A series of extreme weather events in recent years has made people around the world sit up and start paying attention to climate change. Despite warning from climate scientists for decades about worse and more frequent storms, worse drought, sea level rise, crop failures and debilitating water scarcity, no one – not scientists, politicians, or members of civil society – has found adequate ways of addressing the problem.
Acclaimed writer Amitav Ghosh says that there has been an immense failure of literature, the arts and in journalism in telling stories about climate change. Scroll.in spoke Ghosh about his latest work The Great Derangement in which he talks about the intersection of science, politics, power, culture and narratives around climate change. Excerpts from the interview:
The past year, 2015-2016, has been quite a year in terms of extreme weather and so we have been using the words “climate change” a lot. We are ready to send water trains to Latur or send relief to those affected in the Chennai floods, but we have been unable to respond to the larger question of climate change that is only going to make such extreme weather events worse and more frequent. Is this responding to the immediate but not to the larger problem part of the derangement you talk about?
Yes, that is certainly one aspect of it. You are talking about a material response but what interests me is an imaginative response and that is so completely absent. Take the question of the Chennai floods. When I was writing this book, I started looking for writing about the Chennai floods.
There is coverage in the newspapers and while it was happening there was a lot of coverage on television. But as soon as the flood waters fell, it just disappeared. Nobody wrote about it. Nobody seems to have thought about it. It’s a very strange phenomenon.
Yesterday, two bright young journalists came to talk to me. They were both from Chennai and their families were badly affected by the flood. I asked them if they had written anything about it and they hadn’t. There are no memoirs, no accounts, no "this happened to me", nothing. It’s like nobody even wants to think about it and that is to me a strange thing.
A couple of years ago Visakhapatnam was hit by a really bad cyclone where, in fact, the roof of the airport was blown off but we don't seem to remember that. Is it a question about time then? Even about extreme weather events, we respond very differently to a drought that unfolds slowly from the way we respond to a cyclone or a storm that is quick. And then you have climate change that has been unfolding over decades. Is time the reason we have been unable to grasp the dangers of climate change?
I think time certainly is a factor yes. I think that is what is so important about trying to tell ways to tell stories in relation to climate change. I was in Delhi and was talking to a group of journalists and I was asking them how many of them had written about the heat wave – and it was a real epic heat wave – and none of them had. Nor had they thought about it as something that could be written about. It’s that missing connection that is of interest to me. Why does this not figure as something we can create writings about. I think here the failure of journalism and the failure of fiction go hand in hand. I think journalists too are looking for narratives and they are not able to find the narratives.
You have in the book this anecdote about a tornado in Delhi that you were caught in and how you haven’t been able to bring that into your novels. How did climate change come into The Hungry Tide?
It was really with The Hungry Tide that these issues came to the forefront for me because being in the Sundarbans and seeing what was happening there made climate change very real for me. You could see the impact unfolding in front of your eyes. And the impacts unfold at multiple levels that you don’t really recognise.
It is one thing to talk about a terrible storm like Cyclone Aila, which really caused devastation to the Sundarbans. What was even worse is that the cyclone brought enormous quantities of salt water into areas that were previously being cultivated, and for those areas to recover it will take decades. In the meantime what has happened is that millions of people are emigrating out of the Sundarbans. This has so many impacts that we don’t fully recognise. For example, there are studies which show that the sex trade in Kolkata is largely staffed by women from the Sundarbans – climate migrants. And I’m sure this is true not just of Kolkata but also of other cities in India.
There were reports this year of migrants from Bundelkhand being trafficked in Delhi for instance.
There was a stage at which more than 700,000 people were leaving Bundelkhand every day. Can you imagine the scope of that catastrophe? And there has been an absolute failure of our institutions to address it, to think about it, deal with it. It is really beyond belief, really.
And now that the monsoons have come we haven’t really asked what’s happened to those migrants.
We haven’t. Is anyone tracking that story? Is anyone tracking those migrants, where they are going? For years P Sainath has been following those stories in great detail but he is the great exception paying close attention to these issues. But you would think that this is the most important story that people would follow.
The derangement is in our heads but in some sense it is also in us as organisms. I’ll give you an example. I saw this very interesting interview with a farmer in Bundelkhand and they were talking about the drought and there have been droughts in the past. We are a water-stressed country. And he said in the past when there were droughts they would eat certain weeds, which were not cultivated but that would grow wild.
