The usually argumentative Indian is largely in agreement that climate change is real, it’s hitting now, and both the government and the people must do something about it straightaway

India has a rich tradition of debate and discussion (Photo by Global Lives Project)

India has a rich tradition of debate and discussion (Photo by Global Lives Project)

A government report to Parliament during the monsoon session estimated that India loses about USD 10 billion every year to climate-related disasters. In light of this, it is a good time to see how the argumentative Indian feels about global warming. The descriptor is not a pejorative but Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s tribute to the rich Indian tradition of public debate and intellectual pluralism.

The Yale and George Mason Universities, along with some Indian private sector partners, carried out a survey in India to take the temperature of public perception about global warming and support for climate action. The sample consisted of about 4,000 adults consisting of 75% city dwellers and 25% villagers. The main message from the survey is that the majority of Indians believe global warming is real and there is widespread support for emission reductions and environmental protection even if it slows down economic growth.

The caveat of course is that when push comes to shove and people have to pay for climate action in terms of taxes or reductions in energy and water use or increases in food and fuel prices, the strong support may waver a bit more than implied in the survey.

I have argued in the past that the Global North (developed countries) and South (developing countries) are not on the same page when it comes to perception or action needed to tackle global warming. India averages only 1.3 tonne of carbon emissions per capita per year compared with some 17 tonne by an American or about 8 tonne by a Chinese citizen. India’s historic cumulative emission amounts to only about 3% of the total, but India is now the third largest emitter in the world.

Per capita emission is misleading since the upper economic strata is emitting nearly at the level of the Global North. More important, India’s emission is expected to ramp up by more than twice by 2035. Less than 10% Indians appear to be aware of global warming but when a short definition of global warming is offered, the awareness bumps up to nearly 75%.

Six Indias

In this context, the survey boils down the respondents into Six Indias to parallel the Six Americas by the same US team. The Six Indias consist of those who are Informed (19%), Experienced (24%), Undecided (15%), Unconcerned (15%), Indifferent (11%) and Disengaged (16%). The Informed are educated and wealthy while the Experienced are the largest fraction of the respondents and report that they have personally experienced some impacts of global warming and are the least wealthy and also most religious. Other studies have also pointed out that climate impacts clearly affect the poor disproportionately.

The Undecided are generally educated, salaried and middle-income. The Unconcerned believe that global warming will cause extreme events and bring harm but do not worry about them. The Indifferent do not believe that global warming presents any risk at all or that harm may occur after more than 50 years. The majority of the Indifferent come from lower castes but are not religious. The Disengaged are mostly rural and female and are unaware of global warming, its causes and risks.

Climate education

But there is good news in these seemingly disparate opinions. All Six Indias support climate education and nearly 75% say they trust scientists to give them reliable information. All groups except the Disengaged are aware of heat waves, floods, droughts, diseases, and potential harm to plants, animals and future generations.

The policies proposed to reduce wastage of energy and water, to increase forest cover, safe water and food, renewable energy, and to reduce emissions via fuel efficiencies, building codes, etc., get support from a majority. This is especially good news in engaging the Disengaged who are likely too overwhelmed by climate variability and the drudgery of gathering water and fuel each day to worry about global warming. Informing them about global warming is certainly likely to engage them.

The opportunity to build on experiential knowledge is abundantly clear from the fact that all groups report monsoons have become harder to predict. Such personal experiences are known to make it far easier to not only educate the uninformed but also engage them in proactive actions to mitigate climate change with individual and collective actions such as saving water and energy.

All those who agree that global warming is real also accept that humans are mainly responsible which should facilitate policy implementation for climate adaptation and mitigation. The Informed, Experienced and Undecided consider global warming to be of personal importance to them and worry about it. That is nearly half of all respondents, which is indeed great news for implementing climate education and to build community engagement based on their own experiences.

Engaging Indians

Just such an educational and engagement effort is underway in India and is led by L.S. Shashidhara of Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune. All Six Indias should be engaged to amplify such an endeavour with an extensive engagement of citizens, teachers, and students at all levels. Considering that the education level is the strongest predictor of global warming awareness in India with the majority being very or somewhat worried about global warming and its risks while also expecting the impacts to occur in less than 25 years, and nearly 70% considering it of personal interest, the task of educating all of India about climate variability and change is a no-brainer.

Over 40% of the Six Indias believe that the government needs to do more to reduce emissions and protect the environment even if it puts the brakes on rapid economic growth. All six Indias feel connected with their community and are willing to accommodate internal refugees affected by climate disasters (although the support is much smaller for external refugees, for example, from Bangladesh). With the trust in education and educators and the belief that government has an important role to play in egalitarianism, the Argumentative Indian can build on the long history of debating important issues to tackle the challenge of global warming.

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