Climate change and false hopeNarrowing climate change to hope leads to the denial of the sickening and sinking emotions that the landscapes are already experiencing.
A growing commentary on climate change in recent years rests on hope. While industrialists, policymakers and research scientists regard climate change as a moment of despair, they also sound hopeful. This is evident in Nepal, where stories of reforestation, river conservation, technological innovation and campaigns for green cities manifest the hope that harm to nature can be reversed or mitigated.
Declaration of hope, however, can be a state of denial. For communities under political and economic precarity, it serves to help overcome the harsh structural realities of inequality, dispossession and violence. For those in power, hope obscures accountability, delays political action, and leads to false promises. Among climate scientists and policymakers, declaring hope amounts to pumping in more funding for research data collection on climate change. There is a belief that a greater production and consumption of data will lead to an awareness of climate change while overlooking the fact that the current economic structures hardly allow environment-friendly possibilities.
Consequently, climate data keeps piling up like mounds of sediment, and every time disaster strikes the Himalayan terrains, climate research notes with a heightened sense of urgency how scientists predicted or warned us about it. Stories, graphics, maps and visuals of air pollution, unprecedented scales of floods, landslides, earthquakes, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) and cloudbursts compiled over years of hard science research fill the public domain. I do not believe the public is unaware of climate change, and I certainly do not see why the changing conditions in the climate should be narrowed to hope. I am not against hope but the dangerous context in which it is deployed. As the young climate activist has noted with some political clarity, hope is not blah blah blah.
Unless a researcher is inclined to think like an industrialist, thriving to profit from the melting ice with the opening of shipping routes, or is hopeful that global warming can be slowed down through marine cloud brightening, where ships inject salt particles back into the air to make clouds more reflective, or in fact, intends to support an authoritarian political regime that uses states of emergency to restrict freedom, deploy extrajudicial power and deny basic rights to its people, there is no reason to narrow the events of climate to possibilities of hope. A consequence of narrowing climate change to hope is the denial of the sickening and sinking emotions that the landscapes are already experiencing.
In 2021, for instance, when Kathmandu Valley was declared the most polluted city in the world by IQAir, a Swiss group that collects real-time air quality data, the general understanding in the city was that we already knew about the air quality. This is why we eagerly wait for winter showers. Rains during the winter bring respite; they enable the grey dust particles to settle down, clearing up the mountains and lungs. This is because, in Kathmandu, thick smog colonises the air during the winters. The mountains become invisible. It is a visual experience of climate change. The lungs become heavy with dust. So, it is also a visceral experience of climate change. The immediate consequence of this smog is that these days, people live with heavy throats and coughs around the year, blurring the boundaries between the kind of infection that they are suffering from.
Yet, everyone is aware that when it rains in Kathmandu, dengue spreads like wildfire. The bite of an infected female Aedes aegypti mosquito causes dengue. Reportedly, these mosquitoes have now reached higher parts of the Himalayas as unwanted visitors. Mosquitoes are agentive figures that shape history. Environmental Historian of Nepal Thomas Robertson, has shown this through the story of an insect that changed Nepal’s history. Yet, crisis and economic ambitions go together. For USAID in the 1950s, the deadly malarial mosquito prevented Nepal from becoming a frontier of political and economic imagination. As Robertson notes, “After eradicating malaria with DDT, the project built a road, distributed land, resettled people from the hills, and opened health clinics and schools.”
To treat this history as exceptional to Kathmandu is to deny the larger economic context. One can draw historical comparisons with the urbanised cities of Calcutta and New York. This history entails the classic approach of draining out rivers and using their sediments to concretise. The role of sediments in concretisation is often missed by researchers who obsess over histories of water. Yet, most urbanisation projects are envisioned on sediment extraction. In fact, there is no way of understanding urbanisation without relatable comparisons of this extractive history. Historian of Anthropocene Debjani Bhattacharyya shows that the Bengal deltas were dredged, dried out, refilled and claimed from wetlands to make the concrete city of Calcutta. Currently, she further notes, Calcutta stands on this forgotten history of silty muddy deltas. This is a forgotten history with a pressing temporal concern about what could result in this reclaimed area as the Bay of Bengal continues to warm up, rise and threaten to sink the region under its voluminous pressure.
The implications of this forgotten history continue to manifest in other parts of the world. Writing about the history of Port Washington in the 19th and 20th centuries, Mitch Carucci observes how the sediments left behind by two glacial meltdowns from Long Island some 15,000 and 70,000 years ago were extracted to build the entire city of New York. In some places, sand pits were over 100 feet: 140 million yards were used to construct the skyscrapers, subways, sidewalks and bridges in New York City. These days, the media reports that New York City is also sinking under its own weight. As New York City flooded last month, one should think about the underlying cause that this suggests.
Similarly, these river sediments have been used in the Himalayas to build more infrastructure projects in a tectonically mobile landscape. 2022 was a defining year for the Indian Himalayan region, with the sinking of the Himalayan town of Joshimath along the Rishikesh-Badrinath National Highway (NH-7) that attracts devotees from India and Nepal annually. In the 1960s, it was just a small town with 30 shops and 400 families. Over the years, more than 3,800 residential and 400 commercial buildings have piled up, with large infrastructure projects such as National Thermal Power Corporation and a tunnel dug for a hydropower plant. Therefore, to demand more data to arrest climate change is to deny the existence of this extractive structure that sustains it.
The sickening and sinking landscapes across borders demonstrate that the emotions from climate change cannot be viewed in isolation. The concerns that it raises are not new. The muck runs deeper and is laden with how the economy is historically structured on the natural environment. In this context, it is better to identify the web of emotions connected with climate change that transcend time and space rather than relying on the feeling of hope. These are not just statistical markers of climate change, so the solutions cannot fixate only on ‘technological hope’ and ‘data science hope’. These are lived experiences of people in the current political economy and are more likely to explain how the changing climate percolates deeply into the veins in unimaginable ways.