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Issues: A Planet in Peril

By Murali Kamma Email By Murali Kamma
December 2016
Issues: A Planet in Peril

(Photo: Emilio Madrid-Kuser)

Author Amitav Ghosh, in an interview with Khabar before Donald Trump’s election, explains why global warming is such a threat. Given Trump’s deep skepticism, the progress we’ve been making on climate change is now in jeopardy.

Every now and then, we’ve come across a book or a film whose timing was so uncanny that we wondered how the author or the auteur knew their topic would be, well, trending. Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, published by the University of Chicago Press this year, is one such example.

Of course, the alarm over climate change and its consequences is not new; what’s been newsworthy is the heartening resolve so many nations have shown in tackling the issue. And that includes the United States, which fully supported the Paris and Kigali Agreements, each signed by close to 200 nations. The former, ratified by 103 nations so far, aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions and bring down the average global temperature, and the latter promises to drastically limit the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). President Obama, in addition, introduced the Clean Power Plan and other initiatives to reduce toxic air pollutants.

But suddenly, with Trump’s unexpected triumph, all bets are off. In fact, President-elect Trump—who once tweeted that human-created global warming was a Chinese hoax—thinks using financial resources for climate change policies is a waste of money. One of his top priorities is to kill Obama’s executive actions, and he is enthusiastic about reviving the coal industry to create jobs. Even more alarmingly, he has talked about abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency. As one headline summed it up, “There’s no way around it: Donald Trump is going to be a disaster for the planet.”

Climate change or shock?
Why are there so many skeptics in the GOP, which will now control all the branches of our government? Over 90 percent of climate scientists agree that human actions cause global warming. Does economic growth at any cost trump everything else? Perhaps the message is not getting across because it’s hard to envision a transformed planet. Even the terms (“climate change” and “global warming”) are not scary. Maybe they don’t induce panic because the science is complicated, although the impact of human activities is not easy to miss. Denialism can be a way to avoid responsibility.

“I don’t think messaging is the problem, really,” Ghosh says. “The reality is that it’s almost impossible for most of us to take adaptive measures as individuals.”

In his book, Ghosh writes that recognition of the problem is not the same as comprehension—and, invariably, we want to maintain the status quo. But that’s increasingly untenable in the face of stark, observable scientific findings. So is there hope for the earth?

“Whether or not it’s too late to reverse climate change is a question best answered by scientists,” he says. “The consensus seems to be that some very serious impacts are inevitable—and indeed we’re seeing them unfold around us already.”

The statistics are chilling. To give an idea, according to the International Energy Agency, air pollution accounts for about 6.5 million deaths every year, and according to the U.N., around 300 million children—the majority being South Asian—breathe extremely toxic air. On one occasion recently, the pollution level in Delhi was so high that over 1800 schools were closed—not a comforting thought for parents. Rising affluence cannot insulate people from such dangers. With about 24 percent of India’s arable land gradually turning into desert, a two-degree Celsius increase in global average temperature would slash the nation’s food supply by a quarter.

The Paris Agreement aspires to limit the rise of the global mean temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius—but even that’s widely thought to be out of reach, Ghosh points out. This year’s average temperatures, almost certainly the highest on record, are said to be about 1.2 degrees Celsius above what the world experienced before the Industrial Revolution. In this century, according to the World Meteorological Organization, we’ve had 16 of the 17 hottest years on record. Another study shows that rising sea levels could lead to the migration of up to 50 million Indians and 75 million Bangladeshis. Another example, to stay with the subcontinent, is the impending water crisis. The water stored in the Himalayan ice sustains 47 percent of the world’s population; “in 2008 it was found that the Himalayan glaciers had already lost all the ice formed since the mid-1940s.” A third may disappear by 2050.

Grim predictions, indeed. Will we have a “9/11 moment,” in the not-too-distant future, when the reality of climate change hits us with such force that we’ll never forget it? Saying that we’re already “reaching some sort of inflection point,” Ghosh adds, “The other day on the New York subway, I heard five separate conversations on Hurricane Sandy.”

Ghosh’s 9/11 moment
In an Antique Land, Ghosh’s highly praised nonfiction debut, will endure. But he is mostly known for his novels, which range from The Circle of Reason and The Shadow Lines, in the early period, to the more recent Ibis Trilogy. He also wrote The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide, and it was the latter novel—set in the dense Sundarbans of eastern India—that made him a passionate environmentalist. The novel was released in 2004, just a few months before an undersea earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale triggered an epic tsunami in the Indian Ocean, causing horrific death and destruction. That was Ghosh’s 9/11 moment.

“The news had a deeply unsettling effect on me: the images that had been implanted in my mind by the writing of The Hungry Tide merged with live television footage of the tsunami in a way that was almost overwhelming,” he writes. “I became frantic; I could not focus on anything.”

Now, over a decade later, Ghosh points out that India’s west coast—which has long been less vulnerable— may experience even more devastation than the east coast. Citing long-term projections that show cyclonic activity increasing by 46 percent in the Arabian Sea, while falling by 31 percent in the Bay of Bengal, he says, “These developments will have very serious implications for India because so much of our industrial and commercial infrastructure is concentrated on the west coast.”

