The unfolding climate crisis is the result of an unprecedented alteration of our planet’s atmosphere driven by human activity. Scientific models predict that under current carbon emission trajectories, our planet is on track to witness widespread decimation of ecosystems and cultures, alongside a radical reorganisation of life on earth. This knowledge is the basis for multiple international treaties to limit the pace of climate change, to which India is a signatory.

While the culpability for the current climate crisis lies predominantly with industrialised nations of the west, India and other South Asian nations are poised to face outsized climate change impacts. As per the Global Climate Index 2021, India is among the top ten most climate impacted countries of 2019, along with nations such as Mozambique and Afghanistan. As a regional power, India bears a responsibility in leading the charge in reducing carbon emissions.

Yet, an even more pressing responsibility, given our low human development indices, is improving our resiliency to the changes to come via alleviating poverty and improving food and energy security. The peculiar moral, ethical and policy conundrum that these diverse imperatives mire India in, is best summarised by Amitav Ghosh in this devastating paragraph from his book, The Great Derangement.

 “Inasmuch as the fruits of the carbon economy constitute wealth, and inasmuch as the poor of the Global South have historically been deprived of this wealth, it is certainly true, by every available canon of distributive justice, that they are entitled to a greater share of the rewards of that economy. But even to enter into that argument is to recognize how deeply we are mired in the Great Derangement: our lives and our choices are enframed in a pattern of history that seems to leave us nowhere to turn but towards our self-annihilation.”  

As an adult, to contemplate climate change then is to be confounded by its complexity and be unsettled by its urgency. For the young of the world however, there is an added dimension that has received less attention. To them, contemplating climate change is to not only come to terms with the calamity they are to inherit, but also to process the abdication of responsibility by generations of adults around them. Adults, who despite knowing better, failed and continue to fail to bequeath a better world to them.

Mental health surveys (conducted primarily in the west), show that most children and young adults feel sadness, anger, and a loss of optimism on account of the climate crisis. These anxieties are not misplaced – while our planet is in crisis today, the years stretching beyond 2050 are forecast to be dystopian under business-as-usual scenarios.

It is in this context that the global youth climate movements gain meaning and relevance. Be it Fridays for Future, the Sunrise movement or the myriad indigenous youth across the globe standing up for their rights, these movement have become a force to reckon with. Without the ability to vote and without the freedoms available to adults, young people through these movements are now shaping politics and culture in the interest of securing their future.

Forging solidarities

These movements have forged solidarities among youth of diverse identities, in a way that few global movements have. The Twitter page for Fridays for Future showcases a panoply of young faces from across the world speaking truth to power, as only the youth can. Theirs isn’t the activism of yore, centred around charismatic species and beautiful places. How can it be, when these places and creatures are disappearing before their very eyes?

These movements instead help amplify all that has long been marginalised in the discourse – indigenous rights, intergenerational justice and climate equity. In the process, they communicate the urgency of the climate crisis through its diverse impacts on health, livelihoods and gender issues.

Disha Ravi and other youth climate activists are being hounded for working on and sharing a toolkit –an innocuous document outlining strategies to support the farmer struggles. The document itself is unremarkable, for anyone who has engaged in some form of activism. Their persecution represents the spiteful paroxysms of a government incapable of engaging with dissent and the machinations of a society blinded by hate.

It also underscores the abject failure to appreciate that the climate crisis, for all its terrifying possibilities, arrives not only as raging fires and super cyclones but also as hundreds of thousands of silenced tragedies unfolding in India’s farmlands and hinterlands. Farmers who are secure in the belief that their traditional livelihoods can provide them a life of stability and dignity are foundational to achieving sustainable development in our largely agrarian country.

Erratic and adverse weather events erode this security. Farm laws that fail to provide adequate safety nets while seeking to disrupt existing equilibriums further exacerbate insecurities.

Our climate has changed and will continue to change so long as countries emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the predominant source of which is the burning of fossil fuels like petrol and diesel. Instead of recognising this potent driver of the climate crisis, people pillorying the climate activists are drawing a tenuous connection between current farming practices and the state of our environment.

Farm practices such as stubble burning, and the cultivation of unsuitable crops should be addressed in the interest of achieving sustainability. It however needs to be remembered that these practices are the unforeseen consequences of well-intentioned policies aimed at first achieving food security and then conserving water resources.

The depleted water tables and disappearing forests are not the doing of the people who depend on these resources for their livelihoods. It is the doing of those who commodify these resources. It is these failures, both of imagination and education, that is making it possible to brand the noblest and most vulnerable among us as terrorists – be it the urban climate activists today or the tribal communities who have long resisted the plunder of their lands.

The young climate activists have taken on a seemingly impossible task – to find hope and optimism in a world laid waste by the silences of generations before them. They have a right to hope, they are charting a path to hope. It is up to the adults in the room to finally give up the silence.

Rekha Warrier is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Colorado State University’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability. Views are personal.