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GR Interview: Indian political parties sideline climate change in Lok Sabha poll despite impact

2024 Indian general elections overlooked climate issues despite record heatwaves & floods. Climate expert Ashish Ghadiali stressed need for a comprehensive strategy integrating climate action with development. Political focus remained on identity politics

By Wahid Bhat
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GR Interview: Indian political parties sideline climate change in Lok Sabha poll despite impact
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The 2024 Indian general elections took place amid frequent extreme weather events. Record-breaking heatwaves caused deaths and floods affected states, highlighting the urgency for climate action. However, political parties largely sidelined climate issues in election discourse

In an interview with Ground Report, Ashish Ghadiali, a climate justice expert and strategic consultant at the Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter, discussed India's climate response and the need for a comprehensive strategy to mitigate global warming impacts. Ghadiali emphasised the disconnect between India's international climate commitments and domestic policies, prioritizing development over environmental concerns.

He highlighted the lack of emphasis on climate change in the election discourse across major political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress. Despite India being at the epicenter of climate impacts, with record-breaking heatwaves, floods, and glacier melting, the issue has been overshadowed by identity politics, religion, caste, and employment concerns in electoral campaigns.


Ghadiali underscored the need for Indian leadership to emerge with strategies that place climate action at the forefront of national development plans, integrating mitigation and adaptation measures as core components rather than treating them as impediments.

Q: How do you assess the current stance of Indian political parties, particularly the BJP and Indian National Congress, on addressing climate change in their election agendas?

A: India's stance on climate change in its election agendas, mirrors a global trend where climate issues are not the primary focus of electoral campaigns. In many countries, including the UK, South Africa, the USA, the EU, and Russia, elections are centered around issues of identity, religion, caste, and employment rather than climate change. This pattern is evident in India as well, where the current elections are largely focused on identity politics, such as religion and caste, with only occasional nods towards employment and jobs.

India is at the epicenter of climate impacts with record-breaking heat waves, floods, and glacier melting, but there is a lack of emphasis on climate change in election discourse. Prime Minister Narendra Modi presents himself as a climate leader at international forums, speaking the language of climate justice and committing to net zero by 2070. However, their domestic policies prioritize development, often at the expense of environmental considerations. Coal production continues to rise, and India remains the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide globally.

However, this election is significant as it marks the first time all major political parties, including the Indian National Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party, and the Communist Party, have included climate commitments in their manifestos. This is a positive step forward, indicating a growing recognition of climate issues. Yet, the approach lacks the governance strategy to effectively address the severity of climate impacts. There is a fear that climate action might hinder development, a concern shared by electorates worldwide.

India faces a unique challenge and opportunity. While there is movement towards acknowledging climate change, leaders are not yet capitalizing on the chance to advocate for a development model that integrates climate action as a core component. This shift is crucial, as climate change will significantly impede development under traditional models. Indian leadership needs to emerge with strategies that place climate action at the forefront of national development plans.

Q: Even though parties are including climate commitments in their manifestos for this election, why are they still failing to really highlight and prioritize these issues, especially given the severe heatwaves and climate impacts India is facing?

A: It's noteworthy that this is the first general election where all major parties, including the Indian National Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party, and the Communist Party, have included climate commitments in their manifestos. This indicates progress, but there are several reasons why climate change is not a focal point in election rallies.  Firstly, this trend is not unique to India. Globally, we see elections being fought on identity issues such as religion, caste, and employment rather than climate change. Despite India experiencing severe climate impacts like record-breaking heatwaves and floods, climate change isn't a primary election issue.

PM Modi and Rahul Gandhi

 The problem lies in the broader governance strategy. While political leaders are moving toward acknowledging climate change, they are not addressing it at the necessary scale. There is a significant gap between recognizing the impacts of climate change and planning and investing in appropriate measures to mitigate these impacts. One major reason for this is the fear that climate action might come at the expense of development. This concern is prevalent among electorates worldwide and influences political strategies. However, this fear is not necessarily true. There is a real opportunity for Indian leadership to advocate for a development model that integrates climate action. Unfortunately, this opportunity is not being fully seized. The reluctance to prioritize climate change in political agendas is also tied to traditional development models. Climate change poses a significant threat to development as we know it, and addressing it requires a paradigm shift in how we approach economic growth and sustainability. Indian leadership needs to emerge with strategies that place climate action at the forefront of national development plans.