He said that he could still get by with eating those weeds but his children can’t. They are unable to digest those weeds. They are unable to extract nutrition from those weeds, which suggests to me that their biome has changed, their intestinal flora has changed and they have lost the enzymes which will allow them to adapt to their surroundings. So as our surrounding becomes more and more challenging, our bodies, our minds, our ways of life and thought are increasingly at odds with what is happening around us.
I mentioned those journalists from Chennai who gave me such an interesting story from Chennai. There is a developer in Chennai who is building a giant skyscraper which is literally a 100 metres from the sea, and it has a seven-floor basement. He started building this before the floods and after the floods he is continuing to build.
Imagine a seven-floor basement right in the part of the city next to the Adyar river which overflowed its banks and which will overflow its banks many more times. Apparently, they are charging a huge price because of the ocean view. You see the same thing at Miami beach.
This is the derangement – that rich people, informed people, are going to buy these flats knowing perfectly well that it is only a matter of time before the sea levels rise and it comes to get you.
Journalism about climate change has happened in fits and starts. When there is a Kyoto or Copenhagen or Paris then everyone is writing about it, and then it dies down. How have you seen it evolve?
It’s completely bewildering. Last year was an important year in terms of climate change but The New York Times cut its coverage of the environment massively. And this is perhaps the world’s leading paper.
The only paper that has consistently expanded its climate coverage is The Guardian and their coverage of climate change issue has been excellent. But other than that, it features less and less. Even as we see more and more dire warnings, the stories feature less and less.
Naomi Oreskes, the historian of science, interviewed some 200 climate scientists and all of them are in some degree of depression. You know the story of Cassandra and it is literally like that – they are telling us what lies ahead and no one is paying attention.
But there are also new challenges for science. Like you said – there are children in Bundlekhand who are not able to eat these foods that could get them through a drought. Climate is always posing a new challenge at the same time that people are not heeding the old warnings.That is exactly right. Climate change has really shown us how inadequate our tools of understanding are including climate science. They are always behind the curve. The more things happen, the more they realise how far behind the curve they are. It is a salutary lesson for those who think that technology is going to redeem us. That in fact, in our most advanced forms of climate science, they are constantly discovering how little we know about feedback loops, about the extent of connections.
I saw a graph about what climate scientists predicted about Arctic ice-melt and what the observational record shows. The observational record is completely different from what the model shows. It is much, much worse. The ice is melting much faster. In the same way, the methane gas releases are spiking in ways that we haven’t seen before.
So you wouldn’t place your bets on a massive move to renewables or carbon sequestering or other technological solutions being offered?
All the technological solutions are aimed at keeping the same economic model going. That, in effect, is the problem. Even if we move a 100 per cent to renewables, only 70 per cent of our carbon emissions come from energy consumption. Thirty percent comes from agriculture.
So if we continue to consume meat at that level and live this same sort of lifestyle, emissions of greenhouse gases is going to continue. Even with complete solarisation, even with complete changeover to alternate energy, if we keep pushing this model along, what difference is it going to make?
The other thing is that the problems in the ways in which the whole COP21 and Copenhagen has been framed by the climate bureaucracy is essentially this of finding a technological fix rather than proposing an alternative model of living. But after all solar energy is not free. Those panels have to be made and energy goes into the making of those panels. Similarly for wind turbines, you need these huge cement towers and these are also resource intensive. They will have their own carbon footprint. So it’s not that you can say that renewables will be a silver bullet that will get us out of this.
You mention certain factors that might have slowed climate change in the past – one is imperialism that brought Asia late to the carbon party, China’s one-child policy and to some extent what Gandhi espoused in terms of non-consumption driven living. Do you see anything in our current social or political structure that might keep us at 2 degrees Celsius or 1.5 degrees Celsius?
I believe that technically it is possible to stay at 1.5 degree Celsius even though it seems like a pie in the sky. But every climate scientist I have seen write about this says we are more likely to be heading towards 3 degree Celsius. I read today that by 2126 there is going to be a 10 degree warming.
So we just don’t know how fast this is going to happen. All the models and observational records are completely different. We know now that the IPCC has consistently underestimated the rates of change.
So do I see anything in our world system that will allow us to pull back? I can’t really say that I do. People think that the switchover from carbon to renewables is a matter of choice but it is not that simple. There are so many things that undergird the carbon economy, which will also need to change.
