As the scorching heat breaks records in various parts of India, the havoc that it wreaks on the people, especially those most vulnerable to it- the economically weak- is set to only increase in the coming years. While heat waves are not a new phenomenon in the subcontinent, the crisis becomes apparent when we take stock of the situation- almost 17,000 people have succumbed to heat waves from 1971 to 2019. It’s not just the global South witnessing this acute crisis; Antarctica saw temperatures 70 degrees above average this March.
To make matters worse, the unusual heat is accompanied by water shortage, flash flooding, untimely rain and cyclones, extreme cold, the rise of zoonotic diseases, and poor air quality, among others, that have become part of the (un)common. In such times, we need to re-imagine our relationship with nature and think of new alternative lifestyles in tandem with nature, locally and also globally, for we have ‘only one earth’. A World Economic Forum report cites climate action failure as the most acute risk facing the world over the next decade. In this context, World Environment Day – the most significant global environmental event – holds crucial significance as a platform to engage multiple stakeholders and drive ahead of the discourse on climate change, especially as we revisit the theme of ‘Only One Earth’.
The Pressing Need for Global Action
The recent failure of governments at COP26 in phasing out coal usage and committing to keeping the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius looms over our lives. Their loss leaves a lot for civil society organisations and individuals to shoulder. However, we need to recognise that solutions to the climate crisis cannot operate in silos. Instead, an intersectional approach needs to be undertaken where multiple stakeholders come together to confirm decisive, actionable goals for tackling the impending crisis. Thus, as many say, a ‘climate bias’ has become imminent in every action that organisations, whether governmental, non-governmental or corporates, undertake. Further, climate thinking and action need to be incorporated holistically in all sectors of activity, from development planning to social policymaking, to mitigate its all-encompassing effect.
After 2010 was celebrated as the International Year of Biodiversity, the UN declared 2011-2020 as the UN Decade on Biodiversity, with an aim to remarkably reduce biodiversity loss and engage various stakeholders, both governmental and nongovernmental, to centre the question of biodiversity and ecosystem conservation in the domain of development planning and other economic activities. The global action taken up during the decade served to bring awareness regarding the underlying causes of biodiversity loss, especially unsustainable production and consumption patterns. This was followed by the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework, which is part of the 2050 vision of ‘living in harmony with nature’. Under the framework, the targets for 2030 include ecological conservation of at least 30% of land and sea areas, a 50% greater decrease in the rate of introduction of invasive alien species, and a $200 billion increase in international financial flows from all sources to developing countries.
It is no news that rapid uncontrolled development, urbanisation, globalisation, and demographic changes have had a direct and detrimental bearing on the urban landscape when it comes to urban conservation. In the face of agendas such as infrastructural development, poverty alleviation and employment generation, urban conservation usually is relegated to the backseat. This has been the general approach over the past century, particularly aggravated during the recent decades. However, this is a dangerously myopic understanding as historical heritage not only serves as a crucial domain of economic activity but also gives a sense of identity and coherence to the dwellers. Globally, there have been endeavours geared toward tackling the impacts of environmental degradation and climate change on urban heritage, such as the Urban Heritage Climate Observatory launched by UNESCO in April 2021.
The objective is to facilitate the coming together of experts and stakeholders from the fields of climate change, earth observation and urban heritage, to enrich and coordinate processes towards urban heritage conservation, raise awareness about local, national and global climate action, and modernise practises to mitigate and remedy climate change risks and its impacts on urban heritage. Later in the same year, in November 2021, UNESCO conducted the ‘World Heritage City Lab- Sustainable Development Practices for Urban Heritage’ conference, where experts exchanged scientific knowledge and practical experience regarding challenges to synchronous sustainable development and urban conservation and the role of culture therein.
Although these attempts seem promising, there is a lot left to be done in the implementation area. Global bodies like the UN suffer from the malady of ‘good vision, bad action’ because of several factors, including non-representativeness of organs, lax or self-seeking attitude of individual states, global politics and significant resource and capacity inequalities among nations. Therefore, it is imperative that governments, especially those in the developed world, orient their politics toward protecting the global community on the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities.
Environmental Action at the National Level
India is the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change. Multiple stakeholders have undertaken various interventions, albeit within the existing framework, to accelerate environmental action on the national level. However, gaps persist. According to scholars, most government legislation on the environment strengthens the command-and-control regime. Private enterprises, too, have failed to be aware of its importance, with only 14% of total CSR spending dedicated to environmental conservation in 2014-15. Following the FCRA regulations, NGOs and nonprofits are also cash-stripped. There’s a need for them all to not operate in isolation but to come together and undertake an integrated approach. Organisations like the Rainmatter Foundation are trying to build ecosystems of potential solutions where government and private organisations are incentivised to include climate action in their agendas. Issues of biodiversity, urbanisation and urban conservation and their intersections with development become extremely important as over 70% of the population is dependent on natural ecosystems. Various civil society organisations have shown us that the preservation and restoration of biodiversity, especially the conservation of indigenous species, is one key area where one must work.
Any livelihood generation initiative, especially in regions surrounding Protected Areas, should consider the above. Further, the role of ethnic communities in preserving bioregions and their diversity should be studied, and new epistemological understandings are developed from them for broader use. This has to be accompanied by the effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act. To make use of the opportune moments, India must ensure that it cashes on the UN’s declaration of 2021-30 as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and encourages a more decentralised approach to climate action where restoration projects and communities are encouraged. The Indian government backed CITIIS program (City Investments to Innovate, Integrate and Sustain), focusing on rejuvenating water bodies and land, is an excellent approach to sustainable urban development.
The Way Forward
While the above measures are necessary, they operate within the limited existing framework of the capitalist mode of production, which many deem inherently contradictory to ecological sustainability. However, various academicians and environmentalists have already shown us an alternate path. Ashish Kothari, for instance, proposes a ‘radical ecological democracy’ alternative. This approach takes inspiration from the way tribal societies and many cooperatives have navigated the question of development and its relation to nature and climate. Such an approach distances itself from an economic-centred development. Instead, it focuses on workers-owned production, local, biological, and regional economic zones, direct democracy, and cultural diversity when thinking of routes to growth. Thus, ecological considerations with socio-economic and cultural restructuring must be emphasised. Kothari himself cites the example of SEWA in India and Mondragon in Spain as a few examples. Another outlook that is cognizant of sustainable development is the Human Development and Capability Approach, as propounded by Mahbub ul-Haq and further developed by Amartya Sen that though accepts economic development but takes on a humanist approach and focuses on enhancing the ability of all individuals rather than letting the free hand of the market rule.
Irrespective of which route to climate change redressal we take, the measures have to be such that they don’t put the entire burden on individual action or already marginalised communities and developing countries. Instead, they need to be active voices in decision-making and policy framing. Only then can we expect to attain environmental justice meaningfully.