Q: Given the current urgency of climate action, what role should climate change mitigation and adaptation play in India's development plans?

A: The urgency of climate action in India cannot be overstated. Climate change mitigation and adaptation are crucial for the future of Indian development. The research we've conducted, including a paper I co-authored published in Nature Sustainability, highlights the severe impacts of global warming. Our data indicates that by the end of the 21st century, if global carbon emissions continue at their current rate, around 2 billion people worldwide—one-fifth of the human population—will be displaced outside the human climate niche, areas where humans have historically been able to live. In India, this situation is particularly dire, with an estimated 600 million people potentially displaced by 2100. India faces a significant challenge in mitigating the costs and impacts of climate change. As the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide globally, India also stands to suffer some of the most severe consequences. This makes the cost-benefit of mitigation particularly crucial for India.

India has a unique opportunity to demonstrate leadership in climate action. While it's important to hold the global North accountable for taking the lead in reducing emissions—given their historical responsibility—India can also set an example by developing in a way that significantly reduces carbon emissions. This dual approach of calling for global accountability while also taking proactive steps domestically is essential. India's leadership in this area involves not only setting ambitious emission reduction targets but also implementing practical measures to achieve them. This includes investing in renewable energy, enhancing energy efficiency, and promoting sustainable practices across all sectors of the economy.

Q: Recent research by IIT found that 60% of the heatwaves in India are due to rapid urbanization. Do you think this urbanization, driven by a focus on development over climate concerns, has been a major reason for the climate crisis India is facing?

A: Yes, I don't think we should view it as a binary choice between development and addressing climate change. The way India has pursued rapid, unregulated urbanization with minimal green spaces is certainly a contributing factor to the urban heat island effect and overall heat impacts the country is experiencing. The development path India has taken, with high human density urban areas lacking sufficient vegetative cover and climate-smart urban planning, has exacerbated the challenges of adapting to global warming and climate change.

However, I wouldn't frame it solely as a development issue versus climate issue. The impacts we're seeing are multi-causal - a combination of global climate change interacting with unsustainable local policies around urban development and lack of resilient infrastructure planning. So I think the solution requires addressing both dimensions - India needs a development model that factors in climate resilience from the start, incorporating green spaces, public transit, energy efficiency and urban planning that mitigates heat islands and disaster risks associated with our warming world. This isn't an either/or situation. The climate crisis facing India makes it imperative to align development and climate action through integrated governance that achieves sustainable, resilient urbanization. Failing to do so will only continue to amplify the threats.

Q: If climate change continues to be sidelined in Indian political discussions, what are the potential consequences for Indian society and development?

A: If carbon emissions continue to soar and climate change is not addressed, more and more people in India will be living in conditions that are not conducive to human life. Fundamentally, all of the intent to develop the Indian economy will be obstructed. There will be rising problems of poverty, vulnerability, and conflict that will build up and totally obstruct the goal of development.

Q: Specifically, what policies or actions should the Indian government, whoever comes into power, prioritize to tackle climate change?

A: Two key things are needed. One is that we need to see an acceleration of decarbonization. At the moment, it's a contradictory approach - on one hand increasing renewable energy, but also increasing production of fossil fuels which slows progress. What needs to emerge is a full-scale commitment to a development pathway that is also decarbonization.

The argument constantly made is that because India developed through fossil fuels, it needs to also develop through fossil fuels before becoming a decarbonized economy. But that is an argument that actually gets in the way of India achieving its full economic potential. The faster route would be to just commit to being a zero-carbon or low-carbon economic state. Currently, I don't see that confidence in the leadership to actually walk that path, but that would be the key policy measure.

