India’s climate change NIMBYsm and middle class apathy

Pradip Saha in Tokyo

Pradip Saha in Tokyo

The global climate is indeed changing, but not everyone is equally affected by it – or bothered about it either. Take, for example, the majority of India’s 300 million+ middle class, which is roughly the size of the entire population of the United States.

According to environmental activist and independent film-maker Pradip Saha, it’s not a question of ignorance, but apathy.

“Our educated middle classes understand what’s happening, but they are also big contributors to the problem – with their frenzy to burn oil and coal. They look for any excuses for not acting on this issue,” Pradip said during a recent regional workshop in Tokyo, Japan.

The Asia Pacific workshop on ‘Changing Climate and Moving Images’, held in Tama New Town, Tokyo, was organised by TVE Japan in collaboration with TVE Asia Pacific and supported by Japan Fund for Global Environment.

Pradip, associate director of the Centre for Science and Environment – a leading research and advocacy organisation – has been tracking climate change issues for two decades. He sees this Big Issue in three ways: science of climate change, politics of climate change and feelings of climate change.

To fully understand how the complex Indian society perceives and responds to the climate crisis, all three dimensions need to be studied, he says. And particular attention must be paid to the plight of those who are already experiencing changes in their local climate.

From the Himalayan mountains to the small islands in the Bay of Bengal, millions of Indians are living and coping with climate change. “Large sections of our poor feel it, and are among the worse impacted.”

Many such affected people may never have heard of climate change. They are bewildered by rapid changes in rainfall, river flows, sunshine and other natural phenomena.

Pradip drew an example from the Sundarban delta region in the Bay of Bengal. With 10,000 square kilometres of estuarine mangrove forest and 102 islands, it is the world’s largest delta. Here, some islands are slowly being eroded and submerged by rising sea levels. Three small islands have already gone underwater. Others are experiencing problems of salt water intrusion, posing major difficulties for the local people.

Sundarban delta as seen from space

Sundarban delta as seen from space

Analysis of surface data near Sagar island in the Sundarbans reveals a temperature increase of 0.9 degree celsius per year. Experts are of the opinion that this is one of the first regions bearing the brunt of climate change.

But the islanders – like most other poor people in India – don’t have enough or any voice to express their concerns to the policy makers, civil society groups and captains of industry. For these members of the middle class, the Sundarbans mean just one thing: the Royal Bengal Tiger.

And most of them probably have never heard of Sagar island. They might just shrug it off, saying: It’s Not In My Backyard (NIMBY).

During the past few months, Pradip has been filming on these islands trying to capture the unfolding human and environmental crisis. He was inspired by an investigative story that appeared in early 2008 in the Down to Earth science and environmental magazine where he is managing editor.

Pradip screened the 64-minute long film, aptly titled Mean Sea Level, at our workshop. The few of us thus became the first outsiders to see the film which I found both deeply moving and very ironic. With minimal narration, he allows the local people to tell their own story. There’s only one expert who quickly explains just what is going on in this particularly weather-prone part of the world.

Confronted with middle class apathy and indifference, activists and journalists like Pradip Saha face an uphill task. “Knowledge is not turning into action because those who know (about climate change causes and responses) are also the biggest culprits,” he says.

To make matters worse, government policies are not formulated with adequate public consultations. Sections of central and state governments in India have also started responding to individual effects of climate change without understanding the bigger picture. Such piecemeal solutions can do more harm than good.

Then there is India’s obsession with motor cars – a topic on which Pradip has already made a short film.

Pradip’s views on climate change activism in India resonates with those of the Filipino academic-activist Walden Bello. Speaking at the Greenaccord international media forum in Rome in November 2007, he called for a mass movement at the grassroots across the developing countries of the global South to deal with climate change – the biggest environmental threat faced by the planet today.

As I quoted him saying, such a movement might be unpopular not only with the Southern elite but also with sections of the urban-based middle class sectors that have been the main beneficiaries of the high-growth economic strategy that has been pursued since the early 1990s.

Read my April 2007 post: Fossil Fools in India

Climate in Crisis and planet in peril – but we’re squabbling over copyrights!

Climate in Crisis - a global documentary

Climate in Crisis - a global documentary

On my recent visit to Tokyo for a regional workshop on changing climate and moving images, I watched a number of excellent documentary films on the subject. One of them was Crude: The Incredible Journey of Oil, the excellent Australian film that I wrote about in March.

Another was Climate in Crisis, an outstanding global documentary in two parts (2 x 52 mins) co-produced in 2006 by Japan’s public broadcaster NHK together with The Science Channel and ALTOMEDIA/France 5.

