Defining the Humanisation of Climate Change: An Endeavour to Bring Numbers to Life

A person holding up a sign at a protest that reads "There is No Planet B".
Climate Change Action: There truly, is no Planet B. [Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels]
“Describing the effects of climate change through a humanising lens would mean that instead of framing climate change with arbitrary deadlines of 2030, or 2050, we approach it intergenerationally: in 32 years’ time, a child born today will reach independent adulthood and the crises facing the next generation thus become defined by familial connections—which is how most people define their identity.” Humanising Health & Climate Change, The Lancet, November 2018.

As I look back over the past months of my AIF Clinton Fellowship experience, there is one conversation, one moment rather, that stands out clearly. It was a moment of clarity, a moment that steered me to the centre of my being and a moment that I know I will play in my head whenever I need inspiration. It was one of the first few conversations I had with my Project Supervisor, Mr. Suresh Kotla, at the Institute for Sustainable Communities. We were discussing my Fellowship project that focuses on climate sustainability and aims to accelerate the adoption of energy-efficient technologies through innovative business models within India as well as South-Asia including the countries of Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. As he delved into the details of the scope, objectives, targets, and interventions within the project, he took a pause and said, “it does not seem so to most, but I like to believe that this is saving lives, Mehar”. I knew and understood instantly what that meant. I knew because I had often found myself wondering how easy it is to get lost within the jargon of numbers, statistics, technology, and economics when it comes to the space of climate change and sustainability. I understood because I had often found myself lost therein as well. I still do.

I believe human beings, you and me, a majority of us, are a complex interplay of emotions. To attach ourselves to a cause, we seek relatability, we look to empathise, and we locate that empathy deep within the intersection of emotions and morality – rather than science or numbers. Hence, when one says the polar ice cap is melting by 0.005%*, or that the average annual loss of ice from Greenland and Antarctica increased by a couple hundred billion metric tons, or in fact that the Air Quality Index is below a certain number – we cannot see it, and until recent years, we were not able to feel it either. Therefore, it becomes rather hard to correlate and trace such information to the truly detrimental impact that it has over our lives. Even when we can see the effects of climate change, a case in point being the rising awareness about air pollution here in New Delhi, India – the mitigation and prevention steps are short-lived and the public memory of the same is myopic.

Furthermore, I believe we tend to the side of ignorance when it comes to imagining one’s own contribution to climate change in the backdrop of rationalising that many people, activists, international policies, and the government machinery, may already be fighting for it. What is one wrapper thrown on the side of the road, one lazy morning of letting the water run while we brush our teeth, one day of excitedly taking new stationary back home in a plastic bag because there is nothing else available at the shop – going to change? How would such a micro-situated individual action cause any harm? To be able to evoke individual engagement I believe it is thus important to humanise our conversations surrounding climate change.

Climate change is not just science, statistics, or numbers expressed in a currency that we cannot relate to or imagine any more. It spans across functions of our daily lives from productivity to health. For instance, the highest loss in work hours or productivity was recorded in India due to extreme heat in 2019[1][2]. The country witnessed the second-highest number of heat-related deaths in the world among those over 65 years of age in the year 2018[3][4]. Heat stress, heat strokes, and their impact on existing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases claimed 296,000 lives of those over 65 years of age across the world in 2018[5]. In fact, as per the fifth edition of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change report published on December 3 -without urgent action, climate change can cause damage to lives and livelihoods akin to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,  thereby halting economic, social and other essential activities, leaving nations to combat an unending chain of long-term consequences along with over-burdened healthcare systems across the globe[6].

What I have been able to understand, therefore, is that to motivate individual action and to cultivate collective consciousness towards this growing wave of combating climate change, there exists a need for a shift in narrative. A shift in the narrative of our day-to-day conversations, and of the lens and perspective with which we engage in such conversations surrounding sustainability and climate change action, with the people around us. A shift in the narrative from far-off deadlines set in international agreements, and numeric changes in concepts that we may not discuss over a gossip-loaded cup of coffee every day – to the impact it has on our families, our communities, and our quality of life. This is not and never to say that numbers are not important, it is only to say that we can strive to take them forward and give them a fitting place in routine human life.

