The Great Derangement

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In 'The Great Derangement', Amitav Ghosh asks uncomfortable questions about climate change and its consequences on the poor.

What would happen if a category four or five cyclone were to hit Mumbai? Can we imagine the catastrophic death and destruction? If the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay was deluged in water, how would India cope with the nuclear aftermath? Will future generations look back and think us colossally deranged for failing to tackle the greatest challenge of our times?

These are some of the powerful questions Ghosh narrates on Asia and particularly India, bringing together climate data from past and present to tell a chilling tale of what could happen in the future.

For example, we learn that 2015 was the first year in which the Arabian Sea generated more storms than the Bay of Bengal, pointing to a future where powerful cyclones not seen for centuries strike the coastal cities. In Mumbai, the human toll of such a storm, on 20 million inhabitants, as well as the damage to infrastructure, power and transport systems it would cause, could be catastrophic.

Or take the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, situated by the sea. A storm surge could cut power to the complex, where:essential cooling systems could fail; safety systems could be damaged; contaminants could seep into the plant and radioactive water could leak out, as happened at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.”

Essential cooling systems could fail; safety systems could be damaged; contaminants could seep into the plant and radioactive water could leak out, as happened at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

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We have known for decades that the brunt of climate impact will be borne by the poorest, the majority of whom reside in Asia. A combination of sea level rise, droughts, flooding and rapid melting of the Himalayan glaciers mean the “lives and livelihoods of half a billion people in South and Southeast Asia are at risk. There are currently 60 million refugees in the world. Imagine the humanitarian and ecological disaster from a ten-fold increase.”

Ghosh makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the modern political discourse on ‘climate justice’.

The principle of, ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ was the basis on which the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty was formed to prevent, “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Developed countries with historic responsibilities for emitting greenhouse gases and contributing the most to current climatic changes must make the major contributions to emissions reductions.

The great derangement is that whilst the poor of the global south are entitled to a greater share of economic growth – it is within the confines of a broken system, which is going through a disruptive adjustment towards a low-carbon pathway. This is seen most starkly in the plans of emerging economies to build more coal plants as a cheap and quick way to tackle fuel poverty even while they invest in solar and other renewable energy. How much more will all these new coal plants emit?

We can take some encouragement that in 2016 global renewable capacity overtook coal to become the world’s largest installed power source, spearheaded by the expansion of solar and onshore wind in China. Yet much more is needed to keep temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees, a target we are rapidly approaching.

Perhaps one of the most thought-provoking areas of the book is Ghosh’s comparison of two important documents on climate change, the Paris Agreement, and Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’. Ghosh’s position is clear; he believes the involvement of religious groups and leaders is one of the most promising developments.

His main criticism of the Paris Agreement (amongst many) is that it omits any acknowledgement of the dominant paradigms of economic and technological growth – infinite growth and limitless human freedom. Negotiators of the Paris Agreement, who hail it as a breakthrough from the formidable task of uniting all the countries of the world in a common treaty will be disappointed with Ghosh’s condemnation that it creates, ‘yet another neo-liberal frontier where corporations, entrepreneurs, and public officials will be able to join forces in enriching each other’.

It also feels harsh as it does not acknowledge innovations by visionary leaders to create a sustainable economy within the ‘limits’ of our planetary resources and which places people and the environment at the centre. Though imperfect, the Paris Agreement, now that it has come into force (much earlier than expected), provides a global legally binding instrument for climate action. And, negotiators know only too well that ‘ambition must be raised’ to keep temperature rise well below 2 degrees. A task complicated further by the recent political upheaval in the United States. We must, however, start somewhere.

The Great Derangement is an insightful polemical of our failure to grasp the catastrophic threat of climate change through the lens of literature, history and politics, but omits any meaningful discussion of the encouraging advancements in innovation, technology, and countries leading in building a low-carbon, sustainable future. Ghosh’s book is well researched and draws on the latest scientific as well as historical evidence.

 

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