Understanding What Is Wrong With Language Of Climate Change

The language of climate change has effectively excluded the people most knowledgeable and concerned about forests.

More money has been invested in climate research since the 1950s, environmental movements have grown in number and size since the 1970s. The first World Climate Conference was held in Geneva in 1979, when the ‘World Climate Programme’ was set up.

Since the Brundtland report in 1987, which gave birth to the idea of sustainable development, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created in 1988, followed by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, the signing and implementation of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and 2005, the first and second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol in 2008 and 2013, the Durban Platform in 2011 and now, in 2020, the voluntary emissions commitments and financing commitments.

Since the 1990s, almost all countries have participated in climate negotiations within the UNFCCC context. But what’s really remarkable – even if predictable in hindsight – is that these discussions are nowhere near a binding international commitment. Countries differ from each other, environmentally, socially and politically, and have unequal capacities to contribute to limiting carbon emissions. The will to act towards a global goal differs as well, as the US has often shown. Some countries try to take advantage, attempting ‘free rides’ at the expense of another country. There is also a lack of clear scientific understanding of the factors related to global warming and the effect of human activities on it.

Nonetheless, these meetings and conferences surrounding climate change have generated a dominant vocabulary. There is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows a country with an emission-reduction or emission-limitation commitment to implement an emission-reduction project in a developing country, (with business scope). There are carbon offsets – reductions in carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions to compensate for emissions elsewhere, with its own unit of measurement in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e), and which has become big business. There’s carbon stock, the amount of carbon sequestered and stored in a forest ecosystem, whose measurement and estimate remains debatable.

REDD stands for ‘reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation’, believed to be an incentive for developing countries to protect and manage their existing forests. REDD+ refers to the conservation and enhancement of the carbon stock in such forests.

Today there are also manuals to measure carbon stock – one even produced by the UNFCCC in 2015 – that takes us on another journey to ‘aboveground biomass’, ‘belowground biomass’, ‘soil organic carbon’, ‘deadwood’ and ‘litter’.

The language of climate change has effectively excluded the people most knowledgeable and concerned about forests. These are primarily the rural and indigenous peoples, especially the women in such communities, who have a high stake in the forest environment for their livelihoods as well as their cultural and spiritual sustenance.

Tropical-forest biologists, who have figured out many of the relationships required for forests to evolve, often lament the destruction of habitats due to industrial development. Instead, the complicated lingo of climate change has brought in experts who know more about negotiations instead, including politicians and statesmen of several hues – for whom everything appears ultimately to be a business deal. The grammar is little about ensuring, implementing and monitoring commitments – in fact, it is about avoiding them – and pushing the limits of narrow national and political goals.

How can we avoid commitments? How can we get away without emissions-reduction? To achieve these latter goals of evasion, a suitable Language Of Climate Change that is conducive for negotiations has evolved – the CDM and carbon offsets being the key buzzwords – but which makes little room to understand what really is at stake: the fate of humanity and several other species.

In the last two decades, various countries in the negotiating process – but mainly the developed and developing nations — have further split into subgroups. There are also countries that belong to more than one group or subgroup. From three groups in 2001, we now have 10, with their ‘like-minded’ partners. Some observers have suggested that this fragmentation is a reflection of the ‘progresses’ the negotiations have made. This optimism is unfounded.

Forests are habitats of millions of life-forms, including humans, that interact or depend on each other. Our and their existence and quality of life is a delicate balance that depends on the outcome of these interactions. It is in forest spaces – and not carbon sinks – that a myriad indigenous cultures have evolved, as also sacred spaces and shrines, the embodiments of faith and belief, which have helped conserve biodiversity and create a sense of wonder outside scientific discourse.

Like indigenous peoples everywhere, forest people also have words and a Language Of Climate Change to describe their living space. It may surprise us to know that these are very rich languages, which use metaphors to describe the relations between natural phenomena with as much precision as the cause and effect equations of the natural sciences.

Most peoples’ languages also have precise words for various landscapes, words that hint at the kind of soil or vegetation and, by extension, the kind of game and foods found there. Being required to collect food regularly has meant that they closely observe different natural phenomena over generations. These include phenological observations – the impact of climate on the seasonal occurrence of flora and fauna, and the periodically changing form of an organism – whose collation over time could perhaps suggest tangible relationships between the climate and the local environment. However, these observations will also necessarily be in the languages of people who live in the forests, and whose lives have historically shaped forest landscapes to be as we see them today.

After a recent field study, I found (in vol. 702 of Seminar) that the Durwa language has 24 verbs – nine each for hunting and gathering, and six for fishing – involving food-gathering actions. These verbs, which include searching, chasing, feeling, digging, bailing and wandering, hint at some of the ways a member of a forest-based community could perceive and experience a forest environment.

Note that these experiences are not without danger. These very physical actions are juxtaposed with a metaphysical counterpart that includes sacred spaces, monthly offerings to particular forest spaces, first fruit ceremonies, spirit trees and shamanic sittings and dances, etc. These latter spaces and events play their own role in regulating the movement and lifestyle of the communities, and reveal a synchronicity with physical experiences.

Over the last two decades, maybe more, a new batch of ‘climate change experts’ who view and value forests as ‘carbon stock’ – as stands of trees whose sole purpose is to sequester carbon – have usurped the value of forests and the language used to describe them. They have drawn equations between different types of forests – ‘open’, ‘mixed’, ‘dense’, ‘very dense’ – their spread over a certain area, and the amount of carbon that they can thus isolate. Forests have become carbon sinks, just like an ocean or any other aspect of the natural environment.

At present, India seems to be on track (although there are some doubts, thanks to the official definition of forests) with its Nationally Determined Contribution of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2-e by 2030, according to the increased forest cover as measured in 2019. It could be a leading example in this sector of countries achieving their COP21 targets for reducing emissions. India has also increased investments in renewable energy.

However, the government continues to send mixed signals with its plans to increase its capacity for coal-derived power, from more than 200 GW at present to 300 GW in the near future.

Most of all, we need a new, common language – to understand the technicalities of carbon dioxide emissions – which includes the immediate need to stop global warming, and the concomitant actions – and have all parties do their bit to reduce emissions. Such a language could open up a new way of understanding the problem, describing it in words familiar to the people who live in and understand that forest habitats are definitely more than just carbon sinks.

Originally published the wire

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