Big names in Indian philanthropy team up to respond to climate change

Some of India’s foremost philanthropies have joined hands to form India Climate Collaborative, a coalition with diverse, disparate voices — from research institutions and scientists to investors and civil society — all working with the government. .
While talking about climate change, Anirban Ghosh, chief sustainability officer, Mahindra Group, brings up a Google Earth simulation project that features a handful of cities such as London, New York and Shanghai. Ghosh’s city, Mumbai, is also on the list. The project estimates the state of these cities if global temperatures were to rise by two degrees and by four degrees. 

“I understand that in either scenario, my building is going to be under water,” says Ghosh. “Climate change can’t get more personal than that.”

Pulled into a narrative that seems like apocalyptic fiction but is in fact based on years of scientific research (and evidence), one goes on to the Google Earth platform to find much of Mumbai’s iconic 85-foot-high Gateway of India under water if temperatures were to rise — which they are expected to. Our coastal cities going under is just one of the many very real threats posed by a climate change crisis.

From extreme heat waves to reduced labour productivity and food insecurity, the list is a long, growing one. Still, somehow, the dominant narrative paints climate change as something that’s far removed from our lives, something that might impact only others.

This is why some of India’s foremost philanthropies have joined hands to form the India Climate Collaborative, a coalition with diverse, disparate voices — from research institutions and scientists to investors and civil society — all working with the government. 

“It is clear that the world cannot continue to pursue a business-as-usual approach and nobody can solve the problem on their own,” says Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group. Joining Mahindra in leading this climate change intervention are many household names — Ratan N Tata of Tata Trusts, Nadir B Godrej of Godrej Industries, Rohini Nilekani of Arghyam, Vidya Shah of the EdelGive Foundation, Aditi and Rishad Premji of Wipro, and Hemendra Kothari of the DSP Group. More than 40 stakeholders have joined this growing collaboration, including the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), and the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

The first step towards the establishment of this platform was to reach out to different foundations, a process that started in 2018. “It was heartening to see how intuitively and quickly the philanthropies agreed to work together. What was also helpful was that everyone came to the table with an attitude of learning from each other. They knew that no one person has all the answers,” says Shloka Nath, executive director of the Collaborative.

Climate change is like pandemic - till one happens no one will take any action.
There’s a big sense of personal responsibility, continues Nath, that these philanthropists have shown in protecting the world for the coming generations. And consensus is a non-issue. “You never want to aim for consensus in a collaboration. You want to be able to amp up the ambition and make sure you don’t fall prey to the lowest common denominator,” she says.  

While the India Climate Collaborative started out with an undisclosed sum from all the philanthropies, more funds will be raised for specific projects as and when the need for it arises. But it’s not just funding that the philanthropies bring to the table. “They are also bringing their technical knowledge, their networks and their experiences from the field,” Nath explains. As a grant-making association, the platform is not an industry body, but an enabler. “The idea is that solution providers are already working on solutions. Our task is to figure out how to make it easier for them.” 

Shloka Nath, executive director at India Climate Collaborative, speaking at a convention on air pollution.
While the Collaborative was formally launched at Davos earlier this year, the platform was incubated at Tata Trusts in Mumbai. Since 2017, Nath has headed sustainability and special projects at Tata Trusts. 

After two pre-Covid convenings on air pollution, the Collaborative is launching a three-part digital series today (Saturday). The first talk features philanthropist Rohini Nilekani, politician Jairam Ramesh and Navroz K Dubash, professor at Delhi’s CPR, with journalist Barkha Dutt moderating the conversation. The theme for this session is India in the time of Covid and climate change. The second and third talks are scheduled for the following Saturdays (May 16 and 23). Hosted on Zoom, one has to pre-register for these talks.

Dubash of CPR says the climate change debate in India has historically been outward-looking, so much so that our efforts have largely been focused on avoiding diplomatic challenges, and ensuring that the world doesn’t place an unfair burden on India.

“The big shift now is that important voices of Indian philanthropists are taking ownership of the problem and saying we need to address climate change for our own sake,” says Dubash. “Before this we hadn’t thought of it as a problem that we owned, though it is increasingly clear that issues related to climate change could be a huge obstacle to India’s development.”

The big mandate for the Collaborative is crafting a narrative, a call to action, of how India deals with climate change. “This is a story around India’s developmental priorities, around India’s economic transition, around human impact of climate change. This is a story that we need to tell together by unifying different actors who come with different perspectives,” says Nath.

“We are almost certainly locked into some level of warming, about 1 to 2 degrees, so we will start seeing the effects in India too,” says Dubash. This might not sound like much, but even the scant degree or so of warming since pre-industrial times has seen Himalayan glaciers retreating, besides more droughts, extreme rainfall events and floods.

The climate change problem is not going away. Thus, one of the key tasks for the Collaborative is to help cut across silos of those already working on solutions, whether it relates to land use or air pollution. “One of the essential features in the Collaborative’s contribution is trying to see how the associations amongst strange bedfellows can be made into something productive,” says Nitin Pandit, director of Bengaluru-based non-profit ATREE. 

In a country of staggering challenges, ranging from extreme poverty to the abysmal status of women, it can be hard to recognise the issues that come with climate change, says Mumbai-based Urvashi Devidayal who works with Sankalp, a convening platform by Intellecap, the Aavishkaar Group’s (an early stage investor) advisory arm. As someone who has spent much of her career trying to convince financial institutions that investing in green solutions isn’t a risk but an opportunity, she acknowledges that some changes are hard to effect.