Does that mean living by the water will no longer be prized? It’s a sign of affluence, after all. A beautiful home with a gorgeous view may be the ultimate status symbol for the aspiring class.

Ghosh notes that the allure of beachfront properties wasn’t—or isn’t—universal. “In India, and in most other Asian countries, people were hesitant to build near the sea until quite recently. Nor are ‘sea views’ prized everywhere. In Indonesia, in most traditional communities, people build their houses facing away from the sea.”

The coast is not clear
What’s clear is that, regardless of our preferences, the price of living near the water is going up—and it has little to do with real estate values. Global warming will raise sea levels and wreak havoc in coastal communities. Already, we’re seeing the effects of super storms—whether you want to call them hurricanes, cyclones, or typhoons—which can be at least partly attributed to climate change. Does that mean more and more people will have to move inland?

“People living on the coast, or close to flood-prone rivers, will certainly need to act to protect themselves,” Ghosh says. “Unfortunately, for most people, moving presents many practical obstacles. How do they dispose of their houses? What do they do about their mortgages? And so on.” Besides, moving inland presents its own challenges if we don’t seriously tackle the real problem. “Many inland communities are already having to deal with drought, ‘rain bombs,’ flooding, intensifying wildfires, and so on.”


In his book, Ghosh examines climate change from three angles—literary, historical, and political. Considering works from various cultures, in the first section, Ghosh takes issue with the contemporary stance that novels work best when they focus exclusively on individuals and their stories. What about the collective—and what about the great dramas of nature, which may become more “deranged” as climate change accelerates? What about other creatures? Perhaps we’re too detached from the nonhuman world to sense the urgency of the challenges facing us.

John Steinbeck may seem a little old-fashioned today, but in his work, “what we see, rather, is a visionary placement of the human within the nonhuman; we see a form, an approach that grapples with climate change avant la lettre.” That’s not all. “Around the world, too, there are many writers—not all of them realists—from whose work neither the aggregate nor the nonhuman have ever been absent,” Ghosh notes. “To cite only a few examples from India: in Bengali, there is the work of Adwaita Mallabarman and Mahasweta Devi; in Kannada, Sivarama Karanth; in Oriya, Gopinath Mohanty; in Marathi, Vishwas Patil.”

Ghosh gives a stinging assessment of colonialism’s impact in the book’s middle section: how the promotion of fossil-fuel economies in the West forestalled more sustainable models of development, as articulated by Gandhi and other dissenters. Moreover, as a supplier of raw materials that fueled Britain’s rise, India for a long time had to put off building its own carbon-based economy. And now, as Indians (and others) play catch-up by replicating the same kind of modernity, and seek the same kind of prosperity in rising numbers, we’ve realized that “every family in the world cannot have two cars, a washing machine, and a refrigerator—not because of technical or economic limitations but because humanity would asphyxiate in the process.”

An acceptance of limits
Though we’re seeing the effects of climate change, India and other developing countries have been more focused on their economic objectives, perhaps understandably. They no longer have that luxury—all other goals become moot when your very existence is under threat. Because the political establishment tends to focus on the narrow concerns of citizens, it needs nonpolitical allies to tackle global threats like climate change, even when nation-states come together. However, the allies Ghosh has in mind may surprise some people.

“If religious groupings around the world can join hands with popular movements, they may well be able to provide the momentum that is needed for the world to move forward on drastically reducing emissions without sacrificing considerations of equity,” he writes.

But in the modern world, where we turn to science and technology for sophisticated solutions, this approach may seem antiquated. Ghosh disagrees, noting that “religious worldviews are not subject to the limitations that have made climate change such a challenge for our existing institutions of governance: they transcend nation-states, and they all acknowledge intergenerational, long-term responsibilities; they do not partake of economistic ways of thinking and are therefore capable of imagining nonlinear change…in ways that are perhaps closed to the forms of reason deployed by contemporary nation-states.”

While it’s understandable that growth without equality or environmental awareness is morally bankrupt, isn’t it true that religious beliefs can be a barrier when they’re at odds with scientific views? Climate change denialists come in all stripes.

“I think Pope Francis’s encyclical is perhaps the single most important development on the climate change frontier,” he responds. “We can only hope that other religious groups and figures will start waking up to this issue.” As he notes in his book, “Finally, it is impossible to see any way out of this crisis without an acceptance of limits and limitations, and this, in turn, is, I think, intimately related to the idea of the sacred, however one may wish to conceive of it.”

The biggest impediment for making changes as individuals, Ghosh points out, is that we don’t get how the crisis is also a crisis of culture. Is it the culture of consumption, specifically?

“Yes,” he says, “consumption and culture have been very closely linked for some time now. Consider the romance with the automobile that has long been a feature of American life. Today it is very much a feature of Indian and Chinese life as well.”

What, then, can we do at the micro level? At the macro level, as he explains in the book, the distribution of power in the world lies at the core of the climate crisis. But at the individual level, what choices should we make? What can we do to make a difference?

“There are many things that we can and should do as individuals,” Ghosh says. “Some of them are obvious, like cutting back on consumption, wasting less, being careful with water usage, etc. But it’s perhaps even more important to try to bring these issues to the attention of politicians and leaders at the municipal, state, and national levels. At the same time, at a personal level, we can also examine our own priorities and prepare for the unexpected.”

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