Monday, December 3, 2007

Bottoms Up to Prevent Climate Change

The Times of India science reporter Narayani Ganesh has this prescription for combating climate change:

What if we shifted the entire responsibility on to the shoulders of one well-known person, say someone like R K Pachauri, who heads The Energy Research Institute and the Nobel prize-wining Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? He could institute a climate hotline, a blog, office, radio talk-in show, agony uncle column or any other kind of public interface system that would encourage people to respond to, complain of, discuss, give ideas, share experiences and counsel/get counselled on anything related to saving the planet and ourselves from the scourge of global warming. Collection boxes - on the lines of those displayed by organisations like the Red Cross, CRY or PETA - placed at strategic points and monitored carefully could help assuage the guilt of individuals while galvanising fund-raising on a fairly large scale.

Ganesh is frustrated with the government's response to climate change and wants a bottoms up approach whereby eminent scientists will raise awareness by writing columns and funds for research in alternative energy are raised by placing collection boxes. Will this strategy work? I can imagine people responding to columns with plenty of suggestions and advice but will something like this change habits and behavior and genuinely lead to reduction in emissions? Recently the British rock band Radiohead allowed online downloads of their latest album on a voluntary payment basis. Fans could pay as little or as much as they wanted. Nearly two thirds payed nothing and the rest on average less than $3 for an album that cost about $16. If offered a free lunch people grab it with both hands. Radiohead's collection box remained nearly empty. Free lunches abound in India. The government doles out free electricity, subsidizes fuel, water, gas and roads and most people make full use of this largesse and seem not to be racked with guilt. Urban India is consumed by consumerism and a rural population is aspiring for that. We Indians have grown so used to these government handouts that columns and blogs by an over-hyped UN administrator and a few collection boxes are likely to be ignored.

A bottom's up approach, people's participation in minimizing climate change have a feel good quality to it. People appear altruistic and can feel less guilty without actually bearing any significant costs, which is why politicians will likely support such schemes. On the other hand, schemes that will make a real difference in reducing emissions, such as fitting carbon scrubbers to coal plants, charging more for electricity, tolling roads, introducing congestion charges for vehicles in urban centers are highly unpopular and unlikely to be introduced at least for some time. So, India will go through a strange phase whereby politicians will actively encourage useless schemes like scientists writing columns and collection boxes to raise funds for "research", while distancing themselves from regulations that impose limits on emissions. Our emissions and accompanying pollution will keep growing. Unless there is a political will to take tough decisions, a top-down imposition, the 3 Indians out of a 1000 with Internet connections, will have to make do reading Mr. Pachauri's blog on preventing climate change. Bottom's Up for that! :-)


  1. I completely agree that it is a very small percentage we are looking at to create an awareness amongst the Internet savy class or for that matter the intelligensia. but the way global warming is going something has to be done and soon!
    I think instead of blogs and articles we must start at the grass roots level that is educate the local corporators in the cities and the panch's in the gram panchayats to create an awareness as to where the earth is heading. instead of feel good speeches of eulogising what a certain party has achieved if they would concentrate on These more critical subjects at a lay man's level then maybe just maybe some change may be brought about. The right use of Power can bring about miracles!!

  2. Suvrat,

    I think it is frustration rather than anything else that informs such projects. They'll make you feel good, and therefore are dangerous, because they make you feel good without actually achieving anything. Like steroids.

    The economics is clear: there is massive market failure. Government policy is necessary given both because of the market failure, but also because the kind of investments required for meaningful outcomes is massive.

    So every bit of energy must be directed at the government.

    I suggest it might be better for citizens to phone, write letters and send flowers (Munnabhai style) to MPs, MLAs and others. And get other citizens to do so.

  3. Anon-

    educating corporators, panchayats etc all these are commendable initiatives, but will they make a difference to how people use energy? who would voluntarily give up aspects of their life style and aspirations for the new and big? As Nitin pointed out, the problem is so massive that only National policy changes can make a difference.

    but what can break the stranglehold of populist policies? Munnabhai to the rescue? I remain pessimistic of the near future.