India chose 2 October, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change. It is an extreme gesture in symbolism because there is nothing in this agreement that is even remotely linked to the values for which Gandhi stood. In fact, the agreement is a plan to maintain global inaction on climate change and not a plan to mitigate its adverse effects or to prevent further impacts due to temperature rise, as Amitav Ghosh has concluded in his new book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. He says the current paradigm of perpetual growth — based on the so-called Western model — is enshrined at the core of the agreement’s text. Gandhi had warned against this very model in 1928 when he had said “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts”.
Ghosh's new book offers a fresh perspective on climate change, its history and politics. It is in this context that he offers an unconventional — and powerful — analysis of the Paris Agreement. In the backdrop of the fact that 2015 was the warmest year since record keeping began, he considers the Paris Agreement to be one of the two most important texts on climate change published during 2015, the other being Pope Francis’s encyclical letter, Laudato Si on climate change, published in May 2015. Both the documents acknowledge that the earth’s climate is changing and that human beings are largely responsible for these changes. The commonality between the two documents ends here. The Paris Agreement is bad prose — it has 140 numbered clauses and six sections consisting of only two sentences. It is a block of text peppered with dozens of colons, semicolons, commas but just a “lonely pair of full stops”.
It is not just bureaucratese that is the hallmark of the agreement, but its lack of substance too is discomforting. For instance, Ghosh points out, the agreement has chosen to stay away from words like catastrophe and disaster which are inseparable from any discourse on climate change. Instead, the text only used milder expressions like adverse impacts and effects. “It is as if the negotiations had been convened to deal with a minor annoyance. No wonder then that the Agreement’s provisions will come into force (if such a word can be used of voluntary actions) only in 2020 when the window for effective action will already have dwindled to the size of the eye of celestial needle,” Ghosh says. This apart, ‘climate justice’ finds a lone mention, that too in the preamble of the Annexe which merely “takes note” that “the importance for some of the concept of ‘climate justice’ when taking action to address climate change.” The very description that the concept of climate justice is important only ‘for some’ implies its explicit disavowal.
While dismissing climate change negotiations and instruments like the Paris Agreement as fundamentally flawed and incapable of meeting the challenge posed by climate change, Ghosh does not offer any solutions except the hope that it is communities and mass organisations — not formal political structures — that will have to be in the forefront of the struggle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This, in no way, diminishes the brilliance of the prose and deep insights into climate change that the novelist-anthropologist has to offer in this extraordinary narrative. The book is gripping. Every argument is backed with research and scientific studies.
Referring to neglect of climate change story by writers, poets and artists, Ghosh notes that “the climate crisis is also the crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.” Trying to fill this gap, Ghosh has devoted one part of the book to narrating stories — including some experiential — about climatic events In India and elsewhere. His description of the 2005 Mumbai rains and the devastating tornado that he experienced in Delhi on 17 March 1978, is riveting. Not many remember the freak tornado that devastated localities in North Delhi. He sums up the flooding in Mumbai in one sentence: “On that day, with catastrophic suddenness, the people of the city were confronted with the costs of three centuries of interference with the ecology of an estuarine location.” He then paints the scenario of what could happen to Mumbai if a Category 4 or 5 cyclone was to hit it, quoting scientists and experts.
Dealing with the history of climate change, Ghosh says the Asian continent to central to climate change not only because its populations are going to be the worst hit but also because of its key role in setting in motion events that are driving the current cycle of climate change. Asian countries — China, India, Burma among others — had their own fossil fuel economies and models of economic growth much ahead of the Industrial Revolution, which is often seen as the starting point of greenhouse gas emissions. China had pioneered the use of coal and natural gas, Burma had a lot of oil and India was using steam engines at the same time as it happened in the West. These carbon economies of Asia did not grow and flourish not because of lack of industriousness or ingenuity or entrepreneurial skills, but because of the fact that when carbon-intensive technologies and economies were taking shape, major European powers already had a strong military and political presence in Asia and Africa. Emerging fossil-fuel economies of the West required that people elsewhere were prevented from developing their own energy-based systems. In order to find a solution such holistic understanding of the problem is necessary. That’s why this book is an important landmark in knowledge about climate change.
The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh
Allen Lane/Penguin Books
275 pages, price Rs 399