Directed by Fujikawa Masahiro, the film draws heavily on the Earth Simulator — one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers — which Japanese scientists used to project the climatic disasters in next 100 years. The system was developed in 1997 for running global climate models to evaluate the effects of global warming and problems in solid earth geophysics. It has been able to run holistic simulations of global climate in both the atmosphere and the oceans — down to a resolution of 10 km.

NEC Earth Simulator in Japan

NEC Earth Simulator in Japan

The results, captured in this documentary, are truly mind-boggling. Atmospheric temperatures may rise by as much as 4.2 degrees Celsius, more hurricanes may attack and deserts may spread from Africa to southern Europe, and half of the Amazon rainforest may be gone. Climate in Crisis shows a severe projection on environmental destruction based on rigorous scientific data and considers whether humankind can avoid this.

This film, made in the same year as Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth, has won several awards including the Earth Vision Award at the 15th Earth Vision Tokyo Global Environmental Film Festival.

I was curious why this excellent film – in my view, better made than Al Gore’s one – hasn’t been more widely seen, talked about and distributed. To be honest, I’d not even heard of this one until my Japan visit — and I try to keep myself informed on what’s new in my field of endeavour.

The reasons soon became apparent: copyright restrictions! The co-producers are keeping the rights so tight that only the highest bidders will be allowed to acquire it on a license fee.

This is a standard broadcast industry practice that didn’t surprise me. But I was taken aback by how jealously the rights are guarded. All other films that were part of our event, including high budget commercial productions like Crude, were screened to the public at the Parthenon in Tama New Town in Tokyo.

Not so with Climate in Crisis, which we – the overseas participants to the workshop – had to watch at a theatre inside NHK’s Tokyo headquarters. No public screening was possible. As we later heard, NHK itself was willing to allow a public screening (after all, it draws a good part of its income from the Japanese public), but their international co-producing partners, especially the Science Channel, would simply not agree to it. Wow.

Twenty centuries ago, emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Today, some people are squabbling over copyrights while the whole planet is in peril.

Earth in 2100 - as seen by Earth Simulator

Earth in 2100 - as seen by Earth Simulator

Our workshop participants came from solid backgrounds in broadcasting or independent film-making, and we are not naive activists asking hard-nosed broadcasters to let go of their precious rights which generates vital income. But we would have expected them to allow films such as Climate in Crisis to circulate a bit more freely in everybody’s interest.

This reminded me of correspondence I had last year with the Canadian producers of another outstanding climate film titled The Great Warming. The initial discussions with its director were promising, but when the distribution people started talking about ‘revenue optimising’, our negotiations stalled.

It also reminded me of similar experiences of other environment and natural history film makers, such as South Africa’s Neil Curry. He had a long struggle with the BBC to clear the non-broadcast use rights of his own film that he wanted to take back to the locations in Botswana where it was filmed.

Many broadcast and production companies in the west don’t realise that TV broadcasters in developing Asia operate on a very different basis. Talking about broadcast ‘pre-sales’ or ‘commissions’ loses meaning when many stations are operating on tiny budgets — or in some cases, no budgets — for factual content. Many are struggling to survive in tough, emerging economies.

Is this our future?

Is this our future?


TVE Asia Pacific operates a regional film distribution service that brings environment and development films within reach of such broadcasters. We operate without getting mired in license fees or royalties.

Our 2-day workshop called for climate change to be recognised as a ‘copyright free zone’. This would enable audio-visual media content on the subject to move freely across borders and to be used widely for broadcast and narrowcast purposes.

Here’s the full reference from our statement of concern:

“Prevailing copyright regimes prevent the sharing and wider use of outstanding TV programmes and video films on climate and development issues. We are deeply concerned that even content developed partly or wholly with public funding (government grants, donor funds or lottery funds) remain unfairly locked into excessive copyright restrictions. Sometimes film-makers and producers themselves are willing but unable to allow their creations to be used for non-commercial purposes by educational, civil society and advocacy groups. We appreciate the media industry’s legitimate needs for intellectual property management and returns on investment. At the same time, the climate crisis challenges us to adopt extraordinary measures, one of which can and should be recognising climate change as a ‘copyright free zone’. Such agreement would encourage media organisations and independent producers to share content across borders, and with entities outside the media industry engaged in climate education, advocacy and activism.”

Here’s the simple question I raised during the workshop, which is worth being posed to all those who hesitate to even discuss this issue:

Can anyone manage their intellectual property rights on a dead planet?

This is the real question!