The second crucial thing is to recognize that what makes us resilient in an age of increasing climate impacts, whether heatwaves or floods, is the investment we put into our most vulnerable communities. Where people don't have access to shelter, sanitation, clean water, energy - these are the sections that become most vulnerable to climate impacts. And as that vulnerability increases, society as a whole becomes more and more unstable in the face of climate impacts.

So while moving on the journey towards rapid decarbonization, we also need to be investing in reducing vulnerabilities in the poorest parts of our society, so that where there is the greatest impact from climate change, we build up resilience against it.

We see examples of this, like in Kerala during COVID and coastal flooding situations, where the investment that has gone into Kerala's health system over decades, with small-scale community-focused healthcare systems, actually creates real resilience in the face of climate impacts. We've seen the same model play out in other parts of the world like Vietnam, Cuba and Iceland, where long, consistent investment in community-based care structures creates resilience against ecological breakdown.

Q: How do India's current emission trends compare to global benchmarks? What challenges does the country face in achieving emission reduction targets? Do you think India will be able to meet its targets?

A: Obviously, the key challenge is a political one - the fear of not investing enough in fossil fuels and the concern that renewable energy won't be able to deliver the required energy volumes, leading to more blackouts which voters would punish climate action-advocating leaders for. These are challenges we're facing globally, and we need to take them seriously. Ensuring dependable investment into renewable infrastructure is critical to enable a confident transition away from the fossil fuel economy.

Q: Can you elaborate on the findings from your report on the human costs of global warming, and its relevance to India's climate trends?

A: The background to this report was the disconnect between industrialized Global North countries and emerging economies of the Global South, which have consistently argued to limit warming to 1.5°C - an argument that hasn't resonated in the North. Nobel laureate William Nordhaus claimed limiting warming to 1.5°C would cost more than doing nothing, based on flawed economic models imagining constant economic growth unaffected by environmental realities.

parts of the world where the mean annual temperature will be above 29C – dangerously hot for humans – at 1.5C of global warming, then at 2.7C warming
Parts of the world where the mean annual temperature will be above 29C – dangerously hot for humans – at 1.5C of global warming, then at 2.7C warming. Photo credit: exeter.ac.uk

Our report scrapped those old models. Instead of economic impacts, we looked at human population impacts - how many would be displaced by global warming making their areas uninhabitable based on population trends to 2100. The data reveals that even just following current policies, the warming impacts would displace one-fifth of all humans outside the "human climate niche."

For India specifically, an astounding 600 million people out of a projected 2 billion total displaced globally would be inside India. These staggering figures reveal the true scale of impacts coming, giving us a basis to rethink the economics of climate change differently.

Q: Based on the current situation, where do you see India in the next 10-15 years if the Indian politics continues to sideline climate change?

A: If the Indian government continues to sideline the climate crisis, the impact on the country in the next 10-15 years could be severe. The record heatwaves we're witnessing this month are not just a blip or an anomaly; they are the beginning of a concerning trend indicating where India's climate is heading steadily, decade after decade. Without urgent action, the situation is likely to worsen, with heatwaves and other extreme weather events becoming more frequent and intense. The projections we've put forth indicate that the heatwaves we're experiencing now are not isolated incidents; they are the start of a steady progression of climate change in India. This calls for immediate action and bold thinking about how we're living, where we're living, and what we're going to do about it. While politicians may struggle to sell big bets on climate action during election cycles, we urgently need to consider the societal direction we want to take in the years ahead.

Q: What strategies can India implement to enhance climate resilience and protect vulnerable communities, including tribal communities, from the impacts of climate change?

A: There are two crucial aspects that need to be addressed. Decarbonization: India needs to decarbonize as rapidly as possible. This includes phasing out coal production, significantly reducing carbon emissions, and investing in developing the economy using renewable energy sources and non-fossil fuel production methods from the outset. Investing in vulnerability reduction: Instead of a state of affairs where inequality and poverty increase, making more and more people unable to participate in the economic and social life of the country, India needs to invest in strategies that protect the most vulnerable. This includes investing in systems that provide access to healthcare, clean water, energy, and other essential services for everyone in Indian society, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

India has a history of successful large-scale initiatives like the Green Revolution and the White Revolution. We need to approach this challenge with the same level of commitment and fundamentally think about pathways over the coming decades that support access to clean water, shelter, healthcare, and other basic needs for all, particularly those in vulnerable and tribal communities.

