COP(OUT)26, Climate Emergency and the Indian Left

Demonstration in Glasgow during COP26, image courtesy The Herald

We are in the midst of a climate emergency – and this is no longer a secret. In fact, in November 2019, 11,000 scientists declared in a signed statement, in no uncertain terms that “planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.” “Scientists”, they said, “have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to ‘tell it like it is’.” They noted that even 40 years after the First Climate Conference attended by over 50 scientists (in Geneva in 1979) had agreed that there were alarming trends of climate change that made it necessary to act, the situation has only worsened. “Alarming trends” have since given way to a full-on emergency. Although the 2015 Paris Agreement arrived at in COP 21 is considered a paradigm shift in that it produced a legally binding international climate treaty (adopted by 196 parties), the change since then has not been significant.

COP 26 was naturally being watched with bated breath the world over – especially by countries like Bahamas and Palau, which can be completely washed off the face of the earth. Indeed what was significant in the first draft of the statement, which had raised hopes initially, was that it explicitly and for the first time ever, “call(ed) upon Parties to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels” However, as this New Scientist analysis points out, on both these counts the final statement stands diluted. Instead of phasing out coal, we now have only phasing out of “unabated coal” (that is to say, “coal-fired power plants that don’t have a carbon capture and storage {CCS} system to trap their greenhouse gas emissions and bury them underground).” A bigger tomfoolery has been the qualifying of the phrase “subsidies for fossil fuels” in the provision to phase out such subsidies, by the addition of “inefficient” to “subsidies” – as if efficient subsidies may be retained, a meaningless (if not pernicious) amendment, whichever way one looks at it.

Youth demonstration, image courtesy Wellbeing Economy Alliance

The “Imperial Mode of Living

It goes without saying that the push back on this key question has a lot to do with the clout and the influence exercised by the fossil fuel industry on respective governments. But at another level, it has to do with what German scholars Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen have called the “imperial mode of living” – which leads to the imbrication of large sections of the populations in the high energy consumption lifestyles characteristic of capitalism. (Imperial Mode of Living, Verso, 2021) The authors track the development of this mode of living since its mass production and mass consumption Fordist phase, right through to the neoliberal one (based, we might add, on maniacal consumption). The idea of an “Imperial mode of living”, underline Brand and Wissen, is to make visible the ways in which “normality is produced precisely by masking the destruction in which it is rooted.” (p. 5) Brand and Wissen are at pains to emphasize the structural nature of this mode of living that connects, say the global North’s demand for coltan ore (necessary for mobile phones and laptops) to the conflicts between “hostile” ethnic groups in Congo, or the water conflicts in many parts of the world to the destruction of small farms and their replacement by industrial agriculture. The concept, they underline, “points towards the norms of production, distribution and consumption built into the political, economic and cultural structures of everyday life for the populations of the global North.” (p. 41)

It needs to be underlined, however, that this “imperial mode of living” functions equally as a social imaginary, a desire that lies at the heart of the modern ideologies of “Development” and “Progress”, which propels the elites of postcolonial societies as well. From the 1990s onward, the middle classes of societies like India’s too have started partaking of this social imaginary. What is more, with the fundamentally transformed nature of small family savings over the last three decades (like investing in stock markets), ordinary middle class people too have developed stakes in big business, tying up their material interests too with big Capital.

Deafening Silence of the Indian Left

Considering that we are in a climate emergency and that the worst impact of the catastrophe will be on the poorest of the world’s populations, one would have thought that the forces of the Left would have taken the lead in fighting for change. Considering that giant global capitalist corporations are centrally responsible for the crisis, wouldn’t it seem natural that the Left should be in the forefront of the struggle? Unfortunately, that is just not the case as anyone even remotely familiar with Indian politics knows. Except for some of the smaller Marxist-Leninist groups and an occasional resolution or an article here and there, the question of climate change itself has generally been ignored. On COP 26 in particular, a couple of articles by some independent Left-oriented scholars apart, I could not find any comment or analysis by any of the Left parties.

In a manner of speaking, this is so because the Left itself is pretty much imbricated in the imperial mode of living. At one level, this works to push the Left towards the same productivist fantasies of industrialization at all costs, the results of which we have seen in West Bengal in Singur and Nandigram. When they do speak, party-affiliated Left wing analysts and commentators can be seen advising the Indian government to stand up to the industrialized countries of the North and assert the global South’s “right to development”. That is precisely why the position of the Indian and the Chinese governments is similar in this regard. While it is necessary to resist the blackmail of the industrialized North and fight for more carbon space, the real point here is that all this is being done only to ape them and become like the West/ North. To the best of my knowledge, I am not aware of a single debate or proposal that seeks to rethink the energy and fossil fuel question for the “future” (except on the margins of the Left parties); nor therefore, have there been any attempts to outline an ecosocialist vision of the kind that many Left parties and intellectuals in other parts of the world have undertaken. I am saying “for the future” but the point really is that this question that demands immediate attention, not just for the LDF government in Kerala but also for the nature of struggles that the Left in general seeks to undertake. So for instance, if the 2016 demonetization or the 2020 Covid19 lockdown led to massive dislocation of industry and loss of employment, the response of the Left, generally speaking, has simply been to demand more jobs; the employment question has been articulated without any thought as to the kinds of employment and industry that are more desirable from this point of view. It is true that the immediate question of unemployment and hunger has to be addressed but it is certainly not the case that the Modi government has obliged them or is likely to oblige them by immediately providing those jobs in conventional industries.

In a sense, this is no different from the kind of response that the European and US governments came up with in the wake of the 2008 crash and after. In the name of immediacy, the move is to always bailout banks and corporations in order to revitalize the existing industries – and all apparently for the sake of generating employment.

The point really is to build up a powerful movement that will be able to place these burning questions on the table and make it impossible for all political parties to go on with business as usual. In that sense, the task of any Left formation or party must be to connect the everyday crises in the lives of the people – from water-scarcity and toxic rivers (recall the recent photographs of women offering Chhath prayers standing the chemical foam in the Yamuna river) to extreme weather events, landslides and floods. Unfortunately, far from acting with foresight, the LDF government of Kerala has not only ignored the recommendations of the Madhav Gadgil Committee (Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel), it has been going ahead with highly controversial infrastructure projects in this ecological fragile area – despite two devastating floods in the past three years.

Given this scenario, where the Right and the Left seem to betray the same cavalier attitude to the climate crisis, the challenge before us in India becomes really grim.

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