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Why we must tackle the climate crisis from the bottom-up in India

By Sharlene Gandhi

Climate change

Jan 16, 2020

Climate denialism is a privilege limited to developed, western nations. In countries like India, where temperatures have soared to over 50 degrees Celsius in Rajasthan, the air pollution in Delhi is reaching fatal levels, coastal cities like Mumbai are at risk of sinking and 24,000 people have allegedly lost their lives in climate-induced circumstances, the climate crisis is simply unignorable.

What hinders large-scale effective action under these circumstances is bureaucracy. India is a country comprised of 28 states and 9 territories, spanning snow-capped peaks to deep rainforests, and working to bridge linguistic, cultural and systemic barriers. While it may be obvious that combating the climate crisis is going to require blanket legislative and cultural change, achieving this on a broad scale is more likely to lead to inertia once we realise the true scale of the problem.

In light of this, communities on the front-lines, those most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis, are increasingly taking matters into their own hands: what the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) refers to as community-based micro-resilience. These are bittersweet stories of villages and societies whose very existence is challenged by the climate crisis, and whose drive to survive is commendable.

Screen Shot spoke to Bhavna Maheriya, programme manager at the Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT), a non-profit working across eight Indian states. While the primary motivation of the organisation is to uplift, empower and educate women in slum communities, the organisation has recently introduced a climate resilience programme. Not only does the programme raise awareness of the climate crisis itself, but it also trains women to help their communities pivot efficiently should they ever face a climate-induced crisis.

The programme began in 2016 and focused on four key stressors that informal communities in India are particularly vulnerable to heat, water scarcity, flooding, and water-borne disease. Maheriya tells me that new technologies, as well as some simple ingenious methods of resilience, have been developed over the course of the programme. For example, most residences in slum communities are built with adjoining walls and lead roofs, which not only lead to high temperatures, but also to higher costs of indoor cooling facilities. By simply installing ceiling ventilation in the roofs of each residence, both temperature and costs are brought down for the whole community.

Regardless of the regions and their specific problem, community action groups are taking responsibility and displaying autonomy in how they tackle these problems. MHT trains climate ‘sathis’, or climate friends, to provide advice and consultation, and thus both mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis and future-proof their own communities.

Maheriya stresses that MHT is a grassroots organisation, and that while none of the employees or ‘sathis’ are formally educated on the climate crisis, they learn through experience, mentoring and knowledge-sharing. It would be debilitating to depend on action from the authorities, she tells me, “All experts have their own philosophy, and most are not ready to come into the [slum] communities. They don’t want to leave their air-conditioned offices.” The irony is alarming.

MHT is just one example of a bottom-up initiative that recognises the criticality of dealing with the climate crisis. There are a plethora of other bittersweet tales of villages creating their own irrigation systems and even reverting to mud houses in order to overcome severe flooding. There is, however, a risk with celebrating these stories too much.

As positive and hopeful as such stories are, they subtly take responsibility away from those in power and open up space for the latter to deflect and divert attention, rather than being held accountable. Increasingly, we are seeing that those in power are, and will continue to be, able to shelter themselves from the impacts of the climate crisis. And while power itself might come in a variety of forms—financial, cultural, hierarchical—it allows those at the top to turn their backs on something that does not immediately impact them.

Music producer Aditya Virmani, also known by his stage name Nivid, reveals the blindness that power affords in these circumstances. Virmani recounts how this year the change in climate patterns and monsoon expectations has meant that the state government of Punjab forced farmers to delay rice crop cultivation. Although the initial motivation behind this legislation was to motivate farming communities to diversify into environmentally-friendly crops, those working the paddies have been left with financial hardship and failed crop yields. There is speculation that the age-old tradition of burning crops was intensified due to wastage, leading to the air pollution crisis in the nearby city of Delhi. Virmani has recently released The World Around Me (Infinite Support)/Sanskaari, a track that speaks of the impact of power in the environmental crisis in India.

I use India not only because of its particular vulnerability to the climate crisis, but also because of its stark income and power disparity; there is no doubt that the two are interconnected problems. But India is merely a case study for almost every other nation, whereby top-down climate action is paralysed by power, politics and fear.

Unfortunately, communities must kickstart the revolution and protect themselves from the inevitable, banding together to drive change from the bottom-up. Those with resources, infrastructure and budget to help might continue turning a blind eye as long as it is convenient for them.