Q: How can civil societies and grassroots movements in India influence political parties to prioritize climate action in their manifesto and agenda?

A: While the political machine often churns out the same answers, civil societies and grassroots movements have the responsibility to create community-based solutions that ensure new protocols and approaches are developed at the grassroots level. By doing so, they can foster community resilience and social resilience, which in turn creates a form of political power that allows communities to hold politicians accountable when they fail to respond adequately to the escalating climate breakdown.

Grassroots campaigns need to continuously think about how they can not only call for solutions but also enact those solutions themselves. By building power through the implementation of solutions in the face of these threats, which are only going to intensify over time, grassroots movements can exert pressure on political parties to prioritize climate action. The key strength of civil societies and grassroots movements lies in their ability to be the catalysts for imagination, nurturing new ideas and approaches that can then be translated into actionable solutions at the community level. This bottom-up approach not only creates resilience but also generates a political force that can hold leaders accountable and drive meaningful policy changes.

Q: What do you envision as a key step for India to transition towards a more sustainable and climate-resilient future? 

A: The key step for India to transition towards a sustainable and climate-resilient future is to stop hedging its bets and fully commit to divesting from fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy sources. The current approach of simultaneously investing in coal and renewable energy sources will not be sustainable in the long run. While the Indian government has taken some steps towards renewable energy, the recent increase in coal mining activities and the privatization of coal mining in the latest budget suggest a continued reliance on fossil fuels. This needs to change, and India must decisively move away from fossil fuels and towards a future powered by renewable and sustainable energy sources.

Q: Do you think it will be possible for the Indian government to completely ban coal mining, given the recent trend of increased coal mining activities?

A: While it may seem politically challenging, it is possible for the Indian government to completely ban coal mining. However, this requires overcoming the influence of the fossil fuel lobby and prioritizing the long-term sustainability of human life over short-term economic interests. The real question is, where does the power for our society, politicians, and political parties come from to say no to fossil fuels, when they have historically been influenced by the fossil fuel industry? This is a crucial issue that needs to be addressed.

Workers inside the Khadia coal mine in Singrauli.
Workers inside the Khadia coal mine in Singrauli. Photo credit: Flickr/Amirtharaj Stephen

Q: Despite opposition parties like the Indian National Congress raising concerns about environmental issues, they have also been involved in activities like allowing mining in forest areas when in power. This suggests a lack of genuine commitment to sustainable practices across political parties. How can this issue be addressed?

A: You raise a valid point. The lack of genuine commitment to sustainable practices is a problem that transcends political parties in India. Even when opposition parties criticize the ruling party's environmental policies, they often fail to implement meaningful changes when they come to power. This highlights the need for sustained pressure from civil societies and grassroots movements to hold all political parties accountable and demand genuine action on climate change and environmental protection. These movements need to be vigilant and consistently advocate for sustainable practices, regardless of which party is in power.

Q: Regarding the lack of accurate data on heatwave-related deaths in India, do you think experts should focus on collecting and analyzing this data to understand the full impact of heatwaves on human lives?

A: Absolutely. The lack of accurate data on heatwave-related deaths in India is a significant problem that needs to be addressed. Without proper data, it becomes difficult to quantify the human cost of heatwaves and communicate the urgency of the issue to policymakers and the public. Experts, statisticians, and relevant authorities should prioritize collecting and analyzing data on heatwave-related mortality in India. This data is crucial for understanding the full extent of the problem and developing targeted mitigation strategies. Additionally, the lack of awareness and belief in climate change and global warming, particularly in rural areas, is another challenge that needs to be tackled through educational initiatives and effective communication from the government.

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