“It is hard to change a behaviour set because climate change is just not very real for us,” says Devidayal. “In that sense climate change is like a pandemic — it’s not like we didn’t know about pandemics, but till one happens no one will take any action.” 
An old report by the World Health Organization (WHO) termed severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) “the first severe new disease of the 21st century”. Published in the aftermath of SARS in 2004, the report laid stress on finding ways to make the impact of the next international outbreak “less dramatic”. The irony is only too evident: the effects of Covid-19 are very much more than “dramatic”. 

The future, WHO noted, “looks very bright” for microbes. “Changes in the way we inhabit the planet have disrupted the delicate natural equilibrium of the microbial world, and these changes cannot easily be undone,” reads its report.

The report isn’t subtle about expecting more such outbreaks. When it was presented, SARS had infected a little more than 8,000 people, and killed just under 800. Between 2002 and 2005 alone, WHO verified 760 outbreaks in 138 countries of potential international concern. Covid-19 has long surpassed the “first severe new disease of the 21st century”. More such deadly confrontations might be on the way.

Through the research we’ve done on emerging and remerging diseases, we’ve realised that if you don’t pay attention to biodiversity and climate change with equal weightage, both problems will become worse,” says Pandit of the Ashoka Trust. We might see the emergence of more zoonotic diseases (some strains of coronavirus, which causes Covid-19, are zoonotic, meaning they can cause disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans) because of human intervention or climate change, continues Pandit. “These diseases are going to be very difficult to handle. Our experience just now speaks to this.”

Experts speculate that the current problem of locusts, trillions of which have descended into eastern Africa in a second wave, and have even made their way to Rajasthan and Gujarat in “pink swarms”, is also linked to climate change. “Besides disruptions in monsoons, in water cycles, and crop yields, India has to start preparing for a change in agriculture pest patterns too,” says Dubash.

Besides spreading the word and mobilising resources where needed, the Collaborative is also invested in capacity building through events (which have now been pushed to later in the year because of the pandemic). One of them involves a plan to bring 100 bureaucrats from nine departments in Rajasthan to address issues pertinent to the state: water and extreme heat.

Reaching out to those signed up with the platform through monthly newsletters, Nath’s writings cite recent studies to highlight the situation’s urgency. One of these studies points to how human-caused warming could usher in a world where the Arctic is ice-free in summer in another two decades, and the Amazon rainforest a vast savanna grassland in another 50 years.

The impact of climate change is no less dramatic closer home. According to a report released just this week, areas currently home to a third of the world’s population will be as hot as the hottest parts of the Sahara within five decades. This includes India.

Even in the most optimistic of outlooks, warns the paper (“Future of the Human Climate Niche,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), one to three billion people will be forced to live outside the climate conditions that have served humanity well for over 6,000 years. In an interview with The Guardian, Timothy Lenton of Exeter University, one of the authors of the paper, describes the results of their research as “flabbergasting”. The past decade, hottest on record, is testament to this prediction — 2019 was the second hottest year since the pre-industrial era after 2016, according to the United Nations.

All countries are going to face their own unique sets of challenges, warn experts, highlighting the need for India to focus on solutions tailored to our needs. Devidayal cites the example of how the extensive research done in the field of energy efficiency keeps in mind large factories, but India's economy, which heavily relies on MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises), may not be able to retrofit those solutions to its (smaller) factories. Rural India, for instance, may not receive the uninterrupted power supply that bigger factories might have. We need local, homegrown solutions.

Among the less-discussed ways in which climate change could adversely impact India are concerns about labour welfare and productivity. Extreme heat could affect labour capacities more and more in the years ahead, says Nath. In India, 75 per cent of the labour force — around 380 million people — is already exposed to heat-related stress, she says. “In another 10 years the average loss in their daylight working hours could be between 2.5 and 4.5 per cent of GDP at risk annually.”

Climate change is an artefact of how we chose to develop, says Dubash. “At a very deep level we continue to see a trade-off between the development and environment in India but we just can’t deny these linkages anymore.” India’s development story, says Dubash, cannot remain separate from India’s environment story.

There’s a lot that businesses can do, and are doing, to tackle the climate emergency at a cost that is not significantly high, says Nadir Godrej, managing director, Godrej Industries. “Government can play a role in providing incentives and disincentives to ensure lower carbon emissions. We have to look at localised solutions that can solve global problems, and this will need businesses, governments, academia, and individuals to work together to identify and scale up solutions,” he says, adding that the role of philanthropy is to augment these efforts.

This collective leadership, as Ratan Tata describes it, signifies to the world that “Indian philanthropy is ready to be a leader in climate action”. And as American environmentalist Bill McKibben, who has been writing a weekly climate crisis newsletter in The New Yorker, put it: “We seem to have a great deal of control, right until the moment that we don’t have any.” Over the past few months there have been some notable changes in the planet’s wellbeing following the widespread recognition that Covid-19 represents a public health emergency. What the pandemic has shown is that corporate organisations, government and private individuals can work together to mobilise resources and change the very fabric of how we live in a short time.

The India Climate Collaborative recognises this as it builds together bit by bit India’s response to climate change. But as the stakeholders emphasise: they can’t do it alone.

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