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  • Charlotte Owen-Burge

Sunita Narain: It’s coyness that’s killing action on climate change

Sunita Narain achieved cult status long before she was featured in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential List or even before her iconic confrontation with Leonardo DiCaprio in his documentary, Before the Flood. A paper Narain co-authored in 1991 remains a foundational charter of the global climate justice movement, which she continues to campaign on, fighting to ensure that sustainable growth is affordable, inclusive and equitable.


Narain is currently the director of the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment. For decades, she has been a pioneering advocate of pollution control in the Indian capital. She is also the editor of the magazine Down to Earth.



The simple fact is that climate change impacts are happening now. And that, for me, is one of the most difficult challenges that communicators on climate change have. You’re trying to sell a story to people living a daily routine that is tough enough, and there are enough crises in today’s world. You’re indicating to them a possibility that more will go wrong in the future. That has been a very tough message to get through.


But today is a different world. There’s no longer an if, but or maybe. Whether it’s the fires in the Arctic or Australia, whether it’s in India with the intensification of cyclones, locust attacks or extreme rain. There is no doubt now that climate change is upon us.


Part of the reason why many people still don’t understand the gravity of the situation is that people will only take action when it directly affects them. But I think human beings also act when they begin to see the impacts of their actions on others. And we’re not doing an excellent job of showing our impacts on the poor in the world, making it clear, for instance, that what’s happening to farmers in Africa is because of the emissions that the rich world has caused. That story is still not being told with the rigour and clarity it needs. We need to tell it as it is happening today, with many more voices coming in.


We have turned climate change into a very polarised debate. It’s a middle- to an upper-middle-class conversation, but it needs to be far more inclusive. If we make the environment a middle-class issue in India, we’ve lost the plot. We need to make it an issue which centres on the poor. And conversations must include issues of justice, race, gender and age so that we can bring in all the different voices into it and tell the true story.


What worries me the most is if the environment becomes an elitist concern, if it becomes a concern about: “oh, we care about the environment because we don’t want the next incinerator in our backyard. But it can go in the backyard of the poor”. We must confront this perception of inconvenience.


It is the rich who are the problem

The poor in India are far more resilient and far more understanding of the need for change. They will adapt and take on tough challenges; if you tell them that things have to be done differently, they will do so. Yes, education is needed. Yes, information is needed. But they will do it because they understand the need for change. Whereas the rich and middle classes in India – as everywhere – although we understand climate change, it’s easier to talk about it than to practice the lifestyle changes needed.


It is the rich who are the problem when it comes to climate change. But we need to be the solution. For us to be the solution, we must do things much better and with much greater boldness. This isn’t just about taking a bicycle a day or rejecting a plastic bag. No, that’s not enough. And it’s not about waiting for technology and systems to make those changes for us.


We need to make solutions that are inclusive and affordable for everyone

The technology answer has always only been part of the answer because, yes, there will be a technology that may come up in the future, and there is no doubt that human beings are incredibly ingenious. We will work to make sure we find answers. But if technology solutions don’t work for everyone – for the poorest and most vulnerable in society – then it will only be one-quarter of the solution.


Take Covid-19. It disproportionately affects the poor since they might not have clean water or live in congested homes. But if the vaccine we get for Covid doesn’t reach every poor person, then it exposes everyone. And this is much the same as the climate crisis.


Provide solutions for the poorest, and everyone else will get served as well. For example, organic agriculture shouldn’t just be for the elite; it should be everybody’s right to consume food grown sustainably and not contain dangerous chemicals. We need to make solutions that are inclusive and affordable for everyone.


As individuals, we can’t fix climate change, but we can demand leadership that shows us a better way ahead and tells us there is a possibility of fixing the problems; that there are ways of doing things differently. We must do this because leaders have become very coy and defensive: “I shouldn’t rock the boat too much because then I won’t get people to accept me”.


I think it’s coyness that’s killing action on climate change. I think people are ready! I believe society is far bolder, with a greater appetite for looking at things differently than our leaders. Leadership comes from showing direction, but this is not happening. Our leaders are incompetent.


Look at what we’re dealing with under Covid today. All of us now know what disruption is, and we understand that we’re looking at uncertain futures when it comes to jobs, economies, our health and our children’s education. I don’t think our leaders understand that people are ready for a transformed world, and it is they who are not prepared.


If we don’t have democracies, we cannot win the war against climate change

It worries me post-Covid that there’s such an effort to bring authoritarian regimes into many countries. They seem to think the only way they can win the war against the virus is to be authoritarian. Democracies have failed, that’s becoming the narrative, and I think that’s worrying because if we don’t have democracies, we cannot win the war against climate change.


I don’t think responsibility begins and ends anywhere, but I do believe the media has a significant role to play. In India and elsewhere, we must tell the stories from the ground up, from the point of view of the people on the frontlines of the climate emergency. People want to know what’s happening, but there’s so much information, it’s hard to know where to look. The mainstream media has got lost in this noise and perhaps can’t see through it.


But I believe people do have the ability to cut through this noise. I look at the young in particular; they’re so smart with media. In my generation, social media came too late, so we’re so enamoured by it. I think we need to be able to harness that, and the role of media is vital, alongside the role of governments and democracy.


I have no doubt we will find the answers but only if we are bold enough to talk about things which are more inconvenient and not brush them under the carpet. We will only fight this fight if we keep our voices as clamorous as possible and talk truth to power. Only then.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity - 12th August 2020

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