The position of the dollar is tied to the carbon economy. All petroleum exchanges are pegged to the dollar. This is not an accidental outcome. It was planned from the 1930s onwards. The position of the dollar as the dominant currency is completely tied to petroleum. If we did this big shift to solar it would mean that the dollar would crash or there would be some massive upheaval in the world’s financial system.
We don’t have the incentive to do it?
If faced with such a massive upheaval the world’s leading powers would resist it. Certainly the banking system would resist it. So it’s not just a question of changing one technology for another.
Is it then religion? You talk about how the Pope has come out with this brilliant encyclical on climate change. Could that change something?
What I am saying at the end of the book is that if you’re looking anywhere for hope, this is where to look. But actually the Papal encyclical is miraculous and an amazing piece of writing. But the Pope is completely exceptional among the world’s leaders. He is the only one who is thinking of what is important, what are the long term implications. I don’t see any leaders in the political system who are able to articulate these issues. Unfortunately most of the world’s leaders are tied into this election cycle of four or five years, which don’t allow them to conceptualise long-term issues.
In India, there isn’t climate denial like there is in the US, but there is very little discussion about climate change. Is this because people have more imminent threats and more immediate issues to take care of and think that climate change is something we will think about after that?
I ask myself that a lot and it can’t be just the imminent question. For Chennai and Mumbai, these are not imminent but are happening right now. For Kolkata too, sea level rise is inexorable. It's happening in front of our eyes.
The droughts, what they portend, is very much more terrifying. The Indian subcontinent is habitable only because of one phenomenon which is the monsoons. And now it turns out that the monsoon system is also incredibly fragile and can be disrupted quite easily. The monsoon is changing in ways that we don't understand and even monsoon specialists don't understand.
So these things are happening. They are imminent and happening right now. But, as you say, they are not in public discussion.
But when you go back and think of Chennai and the people who lived through those floods or Mumbai and the people who lived through the deluge of 2005, again, post the deluge the event didn't register and culturally it didn't register at all. I think somewhere there was one film made about it but none of us know of a single important book or poem or short story that's been written about it. We don't know of a single piece of art that's been produced about this.
I was recently in Mumbai and I met two artists who are great artists, among India's greatest artists, and they had been badly affected by the 2005 rains. Their house had been swamped. Their daughter was stranded for two days. So, a completely traumatic event. I said, "Did you make any art about it?" They said, "No."
This is happening across the arts.
Across the arts. This is one of the most interesting or horrifying aspects of this whole trajectory of climate change. As the climate has changed faster and faster, as we have pumped more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, our work, our ways of thinking, our ways of narrating stories has become more and more anthropocentric. It's as if even as we are destroying ourselves, we think we are the only things that matter.
What about pop culture and the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies that reach a large number of people? Do they have a foot in the door to telling stories about climate change?
I think these movies are great. I enjoy watching them. I think people enjoy watching them. It has to be said that to the credit of Hollywood that they have been very forward leaning on this issue of climate change. Many major Hollywood stars have talked about it. Leonardo Dicaprio is very involved with it. Matt Damon, Harrison Ford, have all been involved, which is not something you can say about the film world or cultural world in general.
But this exactly is the issue for me. The question then becomes that these films do so well and they have such a huge audience. Yet, they make no difference to the numbers of climate deniers, they make no difference even within popular culture. Why is that? It's because they are thought of as a separate genre. They are thought of as fantasy.
Or as science fiction novels.
Exactly. So in their mind people separate the two very neatly, just as they separate vampire movies and such. It's like it's happening in another dimension. This is what is really troubling. This will enter the popular imagination or the cultural imagination when we begin to treat them not as something that is happening in the future possibly, but as something that is very much present and happening all around us, just as we treat terrorism or riots.
Do you think that maybe the same people who have been reading and talking about climate change will pick this book up, that it may not reach other people?
That is already not the case. Certainly in India, the book has found a strangely ready audience. Which has actually come as a great surprise to me. As you know, psychologists have done studies and found that as soon as the subject of climate change is introduced in conversation, immediately the subject is changed. Nobody wants to talk about climate change. So that's what's been surprising – many people have been reading this book, it has found a large audience and more than that, it has entered discussion.
I was in Mumbai talking about these subjects and a friend of mine called me – I had talked on the radio in the morning – and said, "My daughter went to school and in her class they talked about disaster preparedness."
TV channels, magazines, all want to be on board in terms of discussing this issue. So what has happened is that people want to think about this but they don't know how. Which was my situation as well, and which is why I wrote the book. I wanted to make it possible for me to think about climate change.
