An interview with Nagraj Adve
“I have for long held that other species are already worse impacted from climate change than humans are.”
Nagraj Adve is a founder member of Teachers Against the Climate Crisis (TACC). He has engaged with democratic rights issues for the last three decades and has been speaking and writing on the science, impacts, and politics of global warming for the last 16 years.
Praveen Gupta (PG): Your book is based on conversations with various people. Why would they not consider it imaginable that human beings had the power to alter nature on this scale? How does one overcome this mindset?
Nagraj Adve (NA): It is partly to do with the properties of greenhouse gases. They cannot be seen (unlike air pollution) or smelt (unlike chemical pollution). Hence the problem seems abstract and the changes seem natural. After all, humans have a very long history and memory of natural events but climate change is very recent.
Having said that, this attitude is now changing. There is much more conversation about climate change than there used to be – in the media, in schools, etc. But most of all, extreme events – such as rainfall, floods, heat waves – and also erratic rainfall, have become more frequent and intense in India, and they are the strictest teacher. Extreme events also get broadcast into people’s drawing rooms via television. So people are beginning to realise that strange things are happening. Nothing seems normal anymore.
About the lack of information or understanding – and there is still a lot of that in a country with over 1.4 billion people with varying degrees of literacy – it can be overcome, not entirely but to a fair degree, with much more planned effort at reaching out: via accessible literature, TV discussions, videos circulated on mobile phones, radio programmes, and other outreach both by governments and civil society groups. And it is essential that such communication is not only in English but also in multiple languages – even though the most updated material is largely in English – given that millions of people in India cannot read or speak English.
PG: The huge differences of incomes and wealth in India have deepened over the last twenty-five years. A nation-state framework of global warming ignores massive internal differences of income and wealth?
NA: The latest report from the IPCC makes the direct links between incomes and global emissions very clear. Its Working Group 3 report says, “Emissions remain highly concentrated, with the top 10 percent emitters contributing to between 35-45 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom 50 percent contribute [merely] 13-15 percent... The top 1 percent of income earners could have a carbon footprint 175 times that of an average person in the bottom 10 percent” (Chapter 2, p. 264). The report also states that the rich are distributed across nations, though a greater number are, as one may expect, in developed countries. And it is not just income; differences in wealth are also responsible for unequal emissions, as the work by the French economists Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel have made clear.
Differences in income and wealth have indeed deepened in India over the last 25 years, just like in many other countries. The reasons are structural, not accidental, a consequence of recent years of contractualisation and informalisation of labour, and the persistence of older inequities such as limited landholding or access to irrigation water by poor women or by underprivileged caste groups. On the one hand, 1 per cent of Indians own 58 per cent of the country’s wealth, said a recent study. At the other end of the scale, the fragile conditions in which so many people live and work became obvious to all with the desperate reverse migration by lakhs of workers following the COVID lockdown in 2020.
Much of mainstream literature and politics does not address this inequality sufficiently. Equity between countries is, correctly, one pillar of climate negotiations at the COPs over the last 30 years. But such an important principle should apply not just between countries but also within countries. This implies that consumption by the wealthy should be reduced via progressive carbon and wealth taxes so the poor have the ecological space to develop. Otherwise the rich within countries may hog all the carbon space just as developed countries might, both of which we wish to avoid.
There’s another limitation of the nation-state framework. Let us consider two facts: one, in over 30 years since the world’s governments have been negotiating about the climate crisis, the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, instead of declining, have risen by over 60 per cent. Two, half the 2,500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions emitted by humans since the mid-19th century have taken place in just the last 35 years. Partly this has to do with the spread of manufacturing to China. These two facts cannot be explained without taking into account the underlying drivers of modern economies – maximising profits and growth, and the roots of global warming lie in these inherent drivers. The nation-state framework – in which most international issues have been discussed, not just climate but others as well, for about 150 years – is not structured to interrogate these underlying drivers of modern economies.
The IPCC report makes this link clear too – it states that, globally, economic growth remains the strongest driver of greenhouse gas emissions, outpacing the improvements in energy intensity and carbon intensity. Between 2010 and 2019, the world’s greenhouse gas emissions rose by 1.3 per cent a year, despite these technological advances (Working Group 3, Chapter 2, p. 264). The implications of this are that, despite the expansion of renewables and other technological advances in recent years, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise in spurts for years, while all recent scientific reports have been saying they should be brought down quickly. That can only happen if we slow down growth as well and restructure our societies significantly. How we can do that and yet generate the millions of jobs needed is a key challenge.
PG: Those least responsible for global warming bear its burdens the most?
NA: Yes. That is by now quite evident, in India and the world over. Though impacts are worldwide, they are hitting the poorest countries and also the poor within the wealthier countries harder than those better-off. In the Indian context, this includes rain-fed farmers, poor women, historically underprivileged castes, and working people in both urban and rural areas.
