In 2013, amidst unusual heat, Mridula Ramesh remembers her family running out of water at her house in Madurai. She had just had a new baby, and with a difficult pregnancy and delivery behind her, she was finally at home after having a corporate career for several years. This meant she had time to reflect – to step outside the “corporate bubble” for the first time, in a very long time and wonder about the sudden and drastic changes to her environment.
So far, environmentalism had been peripheral and not central to her life.
She says, “Could the unusual weather we were having – the hot hot days and no rain – have something to do with climate change? Once I started digging, it startled me that (a) this was a big deal and (b) why was no one talking about it – people were of course talking about it – but in elitist circles – but not to average everyday folks in a language that they resonated with.”
Mridula Ramesh is the founder of Sundaram Climate Institute (SCI), which focuses on waste and water solutions and educating individuals and corporates on the same.
Ramesh, who has had an Ivy League liberal undergraduate education, wherein she transferred from the engineering school into pure sciences – Chemistry, Biochemistry and Genetics – is the founder of Sundaram Climate Institute (SCI), which focuses on waste and water solutions and educating individuals and corporates on the same. She has also written the book The Climate Solution which discusses practical solutions for combatting climate change in India.
She started her journey by educating herself, and then teaching a class at a local school. At the suggestion of one of her students, she began to write a column in The Hindu discussing climate change.
“But in the six years since then, global emissions have risen, not fallen. Global CO2 concentrations have gone up from less than 400 ppm to 412 ppm. Water shortages have become front and centre. Madurai had its worst drought in living memory in 2017. In that sense, things have not gotten better. But we were the only house not to buy water in 2017 – to that extent, we have become climate resilient. In that sense, things have gotten better,” she adds.
Even when the President of the most powerful country in the world denies the very existence of climate change, the author feels that convincing the public about the reality of climate change is not difficult in a country like India. However in the US, climate change is seen as important, but not the most important issue one needs to worry about.
Most Indian women who do work, work in Agriculture, which is going to be hit hard by climate change by a combination of rise in temperatures, temperamental rainfall and changing pest patterns. As it gets hotter, working outside becomes increasingly dangerous and because over half of India’s farms are rainfed, yields will fall, if we don’t adapt.
“It’s harder in the US – where the benefits of curbing climate change are uncertain (because they are so dispersed and uneven) while the costs are very concentrated and often fall on shoulders that are powerful today (Fossil Fuel companies) – that’s why it’s a harder sell.
…Corporates are a different story – many actions that cut emissions make economic sense in a country like India with a strong carbon price, so that is happening. But many countries, including the US, do not have a strong enough price on carbon to make it worthwhile for corporates to curb emissions. And in a democracy, only the voters can change that.”
Ramesh elucidates that climate change is the most ‘un-equalising’ force – far stronger, in her opinion, than technology or financialisation.
“While some benefit, many suffer. And the problem is that many of those who caused historical emissions (relevant because past emissions cause current warming) don’t necessarily suffer from the warming. This makes action far harder to come by.”
However, she says that climate resilience is all about individual action, that it’s amazing how much one can do, once they become aware. There are 5 entire chapters in her book devoted to individual action – how to move, live (energy/waste/water) and eat – and many of those actions are not difficult to take on an everyday basis (once you have a system in place), and save you money.
“One suggestion is to monitor your water and waste footprint – i.e., how much you use and waste every day – of both solid waste and water. I recently conducted a survey in a class I taught, and it was unsurprising but sad, that most students had no idea how much water they used on a daily basis, nor paid for it. How will you optimise a “scarce” and “precious” thing if you don’t measure it or value it?”
The author, who also funds clean technology startups, informs that climate change also adversely affects women.
The third group of risks from a warmer climate to women is the increased risk of violence. One part is direct violence – studies have shown that as the temperatures rise, the incidence of violent behaviour, such as domestic violence, increase. The second part is more dangerous. When rains fail, a study by Sekhri and Storeyguard over 583 districts in India, shows dowry deaths tend to increase.
“First, is risk to employment – this is a big deal, given that right now, the majority of Indian women don’t work, and the Indian female workforce participation has fallen from a poor 35% in 1990 to a terrible 27% in 2017. Most Indian women who do work, work in Agriculture, which is going to be hit hard by climate change by a combination of (a) rise in temperatures, (b) temperamental rainfall and changing pest patterns. Now, as it gets hotter, working outside becomes increasingly dangerous and because over half of India’s farms are rainfed, yields will fall, if we don’t adapt. Leaving less of a surplus for the women workers.
Secondly, there is a risk related to the roles women play. I discuss this more in the book, but briefly: more frequent flooding affects children the most. Who typically looks after children at home? Women. More sick children = less leisure time/more leave from work for women.
The third group of risks from a warmer climate to women is the increased risk of violence. One part is direct violence – studies have shown that as the temperatures rise, the incidence of violent behaviour, such as domestic violence, increase. The second part is more dangerous. When rains fail, a study by Sekhri and Storeyguard over 583 districts in India, shows dowry deaths tend to increase.”
When the author started writing, talking and teaching about climate change several years ago, many thought this was a midlife crisis gone badly wrong. Thankfully, she doesn’t get too much of that now as she continues to write and teach. The studies are also expanding at the Sundaram Climate Institute – which gives them a better understanding of how to intervene to build some resilience.
She concludes, “Politicians, bureaucrats and thought leaders across the political spectrum are beginning to talk of a water price – which is a good thing. But voters still don’t reward water or waste management, or indeed slow acting, important measures that build climate resilience. That needs to change for us to have hope.”