Recently, the term ‘climate apartheid’ made the rounds of both traditional mass media and social media. A new report by Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, was presented to the UN Human Rights Council in end June. The report made it clear that climate change would have devastating consequences for poor people and human rights and that the world was increasingly at risk of climate apartheid, where the rich could pay their way through its worst effects while the rest of the world suffered and were left to fend for themselves. Alston was blunt in his assessment – this was an emergency without precedent.

If climate apartheid sounds scary and ominous, that’s because it is. Climate change has so many negative and, indeed, disastrous effects that even a climate-news junkie can be all but struggling to keep track of the plethora of extreme weather events, droughts, melting of glaciers, and mass extinction of animal and plant species. In this regular stream of bad news, this is especially concerning, the unequal distribution of resources and ability to adapt to and even survive in a warming planet.

Climate science says

At this point, one risks sounding like a twice-over broken record when stating climate-change statistics and the likely fallouts. More carbon was added to the atmosphere in the past three decades than in the whole of human history up until that time. The planet just had its hottest June and July ever recorded. Even 1.5 °C of warming (the Paris Agreement’s target is no higher than 2 °C rise) is slated to result in water insecurity for 500 million people and lower crop yields for 36 million people.  A 2 °C rise means 100 to 400 million more people will be at risk of hunger and 1 to 2 billion more will be deprived of access to water. 

As stated in the report, global warming threatens the basic rights to life, water, food and housing for millions of people. This is becoming increasingly obvious with the frequent occurrences of droughts and heatwaves. The last five years – 2014 to 2018 – were the warmest years that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has recorded since it started tracking global heat 139 years ago. The first quarter of 2019 was the third warmest on record.

Record temperatures across Europe, US and Australia have made equatorial-like sweltering summers a reality, while flash floods, droughts and storms have become all too frequent. And in this Anthropocene age, human activities, plundering of limited resources, and relentless consumption have made this phenomenon possible.

Attribution science (attributing individual weather events to human-induced climate change, instead of purely natural reasons) studies have indicated that around two-thirds of extreme weather events were made more likely or more severe by human-induced climate change. Heat extremes made up more than 43 per cent of these events, followed by droughts (18 per cent) and extreme rain or flooding (17 per cent). The recent bout of record temperatures in France was made at least five times more likely due to global warming.

Warming planet, warming India

The IPCC in its Fifth Assessment Report had already placed India among the most vulnerable regions, due to its low per-capita income, high inequality, and an economy that still depends on agriculture. Similarly, the Council on Energy, Environment and Water pointed out India’s geographical location, thousands of kilometres of coastline, extreme poverty, high population, and relative lack of energy resources as a perfect recipe for climate disaster. 

The Geography of Poverty, Disasters and Climate Extremes in 2030, a report by the Overseas Development Institute, the U.K. Meteorological Office and Risk Management Solutions, states that by 2030 India will have the largest population living in poverty, with about 126.5 million people (out of 325 million people globally) existing on less than $2 a day and facing multiple climate and natural disaster hazards. Droughts in the country affected 330 million people in 2015 and 2016, making it the highest number ever reported for a natural disaster.

Going by the lack of policy action and monetary interventions in climate adaptation and mitigation, especially for the poor, such dire predictions mean little. In India, officially at least 36 people had died till June 13 due to the intense heatwaves that struck the country in May. In 2015, there were more than 2,000 such deaths. Unofficially, the heatwave claimed more than 250 lives across Bihar in three days in June. But who’s counting? In a country with a billion-plus population, perhaps this number needs to be in the millions for the state to take notice and adequately prepare for the short and long term. The issue, though, is that without drastic measures this number will creep up to millions sooner rather than later. 

A 2017 MIT study found that without significant reductions in carbon emissions, heatwaves in India could become so deadly that people directly exposed for six hours or more would not survive. A University of California study stated that by 2100 about 70 per cent of the country’s population would have to battle 32-degree wet-bulb temperatures (the human body cannot survive a wet-bulb temperature of 35 °C for more than a few hours and anything in the 30s is on the ‘threshold of survivability’). Considering that a majority of India’s population depends on subsistence farming and manual labour that requires them to stay out in the open for long hours, this situation will be catastrophic. Think of the street vendors, the rickshaw pullers, the construction workers, even the millions who have to take crowded public transport that offer little respite from the heat (Delhi Metro is an anomaly in this country, after all). Without a dedicated strategy and plan to mitigate the effects of rising temperatures on working-class people, millions will suffer and die for no fault of theirs. For them, it’s death from hunger or heat—the worst kind of Sophie’s choice. 

Middle-class Indians, on the other hand, will find that their modest incomes are insufficient to battle water insecurity, pollution, and growing unrest in the streets, threatening to rob them of their class privileges. It is the super rich who will be able to escape the pains of climate change and rapidly escalating inequality.

Class-based inequities of climate change

Alston contends that climate change could push 120 million more people into poverty by 2030. Even a fraction of this number could prove disastrous for India. The report states that 800 million people in South Asia alone live in climate hotspots and absent some miracle, will see their living conditions deteriorate by 2050. Extreme weather events caused by climate change means that poor people will fall further down the poverty abyss. This will cancel out most of the progress made by the Indian state in pulling people out of poverty. 

