After the devastating floods in parts of Europe, officials in Germany have now come under pressure to explain why one of the richest countries in the world was unprepared for the catastrophe that has so far claimed the lives of over 200 people and left hundreds stranded or missing. “The German language hardly knows any words for the devastation that has been caused,” Chancellor Angela Merkel was said to have told reporters.
Another TV report interviewed a middle-aged woman exclaiming in disbelief: “I always thought that floods could happen in poor parts of the world, never here in Germany. It came so fast, the rains, it just washed people away.”
There is a perception that the ravages of climate change will hit densely populated coastlines in the developing world and the richer nations will somehow be spared or be able to tackle it.
Floods and Wildfires Ravage Different Parts of the World
The loss of lives to extreme weather events, no matter which part of the world they occur in, is mind-numbing. But it is in our reactions to these events that the fault lines that dominate climate talks stand exposed. There is a perception that the ravages of climate change will hit densely populated coastlines in the developing world and the richer nations will somehow be spared or be able to tackle it. But every disaster has only reminded us, much like the COVID-19 pandemic, that we are living in an increasingly flat world — what happens in Kolkata will also impact Kansas city.
While countries gear up for another round of climate talks in Glasgow this year, the list of climate-related disasters has only been increasing. The year 2021 has already witnessed wildfires in California, a severe heatwave across the United States, and floods in Germany; just recently, parts of China, too, reported apocalyptic scenes of cars floating and being tossed around like pieces of Lego in a swirl of muddy water.
Closer home, the city of Mumbai has been put on alert twice in the last six weeks due to incessant rains and storm surges.
Of course, there is no denying the fact that bad urban planning and rampant construction on cities’ flood plains contribute to flooding. But it is important to acknowledge that extreme weather conditions have exacerbated the impact of these disasters. While the world has come to accept the science of climate change, the perception that rich nations can escape its impact persists.
White Privilege & Putting the Blame on Developing Nations
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has repeatedly warned that unpredictable weather patterns and excessive rainfall over shorter bursts of time are more likely in a warming world. But while that’s true for all parts of the world, from New York to New Delhi, there exists an inherent bias.
White privilege is reflected not just in prejudices based on colour, but also in preserving a highly consumptive way of life and then blaming the “overpopulation” of the developing world for climate change; the bias is also perhaps indicated in denying it altogether, as climate change deniers do. Even some well-known environmentalists in the developed world have followed this line of thought.
David Attenborough, a natural history expert, has said on many a public platform that “overpopulation” is to be blamed for the crisis the world is facing.
Carbon Footprint of the Privileged Few Caused this Mess
The fact of the matter is that the burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor to climate change. There is enough data to prove that the carbon footprint of the privileged few has landed us in this mess, as opposed to the footprint of countries with large populations. According to the UN report on Global Resources Outlook 2019, our impact on the planet is determined by levels of affluence, and not population. This also explains why rich countries have higher consumption patterns even with slower population growth rates.
Furthermore, while the population in low-income countries has gone up, their demand for resources has stayed constant at 3% of the global total, as per the UN report. Our use of resources, too, hasn’t become efficient; rich countries have simply outsourced manufacturing to low-income countries, where energy efficiency may be low but the labour is cheap. Therefore, stabilising the climate requires us to address the issue of affluence and not just population.
In the coming years, according to climate scientists, extreme weather events, such as the floods in Germany, will increase. The world has a chance to make things better, or at least prevent them from becoming worse. But that calls for addressing these prejudices head-on at the upcoming COP26. Climate change will affect everyone, irrespective of which part of the world one is from. The sooner we accept that the better equipped we will be for a changing world.
(Bahar Dutt is an award-winning environment journalist and teaches at Shiv Nadar University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)