Environmentalism in the Age of Climate Change

Seminar, 22 September 2009

INDIAN environmentalism has been an important, even defining, element of a distinctly Southern brand of environmentalism.1 Largely rooted in local struggles over access to and control over resources, a stylized Southern environmentalism is closely connected to concerns over social justice and driven by subalterns rather than professionals.2 From this perspective, the recent emergence of climate change as a meta-narrative for global environmentalism is profoundly unsettling. Introduced as a problem by scientists, carried forward by professional environmentalists from the North, and debated in the language of techno-managerialism and legalism, climate change would appear to be the embodiment of an ‘ecology of affluence’.3

In this article, I examine the tensions and challenges of Indian – and indeed Southern – environmentalism in an age of climate change. Like no other single issue, climate change has brought environmentalism into the political mainstream. Commerce and finance ministers increasingly register their presence at global environmental negotiations. Climate change is high up the agenda of mainstream global talk shops from the G-8 to Davos. In India, climate change has become a bone of foreign policy contention, and opinion columns are filled with climate commentaries, including by those who have demonstrated little interest in the subject before.

However, to many Indian environmentalists, this is a largely unrecognizable form of environmentalism – the environmentalism of the boardroom and the negotiating table. Does engaging with the climate change debate necessarily require embracing a different vision of environmentalism? Or is there a way to engage with climate change even while harnessing the energy and ideas of an environmentalism of the South? I suggest that there is indeed a way for Southern environmentalists to productively engage the climate change debate and, indeed, that it is necessary to do so. After laying out the tensions between climate change and Southern environmentalism, I spell out one way to conceptualize climate change that is consistent with the lived experience of local level environmental governance challenges.

To begin with, it is worth recalling the characteristics of climate change that have propelled the issue up the political agenda – the scale, scope, and potential implications of the problem.4 Climate change operates on a global scale. Greenhouse gases emitted in one place have a global aggregate effect due to the ‘greenhouse effect’ by which the sun’s energy is trapped within the atmosphere, and no specific effect on the place from which are emitted. As a result, reducing emissions in one place brings little gain unless emissions are reduced from enough places to make an appreciable difference to total emissions; climate change is truly a global collective action problem.