This reality is now part of what is called in climate change literature as ‘climate justice’. But even the climate justice literature generally is silent about what we are doing to other species. Other species are facing many kinds of climate impacts – having to shift their geographical location (what is called shifts in species’ range), changes in the timing of annual lifecycle events (phenological changes), and other impacts on other species, such as from heat stress or extreme rainfall. I have for long held that other species are already worse impacted from climate change than humans are.
PG: Even with a 0.7°C average warming in India, the impacts of climate change are worrying. Do you see the urgency that the situation warrants?
NA: No, not really. A landmark report in 2020 from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune (IITM) had made clear the dire climatic changes that would hit India if the world were not to shift soon from our current emissions trajectory – far more frequent, longer, and intense heat waves, more intense rainfall, other extreme events, etc. I am particularly worried about the combination of heat and humidity, measured by wet bulb temperature. There are certain physiological thresholds above which even the very fit will die if they spend a few hours outside in the shade because, beyond those thresholds, our bodies lose the capacity to shed heat by sweating. I am concerned that large swathes of India may approach those thresholds in the decades to come if the world does not reduce emissions quickly. That will be a disaster beyond our imagination.
India can hardly shift the needle alone; it requires all the world’s governments, the large emitters in particular, to come together to put down and then meet more ambitious pledges. The current updated pledges will take the globe to an average warming of 3 degrees Celsius (oC), way beyond what human civilisation has ever experienced.
But even India’s updated NDC could be more ambitious. For instance, our second pledge, attaining half our share of electricity capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy sources by 2030, could have been stepped up. As of 31 January 2023, our electricity capacity from non-fossil fuel sources had already crossed 42 percent of total capacity (174,780 MW out of 411,648 MW; Central Electricity Authority data), and we still have over seven years to go. Two, an electricity generation target would have been better than a capacity target because it better reflects the amount of electricity actually used. Three, it should have been made unconditional, instead of being conditional on receiving financial support from industrialised countries.
The urgency is muted in India because most people have a range of other, often grave issues on their plate, and also because most people, even those who engage with climate change, do not realise or sufficiently appreciate the very-long term nature of many impacts. We are at the beginning of a very, very long curve with many of them. Such as sea level rise.
PG: The scientific community has done its bit. How could political and economic elites, policy makers, unions and other organisations in civil society, and the climate justice movement chip in?
NA: This is a very large question that will need many pages to respond to adequately. Also, in clubbing together all the groups you have mentioned in your question, there is an assumption that the interests of each are in harmony. That may not be the case.
But for the moment, let us say that each has its own role to play. Political leaders need to realise that climate change is a crisis and hence display far greater urgency than they have for the last 30 years of negotiations. They need to throw all their resources and political will into the problem. There are at least two examples of their having done so in the last 75 years – the rebuilding of Europe under the Marshall Plan, the urgent responses of many countries to the COVID crisis in developing vaccines very quickly and other measures (incomplete as many of them were). Political elites and think tanks in India ought to abandon the approach that we will not, or can not, do more because we are historically not responsible for the problem (which is largely true).
Trade unions, at least those in India, need to engage far more than they have with climate change, for two key reasons – climate impacts on their working base will intensify, and millions of workers and others will be impacted by the unfolding energy transition in coal mines, coal thermal plants, automobiles, auto parts, and other industries. These transitions require planning years, perhaps decades, in advance in which unions need to play a leading role.
The climate justice movement needs to connect to the process of energy transition and do a lot more. It needs to be pushing for more urgent action on multiple fronts – mitigation, adaptation, climate communication, and a more just transition. It is a lot of work.
PG: Is it true that in most states the NDC estimations were done with little consultation? Do you have the confidence in mitigation and adaptation capabilities of various state governments?
NA: Not the NDC but the state action plans. To the best of my knowledge, only the government of Madhya Pradesh organised extensive consultations in several districts of the state when the SAPCCs were first drafted. Many state action plans are currently being revised and updated. I hope there is greater consultations with women’s groups, trade unions, and other collectives before they are finalised. The process needs to be entirely transparent. This also applies to adaptation policy measures. For example, the Delhi government reportedly has a draft heat action plan being finalised. But there’s just no clear information on what it contains and where the process has reached.
The adaptation capacities of state governments have certainly improved a lot in certain areas. To give you two examples – deaths from heat waves have fallen significantly ever since heat action plans have been implemented in several states. Two, because of improved technologies and better warning systems, deaths from cyclones have fallen sharply in the last 20 years. Compare the over 10,000 deaths from the Odisha supercyclone of 1999 with recent cyclones to hit the state such as Fani, which saw no or hardly any deaths.
