

ByMridula Ramesh
Sep 02, 2023 05:25 PM IST

A new monthly column by Mridula Ramesh aims to contextualise daily decisions – all the way from the personal (how to move around) to the political (how to vote)

Life is choice. Getting out of bed, to deciding when to go to sleep and everything in between is about navigating a series of choices. We make these choices when our needs / desires / values grapple with our circumstances. The problem is that our collective and cumulative (lifestyle, social and economic) choices have changed the very climate itself.

A representation of choices, their impact and alternative futures, generated by Midjourney. PREMIUM
A representation of choices, their impact and alternative futures, generated by Midjourney.

Until recently, most of us considered the climate as a given. We expected winter to be cold, the rains to come when they always did, drought to be occasional, and flooding, rare. It doesn’t work that way anymore. Part of this change in climate is irreversible, meaning we will not return to normal climate even if we cut global greenhouse gas emissions to zero. That is because greenhouse gases stay up in the air for a long time after they have been emitted, where they continue to warm our planet.

Take carbon dioxide – a large fraction of CO2 emissions is removed from the air when plants photosynthesise, and by the oceans and soil. This happens relatively quickly, in a matter of months or years. But most of the carbon humanity has added to the air must be absorbed by the weathering of rocks and the churning of the ocean – processes that can take thousands of years. So, what goes in quickly takes a long time to take out, much like a slice of decadent chocolate cake – easy to eat but adds inches to the midriff that take some burning.

Our recent efforts to reduce our emissions quickly have changed the operating environment of the world. Carbon has become pri(z)ced and climate virtue-signalling has become common. Meanwhile, in a changed climate, flooding and drought have become commonplace, and August feels like May.

Which brings me to this column and what it aims to do. My goal is to contextualise everyday decisions – what to eat, how to move, where to travel, how to manage our (mental) health, what to consider while framing a trade agreement, which supplier to buy packaging from, which sectors to invest in over the next couple of years, even whom to vote for – all within the changing climate landscape.

Who is this meant for? The reader could be a teacher, a parent, a councillor, a poet, a corporate leader, a bureaucrat, a private-equity investor, a designer, a minister, a student – in short, you. For example, take something as mundane as eating.

The recent spike in tomato and onion prices, driven partly by the changing climate, hit at the heart of Indian cuisine. Onions and tomatoes form the sinew of curry, where they are difficult, if not impossible, to substitute or do without. But India tried to cope. One fast-food chain removed tomatoes from their menu. Households tried using fewer tomatoes or used kokum or tamarind to sour their curries. Farmers delayed their harvest and held on to their stored onions, gambling on prices rising further while running the risk of a downpour or pest attack ruining their crop.

Policy makers had a harder time balancing the desires of urban households for low onion prices with the farmers’ need for remunerative prices. After all, farmers asked, where was the shrill outcry when onions and tomatoes sold for a pittance? That’s a powerful ask, given that a general election looms next year, with Maharashtra – India’s largest supplier of onions – a key state in those elections. Also, India is president of the G20 this year, meaning global optics matter.

So, India imposed an export duty on onions, but did not ban exports. The difference is nuanced: most onion farmers are too small to export directly; they sell their onions to a trader who then exports. The thinking is that such a duty would be borne by the trader or the buyer and so hurt the farmer less, while making supplying to the domestic market more attractive. And as domestic supplies increase, prices should calm down somewhat. And a duty has better optics than a ban. Perhaps.

Tactical policy such as export duties or a social-media storm work well when addressing a one-off event. But when a hotter climate structurally increases vegetable price volatility, tactical policy and media outrage are less helpful. How we decide what to eat in a hotter world is something we will explore later. We will also look at how, at home, we can make do with less. At what we can do differently in stores and across the supply chain. At what we can do differently in the farm. And, at the country level, at the kind of policy that could encourage the innovation and investment required for a hotter world. And, most importantly, at what kind of political support from voters will be needed for that policy.

We will also look at the fallout from historical decisions and how trade-offs were made then, and what lessons this holds. Take, for example, the Green Revolution.

Today, some of us sneer at how not-so-green it was, with its use of engineered seeds, and mountains of chemicals and underground water. But in the 1960s, the choice was either to see lakhs of Indians starve to death every time a giant El Nino hit, or reimagine agriculture. And don’t forget, there was a veritable untapped ocean of groundwater then – invisible and seemingly endless. True, the choice could have been to engineer millets rather than rice, but that is a story for another day.

Today’s India would not be today’s India without the freedom that food security has bought for us. Only now, in a hotter climate, with the end of the groundwater ocean in sight, a new choice is before us. What must we grow and where must we grow it to remain food-secure?

Sometimes, we will consider decisions made in other countries to see the impact on our life. There are plenty of examples in history: how the American Civil War led to deforestation in 19th-century India, for instance. Or, to pick a more recent example, the fallout of China’s muscle-flex in curbing exports of two critical minerals, gallium and germanium. Why does this matter? Gallium, or rather, gallium nitride, has been the belle of the electric mobility ball – promising a cheaper, lighter, safer electric vehicle with a higher drive range, the electric mobility holy grail as it were.

Now, China’s curbs have revealed how deeply the world’s climate infrastructure is dependent on the supply of a few minerals which are essentially controlled by China. So, should we slow our green transition, de-risk our supply chain, or double down on finding alternate chemistries? Or, stepping back, should we look afresh at what is a sustainable way to travel?

If I come across as pessimistic or preachy, I have failed before I start. But there is no getting away from the fact that our climate – the unspoken foundation of life – is changing, and we must both recognise the change and try to lessen and adapt to it. I see so many among us that are trying to do just that and my hope is to cover many of those stories and inspire more to join the fold.

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