Mr. Prime Minister, there's no time to waste

Shekhar Kapur alerts the Indian polity on climate change

Feature story - September 22, 2009
NEW DELHI, India — We used to spend all our summers up there. I was a child in Delhi and, before the swarming heat of the city became unbearable, our family would escape to the mountains, curling Dad’s military green Ambassador up and round the sloping roads until the air ran clear and the hum of everyday life dropped away with the ant-like towns below. It was so beautiful.

On one of those trips, up near Mussoorie, I became lost in the thick forests. I can't have been far from the house we were staying in, but I will never forget walking alone through the Pine trees at night, fascinated by the idea of them - and I was only seven years old! I don't know how many hours I must have wandered, but eventually I heard people shouting my name. I followed the voices and found my father, his elder brother and some men with torches looking for me.

I was surprised by their evident concern. Even more so by the revolver my uncle carried. Just in case we were attacked by wild animals, he explained as he quickly hid the gun. Wild animals - wow ! - I thought. And why would anyone be afraid to be lost in these beautiful forests? I remember my teary-eyed mother hugging me, for she thought she had lost her precious (hah) son forever!

Years later, after immersing my mother's ashes in Hardwar, I went back to Mussoorie , hoping to recapture some of those smells, and memories. Hoping to recapture some of those memories of my parents, both of whom had passed away.

But I went there to find that the forests had passed away too. I was too late. All I could see for miles and miles were denuded hills. Not a single tree stood even to give me some memory of a time that had so suddenly gone by.  Not even the smell.

I sat and cried grieving for my other Mother too. Earth.

The pace of the change is terrifying.

Today is the climate summit of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, and is an important opportunity for countries to boost their cooperation with one another before the historic climate conference that will take place in Copenhagen in December. There are less than a hundred days to go, and all eyes and ears are turned to their negotiations.

When you read this I will have returned to the Himalayas once again to try and highlight the dramatic changes that are taking place in our mountains as a result of climate change. These lungs of the world are clogging with the noxious fumes of our carbon emissions, and the slow crawl of poison must be checked before it is too late. The Himalayas are the largest concentration of glaciers outside of the polar caps, and they are also receding faster than any other in the world because of global warming.

I have always felt a connection with the mountains. I'm not sure where exactly that connection comes from, but I know it is something I have in common with thousands of others who have been as lucky to visit them. I think it's the sense of humility they impart to you: to stand there and face the immensity of nature and try to be at one with it is a great and humbling experience; the effect it has on you is unique.

Of course, the spirituality the Himalayas provoke isn't just consigned to the mountain ranges: the Gangotri glacier is the source of the Ganga, the holy mother of India. It is also shrinking at a rate of 34m per year. That means that, by tomorrow morning, as this paper lies outside and a fresh copy is in your hands, another slice of glacier the thickness of your thumb will be gone. My daughter is nine now. If we allow the retreat of these glaciers to continue at the current rate, they'll be gone by the time she's in her thirties. There's a real chance her children will not experience the beauty of the Himalayan ranges and rivers.

The Gangotri supplies 70 percent of the Ganga's flow during the dry season. If it disappears, the Ganga will become a seasonal river, appearing only after the monsoon, its bed bare and exposed in the summer months. What would then happen to the 50 crore people who depend on the Ganga for sustenance, both physical and spiritual? Since the time of the hunter-gatherers, people have followed water. If we deny ourselves this most basic and integral of rights, we will be left with nothing.

To mark the UNGA's climate summit, Age of Stupid is being simultaneously screened in hundreds of cinemas in over 45 countries around the world; Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai are hosting viewings in India. Go. Watch it. If you don't have a ticket get hold of a copy. The film is an artistic take on the world in 2055, the story of an ordinary man surrounded by an environment parched by heat and drowning in floods, looking back on the green abundance of 2008 and the blind stupidity of its inhabitants and asking: 'Why didn't they do something?'

Let us not be that man. Let our children not know those sentiments. We have a responsibility to each other, to our planet and to future generations to halt climate change. As individuals, we must take steps to reduce our carbon emissions and encourage our friends and family to do the same. As a nation, we must take steps towards an decarbonised future that will afford development for our economy without destroying our environment.

The union government has already taken laudable steps towards this in the proposal of policies such as the Solar Mission. We must now join in urging Dr Manmohan Singh to act of behalf of the millions of us whose lives will never be the same again, and reach a fair, ambitious and binding deal at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December.

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