While capacities have certainly improved, political will needs to improve too. State governments, helped by resources from the Centre, can do a lot more if they choose to. Despite improved capacities, state government responses to climate events of the last few years have been very uneven.
PG: Solar power capacity as your book went into print was pledged to grow to 100 gigawatts (GW) by 2022. There is a significant shortfall. Does this translate into increased dependence on coal?
NA: Well, we are in 2023, and our solar capacity is currently roughly 65 gigawatts. But in recent years, what has really been slowing down is wind power, more than solar. There are varied reasons for this, some of them complex. I also read that investment in renewables in India in very recent years has not been as robust as one may wish. Private investment has been sluggish in general, even beyond the energy sector. The Adani controversy may impact renewables investments and generation very slightly in India and only in the short term, but not much in the medium term because other companies will step in.
There also needs to be greater financial support and subsidies for decentralised solar because solar power takes about 5 acres of land for every 1 MW of capacity, a scarce resource in a country so reliant on agriculture and related activity and the commons.
The use of coal in India, both due to electricity generation and in industry for heating and other industrial processes, will rise for a decade, a rough guess. And it may flatten after that, at best. That is partly because even though capacities have risen, actual electricity generation from renewables is still low; two, though electricity access has improved a lot in India in recent years, there are still millions of people who get it for only some hours a day and even that quality is poor; and three, urbanisation is still unfolding in India. In industry, the electrification of superheating processes is only just beginning. And electrification of certain sectors, such as transport, has begun, which will increase the demand for electricity.
PG: What threats do expanded commercialisation of forests pose?
NA: Honestly, this question is beyond my competence, and there are no easy black-and-white answers to it. There may be some gains with money coming in to protect forests but also a lot of potential damage that may well be far larger. New mechanisms in the climate landscape such as REDD+ need to be implemented very carefully to ensure that they do not harm Adivasis and other forest-dependent communities. They have fought for years for individual and collective rights over forests via the Forest Rights Act, and these could easily be undermined by commercial interests in the name of addressing climate change.
We have also witnessed absurdity in how compensatory afforestation could play out. Lakhs (1 lakh = 100,000) of very old trees are to be cut in Great Nicobar due to a planned port and related and unrelated infrastructure. Its compensatory afforestation will take place in Haryana, a completely different region and landscape thousands of kilometres away.
I am concerned about what ‘net zero’ may imply in this context in the future. For those not familiar with the term, net zero refers to when the amount of carbon dioxide taken down from the atmosphere by human interventions equals the amount we emit, over a specified period. To account for the reduction of other gases like methane, one needs to remove an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. Such removals would include augmenting forest cover, which means greater commercialisation. It will definitely mean huge profits for companies; what it means for forest communities remains to be seen.
PG: Successive governments continue to hide behind the poor by saying “India’s emissions are low.” Do you believe government and elites would show the way out, in the absence of people’s pressure from below?
NA: We have to decide first whether climate change is just another problem or whether it is a planetary crisis. If the latter, then our responses need to go beyond more solar and wind and other technological fixes. Notwithstanding the expansion of renewables worldwide, there is little evidence that elites would show us the way out by themselves. Notwithstanding what it may profess, the European Union has pushed for a huge expansion of gas infrastructure in the context of its energy crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Biden Administration, despite passing the Inflation Reduction Act, is also approving new oil exploration and gas exports. Economic elites too, banks and other financial institutions, continue to massively fund and lend to fossil fuel projects to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.
They are able to do so because there is not sufficient pressure from below, despite the rise of youth climate movements over the last five years. It is not a serious political issue in many countries, other than the United States, where political parties have had to respond to versions of the Green New Deal. In India, other than a few mainstream parties in Tamil Nadu, climate change is not a party-political issue.
PG: Should one blindly accept growth as a mantra when there is a rising call for degrowth?
NA: Degrowth does not, and should not, imply that economies will shrink and we will lose jobs and reduce the lifestyle of most. It does, however, mean that the very rich be made to consume less while the poor be supported and their lives improve. To be honest, I am a bit unsure about degrowth not because it is not a good idea but because it is just that: an idea. Modern economies are structured around maximising growth.
However, we do need to stop valorising growth and focus on people’s basic needs and employment first; as most people’s basic needs are met and incomes and livelihoods improve, lower but perhaps more sustainable rates of growth will automatically happen. That way, we may also be in greater harmony with Nature.
PG: Many thanks for the brilliant insights, Nagraj. My best wishes for your leadership and vision.
This interview was also published at www.thediversityblog.com. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the author
Praveen is a former insurance CEO and a Chartered Insurer. He devotes his time to researching, writing, and speaking on diverse subjects. Praveen was the second most-read author in the environment and sustainability space for illuminem in 2022. His blog www.thediversityblog.com captures much of his work.