Has the language in which we talk about climate change been the big barrier?
It is absolutely a big barrier. And the barrier is not accidental because there is a climate change bureaucracy which wants to reserve it for themselves, who want it to be a field of expertise within which they operate. I think they create this jargon around it because of exactly that. The issues are not so bewildering that you have to reduce it to a field of engineering.
There are climate scientists who are very vocal about the issue. There are others who are very cautious because it is a science of probability and you can't pin-point a single event and say it's because of climate change.
There is a whole field now called attribution studies where they are looking at individual events and looking for the climate fingerprint on it. But there are broader things – like now, as compared to the 1960s, there is more moisture in the air. There's a lot more energy in the air as well because moisture traps energy and moisture in itself is a greenhouse gas. So the thing is that now everything, not just the Chennai floods or the floods that just happened in Texas, everything now is affected by climate change.
Especially one phenomenon that we are now talking about with increased precipitation is the so-called rain bomb, which is when this incredible amount of rain falls in a very short period of time, which is what happened in Mumbai and Uttarakhand. We are going to see more and more of these rain bombs. So climate change plays a role in creating these rain bombs.
So it's not so much of an uncertainty.
It is by no means an uncertainty at all. Climate deniers may say, "Show me the exact way in which it happened," but what can you say when it's happening in front of your eyes.
But climate denial is not as prominent as it once was.
It isn't and that's one of the major achievements of COP21. The global community has agreed on what scientists have been telling us, that the atmosphere is changing and that human beings are largely responsible and all of this is true. You cannot deny this. So there is a global consensus.
There have been civilisations in Asia that have been built around hydrology and access to fresh water and now, as you say in your book, we have these big cities built on the edge of the ocean. Where did access to freshwater lose its primacy in the way we’ve built our societies?
That is such a long story one doesn’t know where to begin. All the great Asian civilisations are hydraulic civilisations. Control of water has been absolutely central to them. The Chinese built canals. Our great dynasties built tanks, reservoirs, canals, irrigation. It was always about water and people understood that.
But look at this latest drought. When Parliament finally held a session on it, a tiny fraction of MPs turned up. Our political class, including this political formation that we now have, which claims to be so authentically Hindu and all that – this most basic thing about our civilisation has disappeared from their head. That life on the subcontinent is absolutely tied to water – this has disappeared from their head. They don’t think that it is important, what is important is some other absurd tamasha. And that is what really makes you despair.
I just read this book on the Uttarakhand disaster that points out repeatedly that the politicians paid no attention to what was happening. The chief minister instead of paying attention to the disaster site went off to Delhi to hold press conferences. And in fact it was people on the ground who did what relief they could. To read that book is hair-raising because you realise that people are alone in this. Our institutions probably don’t have the resources and competences and secondly, they just don’t care.
Historically, when you had older civilisations there was someone saddled with the responsibility that "these are my people, this is my land, I have to take care of them". But this is one of the strange aspects of this derangement, that nobody thinks like that and everybody is thinking about themselves.
So there isn’t much good news.
Whether there is a solution or not is not for me to say. That is for scientists and technologists. But some impacts are built in, whether it is sea level rise, or more powerful cyclones. So at one level what we are faced with is that we have to brace for the impact.
What is your reading list of climate fiction books? What would you recommend and why?
I think why Barbara Kingsolver's book [Flight Behavior] is so important is because you don't read it because it is climate fiction. You read it for the same reasons you would read any other book or any other novel, because it is speaking of a predicament in which we find ourselves. It's a very remarkable book because it is set in the here and now in a part of middle America and is dealing with a poor woman who is trying to cope with the change around here. I also really like Liz Jensen's book, The Rapture, which is a powerful book.
I find some of the books that call themselves climate fiction are not that interesting at all.
And I find that some of the most interesting work done in this field is by women like Margaret Atwood. Doris Lessing was writing about these things a long time ago. JG Ballard has a very interesting book which he wrote in the '70s or '80s called The Drowned World. It's a really very interesting book. Ballard is a kind of writer who came out of a colonial experience and so it's about climate change envisioned through colonialism. So it is a very strange and interesting book.
I think what Liz Jensen and Barbara Kingsolver have done is capture the uncanny aspect of it. I think that's what purple writing about climate change as science fiction really misses – the uncanniness and how it makes you feel not at home, as it were.