If you’ve been following the news about flooded roads, cancelled trains, and holidays for school-going children because of heavy rainfall in Mumbai this week, you might be under the impression it’s a good monsoon in India this year. In reality however, the national rainfall deficit is at 9% below normal, leading to 10% below normal sowing of kharif crops.
Those of us who live in cities might remember the flooding and try to be better prepared for it next year but we are likely to quickly forget the national monsoon deficit numbers. We will forget not just because our livelihoods aren’t fundamentally linked to the monsoon, but also because we’re wired as humans to discount large-scale, long-term and somewhat abstract problems vis-a-vis more immediate discomforts.
The farmers of our country don’t have the same luxury. Climate change has firmly established itself as a cause of drought, failed crops and declining incomes for many years now. The same is true for those engaged in manual labour who have to contend with worsening summers, and the crores of Indians from lower socio-economic strata who have to adapt to emerging vector borne diseases and nutritional deficits resulting from climate change. Mridula Ramesh, the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, an investor in clean-tech startups and a teacher and writer on topics of climate change, seeks to reify this abstraction in her new book, The Climate Solution.
Impact and solutions
Over the first eight chapters of her book, Ramesh carefully unpacks the science of climate change and its impact on temperature, flooding, drought, diseases, nutrition and mental health for the lay reader in a highly accessible format. Take her explanation, for instance, of the carbon budget – the amount of emissions we can emit before reaching a certain temperature threshold. Ramesh notes that we have about 20 years before the carbon budget for a 2 degree rise in temperature is exhausted, a very short amount of time given the scale of coordination and action required by countries to fight it.
The second half of the book is dedicated to actions – by the government, private sector and individuals. Ramesh centres her experience of investing in environmental startups and reducing her household footprint to offer concrete examples of change. She makes three key arguments: first, we need appropriate pricing and competitive markets for water, waste and agriculture to reduce wastage and improve service delivery; second, Ramesh foresees a collaborative structure with the government, the private sector and individuals all contributing to governing resources and infrastructure; and third, she stresses the need to develop an innovation environment to foster sustainable development. These arguments are well-known but an argument is only as good as the empirical support provided for it and this is where Ramesh excels. Drawing on a number of case studies, she offers credible evidence for why we might want to pursue these strategies.
Paying for water?
Water governance in India is currently mired with leakages and overuse, owing to a lack of adequate metering and pricing. Ramesh highlights two key features of water governance in Israel to offer remedies. Water is treated as a common public resource by regulation – no single person owns water, even under the land they have purchased to build a house. It is also differentially priced – fresh water is more expensive than treated sewage and households, industry and farmers all pay different rates. These two mechanisms prevent overuse and generate the necessary funds to keep water treatment, desalination and delivery mechanisms operational.
Readers are right to worry about situations in which a private company owns our water – it is given to us by nature and should be free. This is not what Ramesh suggests. Rather, quoting Rajendra Singh, the “Water Man of India”, Ramesh argues that the price we should pay is for treatment, distribution and management, which are essential to ensure we utilise water to the maximum and reduce losses.
Ramesh also argues for collaboration in governance, where the government plays a regulatory role. The private sector and individuals participate by investing money, managing resources, innovating technology and creating better conditions for public service delivery. This means that governance is improved when we as private actors take ownership and participate in it. In a “checklist of actions” Ramesh makes a number of suggestions on energy, food, waste, water, transport and citizenship that individuals can adopt. The effectiveness of waste collection and management, for example, is significantly enhanced if individual households put in the effort to segregate their waste. Or use more public transport, if available, to travel long distances.
The role of government and innovation
Ramesh’s suggestions are important; we should open up markets and encourage pricing and competition. However, her discussion on the government’s role as a regulator is a bit limited. The government, even with its capacity constraints, is well-suited to operating at scale and taxpayers expect it to perform. Especially at the city scale, what can be done to improve public service delivery? Experiment and research on training and selection of public officials, administrative reform, financial and non-financial motivation of frontline public sector workers need special attention if we’re to make real scaled-up progress on governing collaboratively.
Finally, Ramesh is right to point out that technological innovation doesn’t happen automatically. It needs a reason, as well as an enabling environment. The reason, Ramesh argues, is apparent – climate change is altering lives at a massive scale. Fortunately, we’re making progress on enabling innovation as well. Ramesh highlights ongoing efforts at IITs, incubation programs to support entrepreneurship, better funding models and growing corporate interest in sustainability. By rationalising tariffs and opening up markets, she is optimistic that our innovation environment will get the boost it needs in the coming years.
As an extension to Ramesh’s call for innovation in technology and business, we also need to start paying more attention to developing robust research in the social sciences. As Ramesh herself suggests, major roadblocks to taking action are our biases and lack of information. How do we use well-established psychological tools to overcome these? One example already in the book is from Singapore, where residents were shown electricity usage patterns of their neighbours to encourage savings by appealing to people’s propensity to compare and compete. On the same lines, behavioural interventions that test group norms, public acknowledgement, and non-financial rewards, among others, need to be implemented and studied to understand how Indians might enhance their participation in governance processes.
A timely intervention
Beyond its core arguments, the value of this book is in the first half, in which Ramesh describes the origins and status of climate change. Delivering on her own argument that current scientific information on climate change is too difficult to read for the layperson, Ramesh does an excellent job of using analogies, examples and India-specific reports to guide the reader through a complex scientific issue. Besides the better-known impact of climate change on heat, floods, drought, disease and nutrition, Ramesh makes an uncommon but important statement about mental health impacts. An issue that already receives little attention in India, mental health is likely to worsen among people whose jobs and income are adversely affected by climate change and building a system to manage this “hidden” impact is essential.
Ramesh’s book is timely and important. Readers might have differing views on the solutions proposed, based on their vantage point. Some might argue for better designed subsidy schemes and others for greater civil society and community involvement. These are all valuable and in line with what the author suggests, that we need different actors to all have precise debates and play roles appropriate to scale and expertise. Ramesh clearly understands the startup world better than many of us and makes a robust case for investing more resources there. But even before getting to solutions, especially if you’re trying to learn a bit more about the problem itself, this is a great place to start. Communicating science, and encouraging us to care about somewhat distant problems is no simple task, and Ramesh does an impressive job of both.
The Climate Change Solution: India’s Climate Change Crisis And What We Can Do About It, Mridula Ramesh, Hachette.
K Rahul Sharma researches environmental governance and is a doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Barbara.