With scorching heatwaves, persistent droughts, and water scarcity, villages are being abandoned en masse. With little means of livelihood or even survival, expect them to flock to already choking and dying cities and towns. Mass migration within and across borders is going to become one of the biggest humanitarian challenges of climate change. And if current trends of the inhumane treatment of refugees are anything to go by, this will lead to war-like conditions with the poor forced to move to cooler climates (and probably be barred from entering or consigned to concentration camp-like cages) and the rich, by virtue of their money and power, free to move as they please.

Jobs will be another casualty of global warming. A study by the International Labour Organisation said that by 2030 India will lose 5.8 per cent of its working hours to heat, equivalent to 34 million full-time jobs. It is obvious which kinds of jobs will be most impacted by this — workers in the farming and informal sector or those in cushy, artificially-cooled office environs.

The interesting thing to note is that the rich are already aware of the dangers posed by global warming and are using their immense wealth to protect themselves from its inevitable effects, while taking none of the responsibility for their outsized contribution to the demise of Earth as we know it. Reports like this about underground bunkers, well beyond the reach of most people, illustrate how the doomsday scenario will play out.

Ironically, poor people have contributed the least to rising emissions and yet are the most vulnerable to the fallouts of those emissions. Consigned to slums and ghettoes (where millions of Indians live in squalor) with weak, unplanned infrastructure, lack of basic services and proper housing, floods and landslides can cause irreparable damage to these areas. Alston writes that people in poverty tend to live in areas more susceptible to climate change and lose relatively more when impacted by natural or manmade disasters. Their precarious livelihoods can be decimated at a moment’s notice, and with little insurance, they have fewer resources to mitigate the effects, often spiralling into debt and suffering irreversible losses. 

Contrast this with how the rich can respond to, and take measures to, minimise the risks brought about by the same climate disasters — sturdy, luxurious housing, backup options when it comes to living accommodations (owning more than one property is a given), gated communities, more than adequate financial resources including insurance, private resources such as security guards and even firefighters (thrown into sharp relief in last year’s California wildfires), access to private planes, close proximity to power, and a network of their equally well-off peers. It should be no surprise that people in poor countries have died from disasters up to seven times more than those from wealthy countries.

Then there are the political challenges and threats to democracy, rule of law, human rights, and basic social decency. As Alston notes, ‘The risk of community discontent, of growing inequality, and of even greater levels of deprivation among some groups will likely stimulate nationalist, xenophobic, racist and other responses. Maintaining a balanced approach to civil and political rights will be extremely complex.’

Climate apartheid in India

Alston cited the example of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy that left low-income New Yorkers without access to power and healthcare while the headquarters of the bank of billionaires, Goldman Sachs, was protected by thousands of its own sandbags and power from its own generator. In India, one doesn’t need the example of a hurricane (cyclone) aftermath to demonstrate the yawning gap between the rich and the poor. Think of the heatwave-related deaths that disproportionately affect poor labourers or the water crisis that has been devastating for drought-stricken farmers. People in poverty do not have the resources to survive soaring temperatures, while it is quite common to find 4-5-6-7 air conditioners running in a well-off household in peak summer.

Water scarcity in India is primarily a manmade disaster but will soon get exacerbated due to global warming. Nearly half of the human population, including 600 million people in India, are already dealing with water scarcity. In India, monsoons are the primary source of water and climate change is bound to make it even more fickle and unpredictable than before. Even urban, middle class Indians in cities like Chennai are already suffering from extreme water stress. As many as 21 major cities (including Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad) are set to run out of groundwater next year and 40 per cent of the population will have no access to drinking water by 2030.

Water stress will primarily affect the agriculture sector which accounts for more than three-quarters of water consumption in the country. And while some can afford exorbitantly priced water from private tankers or install rainwater-harvesting systems, the poor will have to save, scrounge, and do without water supply for their most basic needs. Poor people are almost entirely dependent on groundwater, which is the most depleted resource in the country. Extreme weather events, droughts and flash floods, and erratic monsoons and climate patterns will make a bad but potentially salvageable situation a crisis of epic proportions. When the CEO of NITI Aayog himself states that water is the biggest challenge faced by the country, that doesn’t augur too well.  

CB view

At a time when ‘class warfare’ is back in vogue and the establishment is cautioning us against using this term or even framing it as an explanation for the rise of right-wing authoritarian leaders across the world, climate apartheid and its real consequences should make us think: can we really escape class wars when the haves who are primarily responsible for the sorry state of the planet are set to escape any sort of accountability, while the have-nots battle unbearable heat, frequent disasters, forced migration, and wired fences? Class wars has always been a reality of modern human civilisation; climate change is set to aggravate it.

With income inequality at record high levels and growing xenophobia being displayed by huge swathes of populations, climate apartheid might be the proverbial tinder that burns down the entire house. Instead of allowing policymakers, political leaders and corporate bigwigs to escape responsibility by blaming climate change for economic and social unrest, it is imperative that this moment be seized for an economic and social transformation that puts the planet first. This means green jobs, economic and human development for all, building climate resilience among people (especially women, children and marginalised groups), protecting workers and the environment, and moving away from a consumption-driven, GDP-obsessed economy. Needless to say, this demands structural change in every aspect of society, not a piecemeal approach that relies on incrementalism.