Catastrophe and Optimism: South Asia at the UN Climate Summit

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Catastrophe and Optimism: South Asia at the UN Climate Summit

Although India’s PM Modi skipped it, South Asia still had a presence at the climate change gathering in New York.

Catastrophe and Optimism: South Asia at the UN Climate Summit
Credit: REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Nearly 20 years ago, Atiq Rahman, a Bangladeshi dignitary attending the 1995 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Berlin, said, “If climate change makes our country uninhabitable, we will march our wet feet into your living rooms.” Last week, some 400,000 people marched across New York City to ask the United Nations to take action preventing climate catastrophe. Twenty years after Rahman first sounded the alarm, can activists help stop disaster in South Asia?

The river of protestors on New York’s Avenue of the Americas was 3.5 kilometers long. Powerful figures joined the protest, including former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Amid the crowd, a contingent of Bangladesh, Indian, and Nepalese activists numbered just a few dozen people. That group nonetheless featured an important dignitary of its own: London-based climate scientist Saleemul Huq, one of 38 civil society members invited to address the UN Climate Summit.

Huq, who would later call the march “good fun,” leads Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN) and has established Bangladesh’s International Center on Climate Change and Development. Both organizations are engaged with research and policy on protecting the Bengali delta, considered one of the most climate-vulnerable areas in the world.

Speaking with The Diplomat prior to the march, Huq explained the challenges facing the nation: “Almost every climate change problem you can think of is going to happen in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is well-known to be, if not the most vulnerable country, one of the most vulnerable countries.” In an interview, BEN member Sufian Khondoker added that projected sea level rise of 1-1.5 meters will mean “we lose almost 16% of the country. It is a tremendous problem for Bangladesh…. 17 million people could be affected. And they have to go somewhere.”

Huq is optimistic about the government’s participation in solutions. Among Least Developed Countries, Bangladesh was among the first to develop an UN-recommended National Adaptation Plan of Action, which the government upgraded to a comprehensive Climate Strategy and Action Plan. Then, Huq says, Bangladesh became “the first country in the world to have a budget line item for tackling climate change.”

Khondoker agrees, but adds, “In actual policy formulation, no implementation has begun.” He notes that climate migration “has to be reorganized by the government,” and that avoiding political strife over outmigration into India will depend on “an understanding between the governments that India is willing to take a limited number of people and settle them.”

Side by side with Huq and the Bangladesh Environment Network at the People’s Climate March were Indians who would like to see that diplomatic understanding occur. The march contingent included a broad range of organizations, including EcoSikh, a group of Punjabis Sikhs acting out of religious beliefs about environmental stewardship; a representative of India-based group Indian Youth Climate Network; and Bay Area environmentalist group Brown and Green. The organizations’ viewpoints were very diverse.

In an interview, Brown and Green founder Anirvan Chatterjee explained his perspective. Just as World War II resulted in a “double victory” that brought an end to both Nazi fascism and British imperialism in India, he says, the sweeping global changes necessary to avert climate crisis might also end the subcontinent’s poverty. But while the group uses the slogan “#DecolonizetheClimate,” Chatterjee explained, “Brown and Green members see ourselves as situated in the American context. We don’t necessarily see it as entirely our place to be dictating to South Asian governments what they should be doing.” Nonetheless, he hoped “an ambitious agreement is reached” by the UN, and emphasized international money: “Adaptation means starting dumping money into the green climate fund right now and not just waiting for some theoretical future date.”

Other South Asian activists disagree. “India is not a poor country. It is poorly managed,” says Indian Youth Climate Network founder Kartikeya Singh. “India does not need to look for funding to the outside for its internal affairs…. Policies can be put in place to pay for climate resilience.”

Singh says his group has won awards in India for initiatives on renewable energy – a hot topic in a country where development is understood to involve delivering electricity for the 400 million Indians currently living without it. Now “a negotiator for the Maldives in the UN climate negotiations,” he feels few of Chatterjee’s qualms about naming desirable policies. “There’s a lot of smart policy that would make India climate-efficient, that would not be the business as usual route,” he says, citing improved waste management, solar energy sources, and the phasing out of carbon emissions.

Contrasting viewpoints may be par for the course. As a whole, the South Asian climate marchers represented no single nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or class. Their motivation ranged from scientific objectivity to religious belief. Some, like Chatterjee, are second-generation Americans with no firsthand experiences of the subcontinent; in contrast, activist Binod Shah said he’d moved to the U.S. from Nepal just four months ago.

Indeed, the ability to gather such a broad South Asian coalition speaks to the importance of the overarching goal. Bandana Kaur, an organizer from religious environmental group Sikhs for Climate Justice says, “I do not see conflicts between the different groups. We’re all talking about the same issue and the same results we’d like to see.” The same message came across in the record-breaking 400,000-person march, which seemed to include every conceivable demographic.

There were, however, a few people missing. Although Singh notes that some 72 percent of Indians believe that climate change is “real and affecting them,” a companion march in Delhi drew just 2,500 people. And India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, declined to attend the UN Climate Summit.

Since his inauguration, Modi’s approach to the issue has varied from silence to inscrutable remarks denying climate change. Chatterjee, Singh and Huq all call his actions confounding, given that Modi led environmental initiatives in Gujarat just a few years ago. Chatterjee says, “We’re incredibly disappointed with Modi…. For me, it’s basically heartbreaking.”

Huq, who attended the UN Climate Summit, points out that Modi dispatched an emissary to the UN Climate Summit only because he’d be speaking himself during the UN General Assembly three days later. On Friday, Modi’s remarks included oblique appeals to climate action, including “being honest in shouldering our responsibilities in meeting the challenges” with “imagination and commitment.” But rather than a quantifiable commitment to reducing carbon emissions, the remarks contained a religious note (“In India… we treat nature’s bounties as sacred”) and ended with a left turn: “Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day.”

The speech delivered by Indian Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Javedekar at the Climate Summit was more revealing. Like Modi’s speech, it used the phrase “common but differentiated responsibilities,” but clarified that Modi’s administration considers wealthy nations responsible for reducing emissions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It included rejection of proposed international oversights: “Any review of domestically determined contributions would not be acceptable in many countries, including India.” The speech made no mention of the diplomatic work necessary to manage climate migration between South Asian nations.

If the Indian government is so far unswayed, however, that may leave them among the minority at the UN. Huq, who attended the Climate Summit, said many heads of states “actually cited the march as an inspiration or something that is urging them to take action.” He says several nations, including the Maldives, publicly committed to phasing out fossil fuels. “People in New York and all over the world demonstrated their desire to see action,” Huq said. “The momentum now is very positive.”

Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva, who also marched on Sunday, shared Huq’s viewpoint. “The greatest impact of the march is on the marchers, and the fact that they realize that… they can’t be mute witnesses as government betray their commitments to the UN. It surely will continue. Otherwise, we are finished as a species.”

M. Sophia Newman, MPH, was a 2012-2013 Fulbright grantee to Bangladesh who lives in Dhaka and works as a freelance writer.