Climate change is a human rights issue

The unequal impact of extreme weather manifests at the global level between countries, between cities of the North and South, and between people of a city anywhere in the world

Smruti KoppikarUpdated: Friday, July 22, 2022, 12:14 AM IST
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Just one of the many scenes of devastation in the Assam floods |

The raging heat and resulting fires in and around London, in fact in several parts of Europe, in the last few days have taken over news cycles. The stories bring back recent memories of heat waves across Indian cities which began in March, earlier than usual. The mercury in Mumbai breached the 40 degrees Celsius mark on March 14, and India recorded its hottest March this year.

In Mumbai, as in other cities across the nation, the usual warnings were handed out. People were asked to stay indoors as a precautionary measure, hydrate themselves well, and watch out for heat-related illnesses. The heat here did not result in fires, traffic signals did not melt and railway tracks didn’t overheat. Indian cities are, however, tackling urban flooding as sheets of incessant rain pound down and choke them. Flooding and infrastructure breakdowns have affected Mumbai as well as several other places across the country.

Heat waves or urban floods – it’s now clear that both the extreme weather events are no longer localised anywhere in the world, that their frequency and intensity have been markedly increasing, and that they are linked to the larger phenomena of global warming and climate change. There are still sceptics and deniers – an internationally renowned periodical said this week that “Climate Change is to blame but the mechanism is still unclear” – which is frustrating to many who can clearly see the link between human activities, capitalist economies, rising emissions, global warming and changing climate leading to extreme weather events. Hundred-year heat temperatures or hundred-year floods are now occurring once a year or two.

As cities heat and flood in extreme ways, making a difference between life and death to many, climate is turning out to be a human rights issue.

Extreme weather events do not affect everyone in a city equally. There is a difference between bearing 40 degrees Celsius heat inside an air-conditioned office or home with cool water at hand, and braving traffic on tar roads in the afternoon to deliver lunch to someone in that air-conditioned space. Floods and waterlogging in Mumbai mean different things to people – some can afford to stay indoors and wax eloquent about the romance of rain on social media, while half of Mumbai that lives in slums wonders if their homes will collapse, rickshaw and taxi drivers or hawkers lose a day’s earnings, daily wage labourers who live off street food go without a meal, and so on.

This is climate inequality or the unequal impact of extreme weather; it manifests at the global level between countries, between cities of the North and South, and between people of a city anywhere in the world. Climate inequality tends to reflect existing disparities, but that’s not all. It also deepens the existing inequalities in cities – and we know now that cities tend to be inherently unequal. The poor in London or Athens have suffered as much as the poor in Mumbai or Delhi during the heat waves in these cities.

Our response mechanisms are, unfortunately, still stuck in the 1950s when the planet was relatively cooler and calmer; we continue to dial back to the dos and don’ts that were handed out then and hope that this is the worst it can be. Scientific studies and climate projections clearly tell us that the worst is yet to come. What should cities do?

To begin with, city authorities – in our case, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation – have to step out of the bubble of immediacy, anticipate climate change-related weather events in the short and long term, and factor them into the city’s systems. If March 2022 was hotter than usual, the odds are that March 2023 will be as hot or more, and future summers will be harsher than what we have known. Mumbai’s July 2005 flood may have been a hundred-year event but mini versions of that fateful day have occurred since and will continue to do so. It’s time for cities to have dedicated officers at the highest levels devoting their time, acumen and energy to combating climate change-related events.

Secondly, urban planning or city-making will have to factor in urban ecology and the peculiar inherent features of a city that make it more vulnerable to such extreme events or offer it natural buffers from them. By and large, with very few exceptions, urban planning has followed the template of the 20th century when cities were planned and built as economic engines and their ecology was a useless barrier to be torn down and built over. Planning with ecology or led by ecology is yet to gather favour among planners, sadly. This is not a core course in architecture colleges or urbanism modules yet, which means young planners are hardly trained in the skills of incorporating nature into planning. Life in the climate changed-world is not business as usual; urban planning cannot be.

Thirdly, city authorities or governments and civil society organisations will have to consciously include climate inequality in their policies and activities, with clear response mechanisms for different extreme weather events. At what point on the thermometer will the government issue heat warnings, what policies will employers be forced to adopt so that people without assured incomes and insurance are not working outdoors at peak temperatures, how and how often will localised flood levels be communicated to people in a city, what role should civil society organisations play during rescue or relief work, and importantly what facilities will be provided publicly for people to access in times of extreme heat or intense rain, and so on.

The inequality at the global level manifests in the disproportionate impact that western developed economies have had on the planet through their high emissions in the last few decades while developing economies are still on the growth curve and are bound to have high emissions. That’s what governments and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will battle out. Whichever way these battles go, climate inequality within national borders is real, its impact worsening existing wealth and income disparities in cities. Climate justice – at heart Climate Change – is a human rights issue any which way one looks at it.

The writer is an independent journalist and urban chronicler who writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and media. She is the founder editor of ‘Question of Cities’

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