Give young environmentalists a voice
The climate advocacy group, Fridays for Future, has been in the news recently due to the arrest of one of its members, Disha Ravi, in connection with allegedly playing a role in producing and sharing a protest “toolkit”. On the face of it, producing and sharing a toolkit is usual for advocacy groups seeking to mobilise attention and action around an issue, and it is hard to understand the serious allegations being made. Since I am not privy to the details of the case, I want to flag some broader, problematic, perspectives in the public conversation about this case .
First, a prominent theme in public conversations around this episode is that climate activists should stick to narrow environmental issues. Environmentalists, some imply, should play among themselves in a sandbox at one corner of the public debate. The irony is that India and Indian stakeholders — activists, diplomats and political leaders alike — have played a leading role in successfully arguing that the climate crisis is not only an environmental issue, it is a question of development choices, livelihoods and equity.
Notably, Fridays for Future appears to have taken on board this broader view: “ensure climate justice and equity” is the second “demand” listed in a August 2019 declaration on its website (the first and third are “limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C” and “listen to the science”). This recognition of equity is essential to ensuring that poor people and poor countries do not bear the cost of climate adjustment, which India has been in the forefront of arguing internationally. The bottom line is that environmental and social outcomes are inter-connected, and one cannot come at the cost of the other.
This broad perspective on environment is just as salient domestically as it is internationally. And from this point of view, it is reasonable — and even necessary — to look at not only the environmental problems arising from farming, but also the social condition of farmers, and the political and economic forces shaping farmer choices. Calling for Indian environmentalists to limit the scope of their interests not only impoverishes the national conversation, but also contradicts a uniquely powerful Indian stance espoused by activists and government alike, and that has served the national interest well in climate negotiations.
Second, it would be deeply problematic if the grumbling about the international linkages of the “toolkit” at the centre of this issue diluted the truth that it is strongly in India’s national interests to address environmental concerns; this is not just some international fiction. Environmental issues affect Indian interests in multiple ways.
To begin with, the local environment is despoiled in much of India. The Centre for Science and Environment found that, as of 2018, 275 of 445 monitored rivers were polluted and that unprocessed solid waste is the norm even in many cities. A dire air pollution problem is taking a toll on the health of Indians, with air pollution estimated to cause 1.2 million premature deaths a year, about one-eighth of all annual deaths in India, according to Indian scientists who have contributed to the Global Burden of Disease study. While much remains to be done, some potentially useful steps have been taken, such as creation of a new Commission on Air Quality Management.
In addition, the climate crisis is an enormous threat multiplier in India, according to a comprehensive Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology compilation. It could increase the destructive power of natural disasters, affect crop productivity, impact labour productivity through heat stress, disrupt the monsoons, and affect India’s water supply. Simply put, the climate crisis will make India’s development aspirations much harder to achieve.
Not least, the landscape of economic opportunity and job creation, both in India and globally, is changing in response to the environmental and climate crises. In energy, fossil fuels are giving way to solar, wind and battery technology; in transport, the days of the internal combustion engine may be numbered — GM recently announced their phase-out; in food, meat substitutes are taking off, and all these changes are driven by environmental concerns. In some areas, the government is attentive to these changes, seeking to stimulate solar panel production, and battery technology and manufacturing.
In brief, local pollution, climate damage and new economic opportunities tied to climate and environment are all important to our national interests. While an enormous amount remains to be done, the environment has long left behind the confines of the sandbox.
What a time, then, to send a signal to the young citizens of this country — discouraging them from paying attention to, asking challenging questions about, and putting personal energy into acting on, the big issues of our day. India needs more, not less, engagement and energy around environmental issues. We may not always agree with the answers young activists come up with. We may sometimes disagree with the way in which they frame questions or seek attention for their cause. But as a society, we will be poorer if we silence them.
Navroz K Dubash is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, and the editor of India in a Warming World: Integrating Climate Change and Development
The views expressed are personal
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