A 21st Century Response to Climate Change
Imagine your house is on fire. You have few minutes before your only and most-cherished home is burnt down to ashes. How will you respond? Will you, with little hope of saving your house, watch it burn down despite knowing that the younger ones in your family will have no roof over their heads? Will you engage in a classic blame game that frustrates all attempts to save the house? Or will you take the initiative to save all you can before the entire house is enveloped in flames?
The imagery is as dreadful as it is real.
The rhetorically framed responses are in fact, a reflection of how countries are currently responding to the climate crisis. While political leaders are preoccupied with forging treaties and agreements, the youth are taking to the streets. Gloomy facts and despairing warnings are clearly not working. With a series of climate strikes being staged globally, governments are now forced to grapple with difficult questions that they hoped to avoid. Of all these, there is one crucial question that demands immediate responses: What fundamental economic and political change is needed to effectively battle the climate crisis?
Here is a slice of reality. In June 2019, four reservoirs dried up leaving Chennai, the sixth most populous city in India to grapple with an acute water crisis. Every time the municipal water lorry arrived, crowds jostled to get even a single pot of water. But to their dismay, the political leadership dismissed the crisis as an exaggeration by media and plainly asked the water-starved residents to wait for the monsoons. Meanwhile, other cities woke up to a tipping point in their climate systems.
The state government could have evaded the situation had it heeded to early warnings and so could the other Indian cities if they were quick enough to translate two tasks into action. The first one is for central and state governments to acknowledge climate change as a crisis. Much of the climate change problem was exacerbated by neglect and outright denial by national governments, especially those led by right-wing populist leaders. Recognizing climate change as a universal crisis secures it an important place in policymaking and budget allocation. Second, considering its ramifications, political leaders should prioritize climate change in all their activities. In the short-run, it might be hard to gauge the effects of such policies. However, countries will reap the long-term benefits of climate-conscious actions, particularly in the form of reduced costs and lower vulnerabilities to climate change.
There is no dearth of solutions. Rather, as a global community, we are unable to bring politicians, corporations, and policymakers to the same page. Moreover, people in power are not responsive in the face of the climate change emergency. Disagreements over equity and responsibility have overshadowed the conversation on climate change between developed and developing countries.
Ideally, developing countries should quit the blame game and focus on enhancing South-South cooperation. Countries in the South can exchange indigenous solutions to climate change. Besides, countries that aspire to be the political and economic superpowers in the South have to alter the way their economies functions. And such a change has to make the economy responsive to the climate crisis. Already leading the path to greater South-South cooperation is China. In 2014, it released the South-South Climate Change Fund worth $3.1 billion on its part to aid developing nations in their fight against climate change. By closely collaborating with organisations like the UNDP, China has created a wide platform for dialogue and exchange of technological know-how.
Quite visibly, South-South cooperation also brings in a thus far ignored benefit: credibility. Collective effort coupled with credibility attracts investment and increases the flow of technology and the much-needed financing from developed to developing countries. For now, it’s the smartest option to pursue until the North and South work out their differences.
A rather unnoticed and not to mention a worrying trend is the absence of green political parties in developing countries. In stark contrast, European countries have seen an upsurge in Green Party supporters lately. The Green party was voted for by one out of every five voters in Germany, giving them sufficient political clout to keep climate crisis in the limelight. Whereas in India, a country with 1.3 billion-strong population, only as many as half a million signed the petition urging the government to declare a climate emergency. As green political parties strengthen their presence in a developing country, not only will climate change concerns come to light but the parties will also gain political clout to provide decisions. Still, the success of green parties hinges on the voters.
As for the economy, huge untapped synergies between climate change strategies and development policies exist. Entrenched among the top countries which are well-positioned to leverage their current resources for climate change is Switzerland. Its green roof initiative was implemented as a mitigation-cum-adaptation measure by reducing emissions and flood risks. The initiative highlights a commonly overlooked point: adaptation and mitigation are complementary strategies. The synergies between the two should be capitalized by various sectors of the economy. But for a long-term impact, adaptation should necessarily be mainstreamed into national and local development plans.
Environment, a long-targeted object under the gaze of economists and corporates has also fallen prey to short-termism, a practice ubiquitous in the financial world. This has a direct bearing on climate policy. Here, the lessons are two-fold. First, governments must encourage corporations to spearhead the climate change movement. Short-termism must be replaced by long-term thinking and economic analysis must move beyond the measurement of immediate monetary gains. Secondly, governments must initiate climate-smart policies with the objective of incentivizing firms to mainstream climate change action into their day-to-day operations.
Consider Unilever. The corporation topped the list for companies doing the most to tackle climate change. Apart from reducing pre-production emissions by 48%, Unilever has also taken steps to future-proof its supply chain from climate change impact. Following Unilever, firms such as L’Oréal have also started to look at the long-term effects.
Similarly, it is time national governments also planned for the long-term. However, political instability stands in the way of implementing long-term plans. Unsurprisingly, this problem pervades even democratic nations. Since President Trump took office, he has displayed an unbeatable tenacity to roll back over eighty environmental rules including the Obama-era policy: Clean Power Plan.
In short, the solution is simple and straightforward. The executive and legislative arms should work together in creating a permanent provision or law for tackling climate change that every political leadership ought to follow. That way, there are far fewer disruptions and there will be effective implementation.
Ban Ki-Moon, the former Secretary-General, while addressing the crowd at Chatham House emphasized the need for new thinking in climate change debate. The new thinking entails a shift from a homo-economicus model to a homo-sociologicus model of society. If applied, economic ideologies will focus on the collective rather than the individual. In the context of climate change, cooperation and compliance will be easier. Most importantly, individuals will influence each other to work on climate change.