Wild Ways

It's no longer okay to 'adjust' to climate change

We need to be united in saying that we deserve a clean environment, something which is squarely within the ambition of climate change negotiations.

 |  Wild Ways  |  6-minute read |   02-12-2015
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"Ladakh ka mausam, aur Bambaii ka fashion. Dono ka kuch pata nahi." (The weather in Ladakh, and the fashions of Mumbai. Both can turn in any way).

On the path from Srinagar to Leh, these were the words of my cheeky Kashmiri driver to me. "Kashmir's weather is India me world famous" (Kashmir weather is world famous in India), he continued, grinning all over his aquiline, fine-featured face. In Kashmir, people have cold but crisp winters and summers behold sunny days. The flowers of Kashmir - which include Japanese style cherry blossoms, as well as tulips - are linked to its chilly but fine weather.

No one really speaks of Delhi weather affectionately. At least, not as an entity by itself. In Delhi, it's always too hot (eight months of summer), and the winter brings one nice clear-skied month in December before plunging headlong into soggy January cold. We are not affectionate about the vagaries of our resident cities ("Mumbai is so cloggy humid; Delhi is a cantankerous oven; Kolkata is too sweaty; Bangalore was cool, but now it's getting hotter; Chennai's sun will peel your skin off, etc").

But a certain loving cynicism for our cities emerges the moment they are compared to other cities, or in the face of criticism. People from Kolkata and Bangalore feel cold even during the monsoon, citizens in Delhi will laughingly say. In Delhi you are hot all day, but in Mumbai we don't need the AC on at night, the Bombay-walas will snigger. Where does this begrudging love-cynicism for our respective cities come from? And why?

Well, simply because we are creatures of climate. When we live in a place for a long time, we acclimatise, and the weather imprints and conditions us. We may not like the weather or climate in our city - and many suffer forms of mild seasonal affective disorder - but we adjust, also adjusting our expectations. In a sense, our first exposure and awareness of nature is through weather. The Siberian Huskydog has a thick fur coat and feels happiest in the cold. It'd be miserable in Delhi and would survive only in air-conditioned rooms.

In a similar way, many people from Delhi or North India think something is amiss if they have to live in coastal or tropical areas which don't have winters. A friend who lives in Singapore, but grew up in Delhi, said it's not roti-dal he misses, but the winter of Delhi. A boy who grew up in Shillong but now is a Delhiite feels cheerful during Delhi's monsoon, when it is rainy and cloudy like Shillong.

But we have never controlled the Weather Gods, and the Gods are troubled. As the world argues over climate change in Paris, the climate has already changed perceptibly for many of us. The variations that we expect from our weather-variations between comfortable expectation and nasty surprise - are growing. December has started in Delhi but the seasonal nip in the air is missing. What is present in the air, however, are constant and discernible swathes of pollution, weighing down every trachea.

Chennai reels under floods, Ladakh got flooded earlier this year, and Kashmir too was not spared a year ago. While conducting ethnographic interviews of flood-affected people in Assam last year, respondents told me they were used to floods, and looked at them in the way they perceived summers to be hot, and winters to be cooler. The problem started when they were not able to withstand floods that were more extreme, longer, or unseasonal.

There are changes to climate and weather that we are not being able to withstand, and they leave us impoverished, sick, or depressed. In Delhi, we are always coughing. In Madhya Pradesh this year, farmers received unseasonal rainfall which affected crops, leaving them in the clutches of punitive insurance schemes. In Srinagar, some people are now afraid of the rain, thinking it may not stop.

But here is the twist.

Many of us, especially the well-off, will adjust to the ham-handed, clenched fist of weather in the way that we have adjusted to many things. The point is not to adjust. The point is to link our daily lives to the echelons of climate change negotiations, immersed as they are in their own political economies. We don't need one more twist in our weather to know that we need to stop carbonising the air. The pollution is proof enough.

At the UNFCCC 21st Conference of Parties (COP21), Barack Obama, President of United States said the biggest enemy we need to fight is our own cynicism. I will add to that: since governments will keep denying the science behind climate change, we need to bring in social and political dimensions from our lives to the decisions that need to be taken. Decisions taken by countries are political, rarely scientific. We need to be united today in saying that we deserve a healthy environment, and a clean one, something which is squarely within the ambition of climate change negotiations.

The USA took the Volkswagen emissions scam seriously, because it was about environment and economics. Negotiators keep saying that climate action is an economic imperative, but the narrative on how it affects us socially and psychologically keeps getting left out of the big ticket talks. It's time to bring that conversation back in the room. Our climate is uncomfortable, and many are constantly sick because the "season is always changing", and for many climate, rain and weather is a matter of life and death.

Governments need to bring in big policy changes that tackle carbonisation head on. Clean energy is a start, so is taking lessons from nature, which include city and town management that respect natural ecologies of rivers, flood plains, and the need for green belts to drown air and noise pollution. This needs leadership from policy and government, and not just corridor chatter.

It's time that a clean, low-carbon country became an election issue; and a social issue that steers negotiations. A rallying call, which asks not just for India's space to develop, but for India's space to develop sustainably, cleanly. And then we can re-adjust to the love-cynicism we have for our resident areas weather.

A few days ago I was at a cocktail party. A friend from West Bengal was also there, shivering somewhat. Aren't you cold, she asked, looking at my mesh chiffon dress. "No, I am from Delhi, this is really not cold for me", I shot back. Actually, the truth is though I can bite down the cold being a true-blue child of Delhi-November 2015, Delhi, was just not cold.

Writer

Neha Sinha Neha Sinha @nehaa_sinha

Neha Sinha is a wildlife conservationist, and lover of the weird, wonderful, wordy and wild. She works with the Bombay Natural History Society and her views are personal.

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