Editor's note: From May 2017, Firstpost is featuring a fortnightly column by Mridula Ramesh, titled 'Climate Conversations'. In this column, we take a look at pressing issues pertaining to climate change — in an accessible way.
The world is talking about Salman Khan today.
And also about the black buck (or two) that he allegedly shot nearly 20 years ago.
In that order.
What is the real ‘so-what’ in this?
The first part of the real ‘so-what?’ is that what we believe is the ‘right’ thing to happen depends very much on our worldview.
Let me explain.
We are each a product of our upbringing, our experiences and our choices. And we feel a deep need to belong to a group – a throwback to our tribal roots, no doubt. We each have a set of beliefs or values through which we view the world. When we are confronted by a new piece of information, we first check to see if the messenger is ‘one of us’ and that the message reaffirms our worldview. This is what experts call the confirmation bias.
The messenger becomes especially important considering the popular messaging medium of today: Twitter. In the days of B.S.M. (Before Social Media), there was a significant cost one had to incur to become an opinion-shaper. One had to either be damned good at communicating, honed by years of practice, or be an expert on the subject matter, again honed over years of practice. Once you joined the chummy club of opinion-shaping, there were norms of behaviour one was expected to adhere to. And one typically did.
Again, B.S.M., there was a time-gap between thought and global broadcast, which allowed for reflection and editing. This usually played an important part in increasing the quality of the broadcast. But in these A.S.M. (After Social Media) days, most, in their desire to be the first and the quickest off the mark, do not take time to reflect or edit their initial thoughts. In these A.S.M age, any person can have a shot at shaping opinion, incurring little cost.
But as it typically happens, when one incurs lower costs or expends less time in creating content, quality suffers. So, how does the wannabe-opinion-shaper grab attention?
Sensationalism. There are increasingly two types of inhabitants of twitter in India – right and left, and a disappearing ‘centrist’ sliver sandwiched between them. What in earlier days (when it was considered good form to be centrist) one tried to camouflage, is now displayed proudly as a badge on one’s twitter handle. Naturally, opinions are polarised with the two sides barely agreeing on what is right.
Returning to Salman Khan and his blackbucks.
The supporters of Khan (appropriately hash-tagged #WeLoveYouSalmanKhan) speak to his success as an actor, to all the others who have killed wildlife (or people, or stolen from banks) and gone scot free, his humanitarian efforts, and even the financial loss if he were to be jailed as factors on why he should be set free.
The anti-Khan (#SalmanGuilty) crowd talk of justice served, and how there is hope when even the rich and famous can get nailed in a wildlife case.
It is as though they exist on two different planets. Khan-friend will believe Khan-friend while anti-Khan will believe anti-Khan. The messenger has become more important than the message. Good luck with bridging the gap between the two groups.
What on Earth, does this have to do with climate change?
You see, there are groups in climate change also. Simplistically, those on the conservative of the spectrum, typically downplay climate change risks while those on the liberal end, tend to blame capitalism for causing our climate to change. And since they each broadly socialise and get their information from their carefully curated echo-chambers, their world view tends to also be polarised.
How would climate change be covered by channels catering to each of these groups? A conservative channel might highlight the immediate development needs and perhaps have an expert talk about the uncertainty on climate change. Conservative viewers might then walk away thinking climate change may not be a very serious problem and they need to focus on the immediate need to develop. A liberal channel might have climate change experts who blame capitalism for global warming. Some might club climate change with women’s rights, tribal rights, etc., and advocate a wholesale change to our way of life. Liberals who regularly tune into this channel come away thinking that our businesses are dastardly and wholesale actions are the only thing that will work. What results is a veritable cacophony of views but very little action.
This bias is particularly relevant today – in what is being referred to as the ‘post-truth’ era. When we begin to rely more on our network (and social media) for our news than on traditional media, the confirmation bias is strengthened. At the extreme, we have ‘alternate facts’ used at the highest levels, which makes for two (or more) camps that can barely communicate because they each are operating on a completely different set of facts. In an era of such interconnectivity, it’s ironic that we are hurtling back to our tribal, isolated silos.
It's critical for our planet’s health and our collective fate that the two sides on climate change interact and get to a common action plan on reducing emissions. They are not doing such a great job, because global emissions (the stuff that causes our planet to warm) may have actually risen in 2017. If we keep going on with business as usual, parts of South Asia may become so unliveable, that we will have almost 36 million internal migrants leaving for their homes in search of greener (and cooler) pastures. One of those will be the southern highlands between Bengaluru and Chennai.
The second part of the ‘so-what?’ is the tremendous delay in the justice system and the role that plays in the lax attitude of citizens towards common goods. Most plaintiffs would have lost interest in a case that dragged on for two decades over the killing of wildlife — this encourages law-breakers to trample on public goods such as wildlife, forests, water or air. When justice may never come, why should one fear the law?
One consistent narrative in Khan’s story has been the commitment of the Bishnoi tribe in following up on the case. To the Bishnoi, nature is sacred, and they are willing to sacrifice for its wellbeing. They are the guardians of that forest.
Which brings us to the third part of the so-what: as a society we don’t seem to care too much about common goods in general, and climate change in particular. As this column has said before, we have first world concerns in a third world country. Looking at the Google trends chart (that compares interest in two topics — in this case, ‘Salman Khan’ vs ‘Climate Change’), we see that ‘Climate Change’ is losing rather handily in the fight for eyeballs with ‘Salman Khan’.
Maybe we should ask the Bishnoi for help.
The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor, teacher and author of a forthcoming book on Climate Change and India. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Updated Date: Apr 09, 2018 10:09:01 IST