Stagnant Attitudes To Climate Change Can Sabotage The Government's Lofty Goals

25/08/2016 2:04 PM IST | Updated 26/08/2016 8:39 AM IST
Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

There is an interesting document available on the website of the Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, titled "Low Carbon Lifestyles". This document is well-meaning, and with (I assume, being largely ignorant of the processes and quantitative tools that were employed) strong scientific foundations for its conclusions. It recommends ways to reduce carbon footprints by making (mostly) small changes to our behavioural and consumption patterns. The incentive for this is communicated primarily in terms of (i) the emission reductions that result from these initiatives and (ii) also, but emphasized to a lesser extent, annual financial savings.

The solutions are straightforward in their conception, and the government is not unaware of them. The problem lies in the approach.

This document is one of the few examples in the recent past that I can recall of government action towards changing climate-unfriendly behaviours which engages with the issue by appealing to something beyond merely ethics and morals. And this is, essentially, the need of the hour more than ever before.

Getting communication right

The world over, and for some time now, there has been a shift towards studying the behavioural effects of climate change communications, to assess the most effective ways to bring about change in behaviours and consumption patterns. Findings from these studies have been varied and inconclusive on most points save for one, around which there is near-unanimous agreement: the need for a differential communication strategy according to the audience type -- based on their prior concern levels, belief in the scientific basis of anthropogenic climate change, economic profiles etc. Based on these variables, people's reactions differ depending on the way a message is communicated. Mere dissemination of advisories to reduce energy use, thus, may not have the intended effect, and may even be counterproductive. To illustrate, an entreaty to the urban middle class to reduce their travel in order to reduce emissions would most likely produce psychological resistance to the message rather than acceptance.

Focus on urban areas

Equally crucial to this strategy is targeting information at the right audience in terms of the quantitative impact that can be potentially effected. India's per capita energy consumption, by world standards, is not very high. There is, however, a large disparity between rural and urban areas -- with cities as the major sinks of consumption. Delhi alone has an average per capita electricity consumption of 43 units per month -- against the national average of 25. It is noteworthy that the government is actively encouraging and incentivizing shifts towards cleaner fuels -- but not in a large way in urban areas. Most of its schemes are implemented in rural areas, with little or no efforts to incentivize consumption shifts in towns and cities -- where the situation is direr and energy consumption is increasing at an accelerated rate. A well-meaning government cannot afford to hold back on effective policy of so critical a nature simply because it is difficult -- and we must not kid ourselves that it is not.

Mere dissemination of advisories to reduce energy use may not have the intended effect, and may even be counterproductive.

Domestic energy use and travel, as highlighted previously, are intrinsically tied to social status and identities, especially in cities, and people therefore are more liable to resist changing them. But this cannot be construed as a dead-end, or even avoided in an ostrich-like fashion -- the stakes are far too high at the moment. It isn't even necessary to think very creatively or out of the box.

The 'small' stuff makes a big difference

The solutions are straightforward in their conception, and the government is not unaware of them. The problem lies in the approach. To illustrate, take the National Public Bicycle Scheme, launched by the central government. There is a consultative document in this regard, called the "Toolkit for Public Cycle Sharing Systems", prepared by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy for the Ministry of Urban Development in 2012. This document has a section on frequently asked questions, which sheds some light on the thought process of the government machinery. It appears, from a reading of this, that the government considers it optimal or useful to invest in cycling infrastructure only once cycling becomes reasonably popular or high profile. The fallacy in this might be apparent, but I will iterate it anyway: how is this popularity to be achieved when cycling in most Indian cities is fraught with risks and not a very pleasant experience, because of the lack of infrastructural support?

Every single building in Delhi can afford to incorporate more sustainable "construction and function" styles, utilizing natural light and ventilation...

Another symptom of this larger problem-solution mismatch may be found in the way urban building construction styles do not find discussion or mention in any of the major urban development schemes. Even the way buildings are currently utilized could do with change. The National Green Tribunal has been essaying the role of a champion of environmental rights to immense effect, but on a closer look, the functioning of its current seat -- Faridkot House, near India Gate -- does not quite behove the lofty offices it houses. The Tribunal is in session from morning till about 4.30 pm on most days; there is ample daylight during these hours, which is completely unused. The glass windows along the walls of the courtrooms are draped with thick curtains and air-conditioning is blasted to simulate near-Arctic conditions inside. This situation sits in stark contrast to the Tribunal's peerless work. This is by no means the only example -- I mention it because it is more proximate to me, for more than one reason. Every single building in Delhi can afford to incorporate more sustainable "construction and function" styles, utilizing natural light and ventilation, and this merits some mention in urban development schemes. Pushing the discourse on this should not be too difficult for the government -- one wonders why something as ubiquitous and critical as this has not yet found more emphatic mention in public communications.

These ideas are not revolutionary or new by any stretch of imagination -- all that is needed is unselfish political will to set the ball rolling. Nor are these by any means the only solutions, but they must necessarily form a part of the overall strategy. Our efforts to curb emissions and achieve global targets will come to naught if there is no push for change in consumption behaviour at the individual level as well, especially in the urban centres where it is at its most destructive. The government must, by dint of its position, scale and the larger societal obligations it espouses, be the agent of this change – we do not have the luxury of time to wait for it to happen in a passive, dispersed fashion (for the optimists who believe that it can at all). Without changes at the micro-level, our lofty ambitions for arresting climate change are essentially half-built monuments to an ideal, standing on quicksand.

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