As Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN created ripples worldwide, millions of youngsters took to the streets, protesting against climate injustice and the failure to reduce carbon emissions. Aside from Thunberg, many other youth activists, including Xiye Bastida and Autumn Peltier, demonstrated ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit on September 23.
As reported by The Guardian, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that extreme sea levels, often occurring once a century, will now strike annually on many coasts by 2050, despite efforts to curb carbon emissions. The IPCC recommends that the international community urgently cuts fossil fuel emissions. Otherwise, an eventual sea-level rise by more than four meters would redraw geographical boundaries and affect billions of people.
In this guest edition of The Interview, Vishal Manve talks to Harjeet Singh, the global lead on climate change at ActionAid, about the impact of the recent climate strikes and the urgency to phase out coal-fired power plants.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Vishal Manve: Climate strikes have occurred around the world in 150 countries. Can you explain the significance of such a youth-led movement in addressing the climate emergency?
Harjeet Singh: After decades of ignoring climate warnings, the world is finally waking up to the reality of the climate crisis. Young people have played a key role in that awakening. After realizing that the world’s adults have not been taking the issue seriously enough, that they are likely to face a future of climate catastrophe, youth have taken to striking, organizing and marching to get the world to protect their future. In 2018, Greta Thunberg said: “You say that you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future.” Finally, the adults are listening. But the narrative that climate change will harm children’s future is still a perspective of the “privileged north.”
In the “global south,” climate change is not something that is coming in the future. For many young people in the “global south,” the climate crisis is already here. Young people in rural communities see the struggles their parents face when growing food [amid a lack of] rainfall, floods and rising sea levels, and they see little future for themselves. Climate change is driving youth migration to urban areas, and urban youth unemployment is growing as a result.
As the current generation of young people grows up, their future is frighteningly uncertain. Young people in the “global south” are already dealing with the impacts of climate change. But their energy, drive, innovation and solidarity are also the best chance we have to avert the climate crisis.
Manve: From Berlin to New York and New Delhi, hundreds of thousands of protesters were recently on the streets. Do you think politicians and governments will urgently act on the climate crisis, and do you expect policy-based action?
Singh: Young people have taken the matter into their own hands. They will keep marching ahead, showing the way. At the UN Climate Summit, young people exposed the shameless lack of leadership from heads of state, who looked the other way for decades as the climate crisis escalated and the planet burned.
But the global climate strikes have raised awareness and expectations of what real climate action looks like. Leaders will find that the public will no longer be duped by tiny steps spun as huge milestones. If they want to stay on as leaders, they will need to be courageous and not cowardly. The global marches are creating the conditions for real and meaningful policy shifts.
Manve: A warming planet is hurting millions and rising oceans are a grave threat. A recent UN report says over 40% of coastal regions will face the risk of flooding by 2100. What do you think communities and leaders should do to address these crucial issues?
Singh: Rich countries must take a lead in dramatically reducing their emissions so that we don’t breach the crucial 1.5-degree threshold, after which the impacts would be devastating. Poor communities living in low-lying coastal areas and along riverbanks need urgent support in climate-proofing their homes, farms and livelihoods.
But the people whose homes and land are at the risk of being washed away or swallowed up will need to relocate to safer locations in a planned manner. Their governments must proactively enable this planned relocation in a participatory and just way, which will require financial and technological support from the international community.
Manve: India is a signatory to the climate accords but is investing in coal-fired plants and receiving investment in oil refineries. Do you think India needs to seriously phase out its coal dependency for energy sufficiency?
Singh: India has an obligation to improve the quality of life for its citizens and scale up access to energy. But the country continues to rely on locally available coal, which brings huge environmental and human costs. We have reached a stage when the cost per unit of renewable energy is cheaper than energy sourced from coal. Rich countries should support India with the upfront costs of setting up renewable energy projects, as part of their international obligation. This will help India reject dirty fossil fuel-based energy and transition toward renewables at a much faster pace.
Manve: The big four, including China, India and the US, are responsible for major global emissions. While the US shut down its last coal-fired plant, India still is building them. How long before an emerging economy like India chooses renewable sources of energy?
Singh: India has made ambitious commitments to dramatically increase the share of non-fossil fuel-based energy, but it is yet to make a plan for phasing out its reliance on coal completely. On one hand, it needs to show courage, while on the other, the role of the international financial community to invest from a longer-term perspective in renewable energy projects is vital.
Manve: What key factors are stymying emerging economies from choosing sustainable methods of energy utility and switching to noncarbon sources of energy?
Singh: What’s the solution? The emerging economies have a challenge of taking people out of poverty by creating jobs, alongside adopting greener sources of energy and helping people cope with climate impacts. They have limited resources that they cannot divert toward greener technologies, away from development needs such as education and health care.
The renewable energy infrastructure requires upfront investments that developing countries like India cannot mobilize on their own. The role of developed countries is crucial in providing finance and enabling the transition to faster adoption of greener technologies in developing countries like India.
Manve: The global fund to fight climate change is still far off the mark. Do you think developed nations need to do more to help other countries catch up?
Singh: The obligation of rich countries to provide climate finance to poorer countries suffering from climate impacts is a huge but poorly understood dimension of climate action. Vulnerable countries are already spending their scarce resources on recovering from the disaster that they have not caused or they are trying to improve preparedness for future climate events. They have little money left over for development, let alone transitioning to greener pathways.
It is, therefore, absolutely necessary for rich countries to step up and respond to the call for much more climate finance. Rich countries started the climate fire. It is their responsibility to put it out.
Manve: Recently, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced banning single-use plastic in an advisory manner. Following this, a few conglomerates announced their own measures. Do you think this will have an impact on how India produces and disposes of off its waste as landfills pile up with mountains of trash?
Singh: It’s definitely a step in the right direction. However, these measures will not be enough to change the conversation and be a springboard for the necessary policy action that is required to make a change at a larger scale. The government must come up with a clear policy framework and implementation architecture to enable the change. It should also clamp down on companies, particularly from the e-commerce sector, that are generating huge quantities of non-biodegradable packaging material that adds to the waste.
Manve: How crucial is climate justice and reparations to the entire global movement of tackling or addressing climate change?
Singh: Climate justice cannot be achieved without the transfer of resources from the “global north” to developing countries as the former are responsible for causing the climate crisis. Communities who are vulnerable and had no role in causing the problem are now being affected by rising seas and extreme weather events. Vulnerable communities need financial support to safeguard their livelihoods and climate-proof their farming and homes.
Developing countries are fighting for a reliable international system that can ensure the flow of finance that will let them rebuild their economies and help people recover from the impacts of climate change. We will not be able to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees without scaled-up mitigation action in developing countries. The transition to a green economy in developing countries cannot be achieved without adequate financial support from rich nations.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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