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Climate Strike on September 20: What Does and Should it Mean for Indian Scientists?

Climate action in the Third World needs to be based on a vision for not just an ‘urgent’, but also a just and equitable solution to climate change.
Climate Change in India

Representational image. | Image Courtesy: The Hindu

The global march for science that was first held in 2017 was a reaction to the rising tide of anti-science, anti-intellectual discourse in the public domain, resulting primarily from the election of Right-wing governments across the global North. Given the strong resonance of such a movement that was felt in India, the march for science also got substantial support from the science community here, especially amongst university teachers and students who were increasingly dealing with fund cuts on the one hand, and a barrage of bizarre unscientific statements by ministers in government, on the other.

This year, the global march for science has also given a call for a climate strike on September 20, which is to be followed by a week of protests and other related activities. The marchers for science in India have been calling for solidarity to such a strike. What does a climate strike mean for Indian scientists though? More importantly, if they are to join the call, what should it be about? It is necessary to be clear about this before we jump head first into the rising enthusiasm that a broad mobilisation often generates. 

The climate strike on September 20 is to be undertaken as an explicit show of solidarity and support to the youth led "school strikes for climate" spearheaded by Greta Thunberg since last year. The strikers call for immediate climate action and seek to call out those who hide behind an unscientific dismissal of the most urgent environmental problem of our times on the one hand, and electoral exigencies on the other, to avoid taking climate action in the present and even in the immediate future. While there is no doubt about the need for urgent climate action, especially by the global North, it is first necessary to clearly understand the movement itself. 

The student-led movement for climate action has found traction amongst many a young people. The problem, of course, is real, and the manifestation of extreme events in the last decade suitably highlighted by the media, mostly as heralding apocalyptic doom, alongside a steady and increasing inclusion of the subject itself in school curricula, has led to large-scale awareness about it, at least among the young educated population of the First World if not elsewhere to the same extent.

But the reality of the problem and its apparent awareness alone are no guarantee of a large-scale mobilisation on the issue. The problems of unemployment and poverty are also real after all. We haven't seen mobilisations on these for many years now. But the environmental crises, climate change being its most urgent manifestation in our times, has made such mobilisation possible. If one looks closely at this phenomenon though, the reasons for this are apparent. 

The "them" and "us" in this new climate movement is clearly oversimplified, making broad-based slogans appealing to a youth that has been taught to view all politics as suspicious. The "them" in this debate is not global capital. It is all those who refuse to do or say anything about climate change despite being in positions to take action that is viewed as necessary and urgent -- a ban on the use of all fossil fuels. By implication, it is the adults, or at least all those who are above the age of 40. The "us" is not the working masses. It is not the poor. It is, broadly speaking, children. Those who are to inherit this polluted and rapidly warming earth. The problem is simplified then to a large extent with all other forms of differentiation removed from the equation.

Support for the movement from environmental organisations, most of which also view the environment in a similarly simplified manner, is, therefore, not surprising. The view that the environmental crises transcends national boundaries, class, and other petty things that divide us in the real world, is popular among international environmental NGOs. Equity as a basic element of climate action has been increasingly removed, if it ever was a part of the narrative in these organisations. Fossil fuels have to, therefore, be banned in the US, European Union, India, China, Afghanistan, and Burkina Faso also, immediately and completely.

This may be a broad generalisation of the general sentiment in the movement, and to be fair there are those who do acknowledge that we do not live in an equal world. However in most cases, this understanding only extends to the differential nature of the impacts of climate change -- that those who will be affected are those who have not caused the problem. This understanding is also reflected in the increased mainstreaming of narratives of gender-just climate action and the rights of indigenous peoples while dealing with the impacts of climate change. However, the question of how the vulnerability of these populations is to be reduced is often brushed under the rug as it involves dealing with more complicated problems. Can poorer countries and populations become less vulnerable without means to protect themselves and improve their resilience? Can this be done without access to modern infrastructure and amenities?

The question of equity in climate action has many dimensions. In the current dominant mode of production, i.e. capitalism, it may well be possible to find a solution to climate change. But will such a solution be equitable? Who will bear the burden of saving the planet? Those advocating for climate action in the US – from Jerry Brown to John Kerry – are no socialists. Yet, they aren’t climate deniers a la Donald Trump either. But their solutions, which are essentially dependent on the potential for global capital to see profit in undertaking energy transitions, are likely to relegate a vast majority of the global population to an uncertain future. A future devoid of any means to improve their well-being and increase their resilience to weather variability. These aspects of the problem do not make for easy, accessible slogans however.

When a global call for a strike is given, therefore, one has to think through what it means for everyone involved, with all the pesky things that do divide us in the real world, and whether a coming together in real solidarity is possible despite that which divides us. It is understood that the scientists calling for a climate strike (i.e. leaving their labs and classrooms for a day of protest) are not doing so for traditional reasons, i.e. demanding an increase in wages or shorter working days etc. They are doing so as a symbolic gesture, asking the state, which is the responsible entity in any country for climate action, to take cognizance of their work, and stop dragging their feet on an important global problem. This is understandable in the developed countries. While these countries are responsible for most of the carbon emissions so far, the governments of these countries have also been the ones most complacent about climate action.

The intended contributions of the developing countries under the Paris Agreement far outweigh the intended contributions of the developed countries. And even what was intended by the developed countries when the Paris Agreement was signed, is only four years down the road looking increasingly impossible as one of the largest emitters of carbon in cumulative terms, the US, has indicated its intention to withdraw from the Agreement which comes into effect in 2020. Others are simply hiding behind the inaction of the US in not meeting their own pledges. 

In such a situation, what is the standpoint of Indian scientists and students in a call for a climate strike? Should they also strike work? In doing so, will they be making a statement against the Indian government? This would be then based on the premise that the Government of India is not doing enough for climate change. Despite its many transgressions on local environmental issues, it cannot be honestly argued that the Indian government is doing less than its fair share in terms of contributing to climate change mitigation. In fact, it may be doing far more than its fair share, in a manner so bombastic but unplanned, that its effect on an already stressed economy and a people starved of even basic amenities, may be highly negative. So the position of those in India participating in the climate strike cannot be the same as those doing so in front of the White House.

One should also remember that in the arena of climate science, scientists from developing countries have had to routinely go up against their counterparts from the global North, increasingly so in recent years, to ensure that the very basic objective fact of differentiation between the countries of the global North and those of the global South is not diluted and the results from climate science themselves are not used in an unfair manner to push the burden of climate action on to poorer countries.

It is, therefore, with a clear understanding of the issue as it stands, that one should call for global solidarity on climate change. That climate change has to be addressed is unequivocally accepted. But it has to be done in a manner that recognises the divide between the developed and less developed countries, between global capital and the large mass of working people of the world. It is very much possible to come together in solidarity across borders to ensure that climate change be addressed in a just and equitable manner. But it cannot be done alongside the new age environmental movements that are being backed by entities that have a dodgy history on not just environmental concerns but most definitely on equity and justice. Climate action in the Third World has to be based on a vision for not just an ‘urgent’, but also a just and equitable solution to climate change.

Tejal Kanitkar is with the Energy Environment Program, School of Natural Sciences and Engineering, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru. The views are personal.

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