Mahesh Rangarajan is professor of history and environmental studies at Ashoka University. Speaking to Times Evoke, he discusses the evolution of climate justice — and the G20’s potential:
The G20 Summit brings the notion of environmental justice to the fore. The environment itself came onto the international agenda formally in 1972 at the Stockholm Conference. There were agreements before, such as the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, motivated by concerns about what radioactive fallout would do to Earth. A notion of ecological safety and the future had begun. But the first global conference on the environment was in 1972.
One of the strongest fissures then was between communist and capitalist countries or the Soviet and US-led blocs. The other was between the global North and South. Even though broad agreement emerged that the environment should be protected, there was disagreement on who’d pick up the bill for this. Many developed countries said ecological problems were due to population, looking askance at Asia, Africa and Latin America.


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Developing countries argued the historical trajectory of imperialism and industrialisation was crucial and development could not be denied to latecomers — if environmental costs were to be controlled, technology and finance would have to be shared.

In 1992, the UN Environment Conference met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. By then, as much scientific climate work had come into public prominence, concerns about global warming had grown more central. Yet, divisions had also become sharper. It was clear now that greenhouse gases would be global in their impacts, encompassing everything from precipitation to oceans, crops to human health. But this was a post-Cold War world where the US saw economic growth as the major driver of solutions.

A strong critique of this was made in ‘Global Warming in an Unequal World’, authored by Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, who used a car park analogy where a small number of people had taken a great deal of space and others couldn’t even park a bicycle. They questioned how the global atmosphere could be apportioned now — would it be as per histories of growth, country size or per capita? Today, a lot has developed, including agreement on the principle of common but differentiated responsibility.


LOOKING FOR A FAIR DEAL: Indigenous groups work mines — but rarely benefit. Photo courtesy: iStock

The Sharm El-Sheikh COP in 2022 also saw concerns about global warming exceeding a safe margin. The issue of climate justice is now posed in a very stark form — all governments agree that something must be done. But the question remains — who will pick up the costs? One difference is that today, partly because of international cooperation stemming from globalisation, there is an idea of involving the private sector, mobilising capital and making technology accessible to more countries than possible earlier.


WHAT DO I CALL HOME? Animals losing habitat also need environmental justice. Photo courtesy: iStock

Climate justice is now also about those who would like modern development while minimising environmental harm — this applies to both developing and industrialised economies. The notion of climate justice is also important because different nations have different relationships to the world order which took shape after World War II. This gave great weightage to the countries which led the Allied coalition.

But the world today is politically and economically different — hence, it must be environmentally different as well. The global ecological agenda needs to reflect shared concerns with different viewpoints. That includes costs, technology and choices about livelihoods and lifestyles. There is a recognition that humanity must reduce its collective environmental footprint without overburdening those who contributed the least to this.

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Hence, these choices must reflect the voices of the marginalised as well — this includes indigenous people and women. The Americas were transformed after the Colombian conquest over 500 years ago, a profoundly ecological and human disruption. Many countries have started recognising the rights of people displaced by this history, who are often termed First Nations. This also means ensuring their share in the proceeds of development and accommodating their worldview and practices which are extremely important ecologically.
During the Morales period, Bolivia took steps to give indigenous peoples in the Amazon a share and say in forms of extraction. But nations like Brazil, Peru or Bolivia doing this remains the exception rather than the norm. Gender is even more complex. In much of the developing world, women don’t have land rights, animal rights or tools of production like ploughs or fishing boats. A dilemma arises — when you choose renewable energy solutions, like taking land to grow wood for chips to be used instead of coal, what if this happens in woodlands which women depend on? That could worsen their lot. Ensuring the marginal a voice in sustainable decision-making is critical.

There are ongoing instances of this — ecologist Madhav Gadgil’s book ‘A Walk Up The Hill’ discusses parts of Maharashtra which have bamboo harvesting done by forest committees. These are generating revenue while renewing forest cover, water recharge, etc. The use of modern technology, like GPS, biodiversity registers, etc., show the opportunities for environmental renegotiations. Can we scale up these approaches? That is the question before us now.

Then there are species which don’t even speak human languages — however, their voices are also a part of climate justice. South Asia has large areas where terrestrial and marine ecologies are shared by people and other species. Anita Mani’s book ‘Women in the Wild’ discusses research by Dr Vidya Athreya and others on leopards whose habitat often overlaps with people, coming into conflict when leopards prey on livestock, etc.

But leopards and humans coexist in living landscapes — sugarcane fields, woodlands, even the great city of Mumbai. Concerns about how to live thus have brought together different communities — rich and poor, slum dwellers, residents of smart flats, all of whom are trying to learn to exist with leopards whose presence symbolises a healthy ecosystem. Divya Karnad, the geographer and ecologist, also shows how efforts to protect marine fisheries must involve local fishers. They know multiple species but need an income from fishing — it is possible to combine their knowledge to develop markets for bycatch, for instance.

These are instances of people recognising that other species have value — of being a living creature and sometimes, also offering us a livelihood. The species conundrum and climate change are interrelated — keeping landscapes habitable for others is important for human well-being. The conversation on species must be informed by a knowledge of ecosystems. And there is the issue of justice. Human horizons are short — they extend to the next election cycle, a quarterly report, a five-year program.


But the Atlantic bowhead whale lives 250 years. Environmental historian Bathsheba Demuth shows how its life is linked to communities which hunt it on both sides of the Bering Strait. How do you create a future which includes the Atlantic bowhead whale and native peoples in Russia and the US? Other countries can play a constructive role here. Cooperative discussions like the G20 can help participants include the species we share our planet with. Their well-being is intertwined with ours — and this place we call Earth.

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