As I come to the near end of penning down this string of thoughts that I have had with me in the past month, hoping to do justice with my words to what I have just begun to understand – I would like to borrow from a learning that has stayed with me ever since I read the wonderful book, “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes[7]. Amidst different reflections that I had while reading, this was one that made me realise the significance of individual action and memory in the larger schemes of things. I understood and learnt that often it is the responsibility of human beings to act on the consequences of a moral realisation. Whilst I embark on this journey, it shall remain my endeavour to do so.  

 

References: 

*Fictional number used for the purpose of expression.

[1] Nick Watts, Markus Amann, Prof Nigel Arnell, Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, Kristine Belesova, Prof Maxwell Boykoff et al., “The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change”, The Lancet, 2020.

[2] Nandi, Jayashree. “India Lost 118 Billion Work Hours Due to Heat in ’19: Study.” Hindustan Times, 2 Dec. 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-lost-118-billion-work-hours-due-to-heat-in-19-study/story-tyxzqV4OU1Zf70hBlaSHBM.html.

[3] Nick Watts, Markus Amann, Prof Nigel Arnell, Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, Kristine Belesova, Prof Maxwell Boykoff et al., “The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change”, The Lancet, 2019.

[4] Tripathi, Bhasker. “Coronavirus Pandemic Has Shown How Health Systems Can Fall Short to Handle Climate Change.” Scroll.In, 5 Dec. 2020, https://scroll.in/article/980274/coronavirus-pandemic-has-shown-how-health-systems-can-fall-short-to-handle-climate-change.

[5] Tripathi, Bhasker. “Coronavirus Pandemic Has Shown How Health Systems Can Fall Short to Handle Climate Change.” Scroll.In, 5 Dec. 2020, https://scroll.in/article/980274/coronavirus-pandemic-has-shown-how-health-systems-can-fall-short-to-handle-climate-change.

[6] Tripathi, Bhasker. “Coronavirus Pandemic Has Shown How Health Systems Can Fall Short to Handle Climate Change.” Scroll.In, 5 Dec. 2020, https://scroll.in/article/980274/coronavirus-pandemic-has-shown-how-health-systems-can-fall-short-to-handle-climate-change.

[7] Barnes, Julian. The Sense of an Ending. London: Jonathan Cape/Random House, 2011.

Mehar is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Sustainable Communities India Private Limited in Pune, Maharashtra. For her fellowship project, she is developing innovative business models for accelerating the adoption of energy efficient technologies in India as well as South-East Asian countries. Growing up in various locations across India and exploring diverse cultures, Mehar believes in the importance of communication and adaptability for understanding the needs of different groups and strengthening them through sharing ideas, knowledge and creating cooperative communities. Through her interactions with vulnerable groups in conflict regions, she recognises the value of empowering communities and building their resilience to adversity by developing systems for sustainable livelihoods. Mehar began her career as a Policy Analyst at Swaniti Initiative with a focus on bridging the gap between the community, civil society organisations and parliamentarians, as well as delivering development solutions to strengthen democratic institutions. Over the past year, she has facilitated the policy engagement efforts of a network of grass-root organisations across India on issues surrounding human trafficking and protection of migrant workers. She has also conducted capacity building workshops for women artisans in North India with an aim to increase their market linkages. Her recent project gave her the opportunity to assist the State Government of Jharkhand to strengthen climate change resilience within the state and assess the absorption of returning migrant workers into large-scale employment programs such as MGNREGA. Serving as an AIF Clinton Fellow, Mehar endeavours to build her experience in the development sector as well as understand the nuances of designing and implementing scalable and sustainable projects that drive social impact. She is keen to learn and foster innovative approaches that create synergies between the goals of economic growth and environmental preservation. An avid reader, she is fond of writing poetry and enjoys playing the guitar.

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