Climate change therapy: dealing with climate fear

By Eleanor Flowers

Climate change

Mar 6, 2019

It is a warm, bright day in early February. I am indoors on a Skype call with Nadine Andrews, an eco-psychologist and psychosocial researcher, discussing climate change and food security while she makes pancakes for her family. The sizzle of batter on the pan is a comfort where the reality of our current CO2 emissions trajectory is not. Andrews used work for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and she is not afraid to tell me how it is. “Climate change is happening faster and on a greater scale than scientists were anticipating from the models and that’s partly because IPCC goes on the more conservative end. All of this stuff is already happening. We have to deal with it, this is reality. We might be able to delay some stuff but actually we’re not in control of it.”

Perhaps had I wanted this pancake flipping researcher to go easier on me? Andrews tells me we must either face our fear of climate change now, “design our way into it”, or wait until we no longer have the privilege of ignoring what has already begun. She recounts an analogy about a therapist with a sign on their door which says, “either way it’s going to hurt”.

For decades, climate scientists have worried that people did not know or understand enough about climate change and that this was the reason for sluggish public and political action. What social researchers are finally beginning to understand is that it is not a lack of knowledge, but in fact too much knowledge about climate change which is the problem. What has been assumed to be a moral failure to act fast enough is now being reframed as a deep-seated psychological trait. The sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard, who wrote a book called ‘Living in Denial’, thinks that people know too much about climate change. Norgaard wonders if the root of much climate inaction is not a lack but surplus of empathy, and calls climate apathy “the mask of suffering”.

It is true that when one is faced with a disturbing reality, which contradicts the business-as-usual discourse to be found everywhere else, it is easier to focus on current pancakes rather than future crop failure. It is not only that we know too much and feel too helpless, but that we also do not have the language to help us digest our profoundly modern disconnect from nature. Andrews herself is not sure which words are best to describe how we should relate to climate change.

Apparently, The Guardian uses the word “fight” a lot. To “fight” climate change is to cast nature as an enemy, when we should by now have learnt that nature is an entity to be protected, not overcome. Clearly, when we talk about fighting climate change, we mean to launch a battle cry against our own systems of excessive resource consumption. Nature does not care whether we win or lose a fight against ourselves.

If I accept the seriousness of the information about climate change with which I am presented, then I have to imagine a radically different future for myself. It makes me panic. Climate researchers I have spoken with tend to be glad that Greta Thunberg, the famous sixteen-year-old climate activist currently leading school strikes across Europe, has called for people to panic. Andrews and I both agree, though, that panic is not a universally useful term to employ, as it is not a sustainable state of emotion and is no good for building policies upon.

Andrews assures me that she, too, felt afraid before, but that now she feels profound grief about the ecological crisis. “I feel sadness now,” and she does indeed look very sad about it all. I, on the other hand, feel afraid. Seeing a climate scientist look upset is rather like seeing a parent or teacher cry when you are a child.

To write this article, I have had to face these unpleasant emotions. I have sat for hours and transcribed interviews with scientists whose courage to continue on with this emotional and political monster astounds me. My exercise has been challenging but therapeutic. It is impossible to write well in a state of panic. Instead, I have had to work through fear and helplessness in order to reach a state where I am able to articulate the emotional complexity of facing a future for which humankind is miserably maladapted. People with low incomes are especially vulnerable, although climate change does not discriminate, and the rich will not be able to buffer themselves so easily, either.

It is difficult to find the right words to describe how we are feeling about our future. Norgaard notices that people are normally unable to discuss climate change beyond a few lines of conversation. I have noticed this too. What else, beyond “it is warmer, we are fucked, fancy a pancake?”, is there to be said?

Perhaps there is a way for us to begin to move deeper into climate conversation and action once we acknowledge that fear is a powerful enabler of procrastination. Of course, it is not only fear of climate change we experience: it is a fear of economic transformation too. It is guaranteed that the more climate change activists push to halt our accelerating consumption, the more the powerful will push back and persuade us to keep on buying. It is true that when we finally do curb our consumerism, the economy will suffer and then, so will we. Either way, it hurts.

Because humans are creatures with a capacity for nuanced emotions, it seems fair to end on a positive note. We are able to hold two conflicting emotions at once. We live in fear and hope; we probably cannot live well without both. Here is how Nadine Andrews spoke to me about hope that warm day in early February. “The sorts of transformational changes that are needed offer opportunities to rethink how we want to live in the world and how we want to live with each other and how we want to live with nature. It offers the possibility for a better way of life which serves us and other beings better than the existing world.”

There is much to discuss, after all.

Thank you to Scott Bremer, Karen O’Brien, and Nadine Andrews for advising research for this article.