Like Nero, we fiddle as the world burns

The blazing red heat maps of South Asia show record temperature levels not seen in more than a century. With the heat wave stronger and more widespread than ever, four to eight degrees above normal, 200-odd forest fires blazing, power cuts, it seems like the apocalyptic future that novelists like Kim Stanley Robinson had described in “The Ministry for the Future” are within the realm of possibility.

The novel begins with a catastrophic heat wave in North India killing millions, but it then tells a varied and hopeful story of different responses to climate change. Where the opening scene erred in its rhetorical force was in the suggestion that India was uniquely vulnerable to such a catastrophe. India will bear the brunt of climate change. But larger heat waves and large-scale deaths induced by heat are now a possibility everywhere: From Chicago to California, from Australia to Europe. India may be reeling now, but climate cannot be the “it will happen over there” problem.

There was also some criticism of the catastrophism of the opening scene. Twenty million dying of a heat wave. Surely, that is an exaggeration? The discomforting thought is that we can no longer be confident that this is entirely out of the realm of possibility. In 2019, a year of global heat waves, Lancet estimated an excess of about 3,50,000 excess deaths world-wide due to heat. We will, of course, never fully know the extent of excess mortality or health effects of the current wave in India. But imagine the heat that India is experiencing now, coinciding with high humidity levels, where the body cannot cool off because sweat does not evaporate. There is some truth to the charge that the fiction of climate catastrophism can generate scepticism. But it is hard to deny that dire conditions are already at hand.

The recently released IPCC Synthesis Report tried to make the same point powerfully: The future is already here. We may well be past the point where limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees is virtually impossible. But what makes this moment so fraught is the sense of unreality about climate change. We used to worry about climate deniers and peddlers of fake news. But it turns out our challenge is far worse. It is more that those who do not deny climate change are imprisoned by a sense of unreality, where instead of collectively solving our problems, we simply have discourse responding to discourse, argument to counter argument, while the world burns away. Collective action in relation to climate change was always going to be a problem so long as every country thinks only in terms of its national interest. But even national interest is now defined not in terms of measures that will actually solve the problem or mitigate its worst effects, but purely in terms of who has the upper hand in global discourse.

The developed world has unconscionably failed to accept its historical responsibility. It has returned to an old gambit: Putting disproportionate blame on developing countries. In some ways, the last two years under the Biden Administration have seen a regression in progress made on climate change: The volume of displacing blame onto other countries has increased, the will to live up to or up the already modest Paris climate targets has diminished , the war in Ukraine has been opportunistically used to rehabilitate fossil fuels on a massive scale. While the US Treasury has pressed for more climate related development finance of developing countries, the blunt truth is that the flow will be paltry. The experience of Covid vaccines has convinced the world that no developed country will be serious about providing global public goods.

In turn, developing countries like India have upped their ante on their “anti-colonial” stance, where the global climate debate is seen as another ruse to trap developing countries. Many officials have expressed criticism of the IPCC’s alarmism, not because it is not founded in facts, but because it might be used as a wedge to pressure developing countries more. After the Paris Agreement there was some hope that the unhelpful distinctions between developed and developing countries would be blurred. But the bulk of the rhetorical energy in the global climate debate is back to square one. Developing country officials from India, for instance, spend more of the rhetorical ballast fighting the discourse of climate colonialism than finding creative solutions for combating climate change. Colonialism and climate change are connected. But to pretend that rhetorical victories on the colonialism argument are a solution to climate change is to be gripped by an unreality.

India’s record is strong in global perspective. It has always gone with the science. Ramping up capacity in renewables and keeping fuel taxes high are two areas where it does well. Globally, also, there is much progress: Investment in “green technologies” is accelerating, a lot more of the private sector is on board, and there is at least some financial help available for countries that want to get off the fossil fuel path. But the sense of unreality is this. While some of these measures might help, it is hard to shake off the feeling that they are more about business opportunities, ticking off boxes in the global climate debate, and creating networks of patronage. They cannot disguise the blunt fact that the IPCC Synthesis Report points out: We are making it harder not easier to reach the 1.5 degree Celsius global warming target. All this sound and fury about technology, investments, green bonds, and yet the time horizon in which to save the planet seems to be shrinking.

Domestically, also, we are gripped by unreality. Tall claims about India’s increasing forest cover, to renewables, leapfrogging to electric vehicles, and its venerable ecological traditions cannot disguise the fact that our cities are hotter, our water more precarious, our health more subject to the vagaries of climate, and our dependence on fossil fuels higher than necessary. This is because climate change cannot be thought of as a series of projects. The hard question we have to ask is whether they are achieving the objective of making India more habitable. We also have to recognise that regardless of what happens globally we have to up our environmental game by orders of magnitude domestically on almost a war footing. But our experience with the tractable problem of air pollution has been so dispiriting that it is hard not to conclude that in the case of climate change we are all, like Nero, fiddling, while the planet burns. The world would rather normalise catastrophe than work for preventing it.

The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express

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