Capitalism and climate crisis in India

| 6th October 2020 |
Flood management by workers in India
Global warming is upsetting the monsoon, making droughts more likely, and changing the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians.

We simply can not address global warming satisfactorily unless these structural core issues that connect with justice and equity are given primacy and tackled head on.

The average sea level rise worldwide over 2016-2020 was nearly half a centimetre per year, says the United in Science 2020 report, published by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific institutions.

The rate of sea level rise is now significantly higher than the twentieth century average, largely due to the loss of ice from the great ice sheets on Antarctica and Greenland, besides warmer ocean waters expanding.

Reading the United in Science 2020 report made me think about sea level rise in terms of centimetres rather than millimetres – for the first time in the 15 years that I have been engaging with the climate crisis.


The impact of rising waters in the Indian sub-continent is one of the many issues covered in a new edition of my pamphlet, Global Warming in the Indian Context, published today by People & Nature

I have updated the pamphlet – which was first published on People & Nature in June 2016 – to highlight many things about the climate crisis that have changed since then.

But the first thing to emphasise is that the social context in which climate change hits people in India is very different from that in the UK or mainland Europe.

In India, 650 million people rely on agriculture or related occupations; the average landholding per household is merely 2.5 acres, and half the area is under key crops such as rice and wheat. Millions of small and marginal farmers have no access to irrigation, are entirely dependent on the rain, and hence more vulnerable to climatic changes.

Added to this, 120 million people have lost their jobs or livelihoods in the world’s most disastrous Covid-induced lockdown– and there is no sign of economic recovery in sight.

Extreme weather

Extreme climatic events have been getting more intense and frequent in India (and worldwide) in recent years – particularly extreme rainfall events. These result in floods, loss of property, and deaths – such as in the southern state of Kerala in August 2018, in which 350 people died. Simultaneously, there has also been a decline in the summer monsoon, from which India gets 75 per cent of its annual rainfall.

Climate change has this capacity to throw seemingly paradoxical impacts at you.

Besides air pollutants, one key reason for this lesser rain is that the Indian Ocean has been warming at a faster rate than the Indian landmass, and hence reducing the temperature differential between ocean and land that drives the Indian monsoon.

A fact not often discussed in popular writing or media reporting is that a warmer Indian Ocean is a common factor in several climatic changes in India: the wider spread of droughts, increased extreme rainfall, longer heat waves, and an increase in the frequency and duration of rainstorms, among others.

It has also contributed to droughts that have affected millions of poor people in Somalia, Zimbabwe, and other parts of Africa over the past four years.


Another trend that has intensified in recent years has been the falling prices of renewables. Solar power capacity in India has been expanded significantly (from about 5000 megawatts (MW) in 2016 to about 36,000 MW currently).

India’s is one of the few right-wing governments to support solar power, in sharp contrast to those in Brazil, Australia, and the US. However, unionisation is almost non-existent among the workforces of wind and solar companies in India, though a few unions and some policy think-tanks have begun to recently engage with how the energy transition in India would affect employment levels, the nature of work, and working conditions.

Though the energy transition has barely begun particularly beyond the electricity subsector, both in India and worldwide, it is essential that workers and unions be integral to the process and part of the conversation, as a recent post emphasised.


An important shift that has taken place in recent years has been in the climate movement from below.

The eruption of protests organized by Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Fridays for Future (FFF) in the UK and mainland Europe ― along with in-your-face extreme events such as the raging fires in Australia and the western United States ― has pushed the climate crisis into wider consciousness almost everywhere.

In the United States, aided by the Sunrise movement, this is reflected in climate change becoming part of the mainstream electoral discourse, around the Green New Deal. In India, over the last 18 months, it has spawned a number of organizations that have adopted these two names, XR and FFF, in towns large and small.

India had no climate movement, in my view, but a bunch of NGOs doing their thing, for the last 25 years.

Now, encouragingly, we have the beginnings of one. A few of these organisations appreciate something important: the need to go beyond campaigning on WhatsApp, Facebook, and other social media platforms, and to build relationships with movements organized around people’s control over common resources and against mining and other extractive industries.


So, some things have changed, but what has remained the same are the roots of the problem: the centrality of inequality and capitalism to the climate crisis.

Inequalities continue to intensify, in India and worldwide. In India, 1 per cent of the population reportedly owns 58 per cent of the country’s wealth. Covid-19 hasn’t changed things: the recent rise in stock market valuations in the United States, and anecdotal evidence of consumption patterns in China suggest that the rich are yet again managing to pass on the burdens of an economic crisis on working people everywhere.

Therefore, as well as engaging with, and reducing emissions from intermediate systems such as electricity, transport, buildings, and agriculture, we simply can not address global warming satisfactorily unless these structural core issues that connect with justice and equity are given primacy and tackled head on.

The pamphlet Global Warming in the Indian Context is FREE to download here. It covers five areas, broadly: the science of global warming; the roots of the crisis; climate impacts in India and globally, which inordinately hits those least responsible – the poor and other species; climate politics, including the Paris Agreement; and finally, some suggestions about what we can do, individually and collectively.

The pamphlet has been updated to include what the Covid-19 lockdowns would imply for current emissions, and other effects; key findings from a recent landmark report on climatic changes in India; information from the United in Science report mentioned above; and China’s new emissions pledges announced by President Xi Jinping on 22 September.

This Author 

Nagraj Adve is a member of Teachers Against the Climate Crisis (TACC) and South Asian People’s Action Against Climate Crisis (SAPACC). He writes and gives talks in colleges on the science, impacts, and politics of global warming. Follow him, and TACC, on twitter. This article was first published on People & Nature.