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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 29, July 10, 2010

Climate Change: Socio-Political Implications

Friday 16 July 2010, by Sujit Lahiry

Climate change is a very complex issue. In recent years, climate change and global warming have become matters of intense heated debate among policy-makers, analysts and acade-micians. At the same time, climate change has become an integral part of the growing literature on environmental discourse. The vagaries of climate change are unfolding in such a manner that it affects the security and well-being of all living beings. How is climate affected? How do we map climate change? What are the social, economic and political implications of climate change? These are some of the perennial, intriguing questions which will be addressed in this paper. This paper seeks to study the socio-political implications of climate change. Fundamental questions on the reality of climate change due to human activity will be touched upon. Assuming that climate change would become too acute in the foreseeable future, its serious fallout on the demographic, social and political life of the people of underdeveloped countries in particular would be sketched.

I

OUR planet ‘Earth’ is a part of the solar system of which the Sun is the principle actor. Leaving aside all intricacies of the formation of climate on earth, it is enough to state that the interaction of the sun’s hugely powerful radiation with water in oceans, rivers, etc. produce the climate on earth. By earth, I mean the entire Earth. The Moon does have some effect on climate as is evident from tidal waves. And, the present hospitable climate that we, human beings on earth, enjoy, evolved not in hundreds or thousands of years, but over millions and millions of years. In the process, the entire vegetation, primitive and crude life forms and the highest form of life manifest in human beings exist today.

Let nature take its course. Any tampering of the natural process would not only be counter-productive, but might be catastrophic. And, human beings, as Charles Darwin exhibited in his all-time masterpiece The Theory of Evolution, are the products of the natural process of evolution.

Let us now assume that climate change is occurring as the UN and other civil society organisations are highlighting. Any change in the climate of the earth will, in particular, be felt in the following observables:

(a) extension of the total period of summer or a rise in the average temperature during summer or an abrupt increase in temperatures during summer that persists for a period larger than that existed hitherto;

(b) extension of the period of the rainy season, or an abrupt increase in rainfall extending over a long period of time; hailstorms and thunderstorms in plenty. At the same time, some areas may not get appropriate rainfall leading to drought;

(c) extended period of normal winter; or an extreme winter spell attended with heavy snowfall.

Of all the seasons, these three are important and have tremendous effect on the vegetation and all sorts of life forms and the entire ecosystem. These three—(a), (b), (c)—are not independent but are interlinked. The way they are interlinked is a subject for scientific persons to explore the necessary relationship. As a teacher-cum-researcher in Political Science, my interest is: how do all these affect the earth and its inhabitants, namely, vegetations, oceans, rivers, animals, human beings and so on?

The basic issue in the climate change debate is whether the developed countries, which emit much of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, should bear much more responsibility with regard to climate change. The Southern countries insist on the principle of ‘common but differen-tiated responsibilities’ with regard to climate change. This is the basic issue in the climate change debate since the Kyoto Protocol. One of the prime subjects in climate change is global warming, that is, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by both the ‘North’ and the ‘South’, and to regard ‘global warming’ as a common concern of both the developed and developing countries.

The first impact of global warming is what is described as a rise of sea level with respect to existing ones and, additionally, the magnitude of the rise of sea level will be a function of the increase in terms of the degree (Centigrade, Fahrenheit, Kelvin) of global warming. It is a fact that increasing human population attended with decreasing population of other creatures and/or animals, has left no landmass uninhabited by human beings. It is also a reality that plenty of habitated land mass not very much above the sea-level exists, for example, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, in general, and Indonesia, a country of isolated islands, to mention a few. This will result in huge displacement of human beings and domestic animals, while the landmass for agricultural production, in particular, will be lost.

There will be both internal migration as well as external migration. For example, Maldives would have to look for new pastures of land. It is a stark reality that almost all these under-developed and backward countries are stricken with acute poverty, with a third of the population living on one dollar as the UN Human Development Report says (These percentages, as calculated by the UNHDR, are intelligible to them only, since the total percentage exceeds hundred sometimes). Moreover, the people of the backward countries that include the African, Latin American states, and all those mentioned previously, are acutely divided on the basis of caste, creed, religion, ethnicity. It has resulted in large scale killings and migration of people, for example, in Rwanda (Hutus and Tutsis), Nigeria (in Jose, Christians and Muslims).

II

THE fallout of this may be described in the following way: displaced people who migrate to places within the country would naturally look for employment in every field, for example, in cultivation of the land, in industries, factories and elsewhere for survival. Employment opportunities are already limited. Obviously, every sort of conflict would take place between those displaced and the people originally staying at a place. The conflict will be disastrous if the caste, ethnicity, religion of the displaced and the original people do not match. Additionally, this migration will affect society at large, and, in turn, democracy, if any, of the country as well. But, civil war in the real sense resulting in a higher form of society will not occur in these underdeveloped countries.

However, the political and so-called civil society organisations of the underdeveloped countries do not raise these questions. To be precise, they act differently at meetings on climate change, asking for aid and grants from the developed countries so that they can switch over to the new products manufactured by the developed countries. Who will look after those displaced people who would be refugees within their own country? One UNHCR (UN High Commission for Refugees) with sparse funding cannot cope with such a calamity. But, that is the truth.

[This is a revised version of a paper presented by the author at the Conference on “Climate Change: Concerns and Solutions” held at Panjab University,
Chandigarh from February 7 to 9, 2010]

Dr Sujit Lahiry is an Assistant Professor in Political Science, Panjab University Regional Centre, Muktsar, Punjab.

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