From Valentine’s Day flowers to Diwali crackers, can we have fun without fearing for the planet?

Learn from Birbal how to tackle climate change without sacrificing fun and joy, and discover how innovation holds the key to a sustainable future.

Published : Feb 13, 2024 19:19 IST - 7 MINS READ

Climate anxiety is hammering young people from all sides, thanks to climate astrologers and climate pathologists and their relentless reminders of how dangerous it is to enjoy the little things in life.

Climate anxiety is hammering young people from all sides, thanks to climate astrologers and climate pathologists and their relentless reminders of how dangerous it is to enjoy the little things in life. | Photo Credit: SPENCER PLATT

Mughal emperor Akbar apparently had a dream where he lost all his teeth except one. He was flabbergasted by the weird dream. So he summoned an astrologer to help him understand the dream. The astrologer told the emperor that the dream indicated that his relatives would die before his eyes. Akbar was none too pleased, so he banished the astrologer and ordered another one to come interpret the dream. Much to his consternation, each astrologer provided the same depressing interpretation.

Akbar then turned to his trusted aide Birbal with deep sadness about this unsettling dream. Birbal smiled and said, “Dear Alam Panah, these astrologers know not what they speak. Your dream clearly says that you will live long and enjoy the company of all your relatives”. Akbar was very happy and rewarded Birbal with lots of gold.

Like Birbal’s reassurance, is there anything we have left to enjoy without worrying about global warming?

On Valentine’s Day, February 14, as the young and the old begin to buy flowers and chocolates, and book tables for romantic dinners, some headlines are cautioning us that flowers and chocolates are bad for the environment. Flowers are flown around the world to serve your romance and cocoa farming causes deforestation. Then, of course, there are Diwali crackers, which are bad for air quality and for pets and birds. And travelling to meet your lover is a terrible idea because it only worsens global warming!

Climate anxiety is hammering young people from all sides, thanks to climate astrologers and climate pathologists and their relentless reminders of how dangerous it is to enjoy the little things in life. What exactly are they to look forward to or even live for if the world is coming to an end anyway?

Climate change is a serious challenge and a grand opportunity

There is no denying that we are facing a series of challenges from climate change, and we need urgent action on many fronts in addition to what is being implemented already—renewables, fuel efficiencies, electric vehicles, and the global negotiations to mitigate climate change.

What is also needed urgently is much more focus on providing reliable local-risk information to deal with the climate impacts that are already debilitating the economies of the Global South. We need at least half as many climate scientists to work on improving the early warnings for food, water, energy, health, transportation, buildings and so on, as we have astrologers with end-of-the-world forecasts.

A Birbal paradigm for climate communications?

It has been pointed out by communications experts that credibility, legitimacy, and salience are the most important characteristics for a communicator. Climate change stories are now in the news every day in every language and in every corner of the world. The Birbals are missing because very few climate communicators are optimistic about the future. Because very few of them have a 360-degree view of the carbon trap we are living in which is causing climate change.

Also Read | ‘India needs more awareness about the climate challenge it faces’: Akshat Rathi

An optimistic view of the future can only come from realising that our lifestyles are very energy-intensive and new technologies only demand more energy. For example, a self-driving car collects so much data that it is a cloud storage on wheels! The main problem is not the amount of energy we consume but that the energy is still too carbon intensive.

However, taking away all the joys in life in the name of saving the planet cannot lead to a creative ecosystem where the youth can focus on solutions. It can only lead to anxiety or a flight-or-freeze response or complete hopelessness. Climate change is a monumental challenge but also an evolutionary timescale opportunity to save the world and make money! And make money without destroying the planet and without converting all natural resources to unrecyclable and perennial junk.

“An optimistic view of the future can only come from realising that our lifestyles are very energy-intensive and new technologies only demand more energy.”

A modern-day Birbal would focus on communicating what is possible in terms of creating safe, green, affordable solutions for all the little joys: from Diwali crackers to Valentine’s Day flowers and chocolates. Young people would not constantly hear that the world is coming to an end, but that they can save the world and take a day off on Diwali or February 14 or other festivals to enjoy life without harming the planet.

Birbal would tell them that they should focus on decarbonising the system to extricate themselves and the climate astrologers from the carbon trap. And dream about growing flowers and chocolate on Mars.

Technical solutions for an optimistic future

There are ways forward to focus our resources on an optimistic future. The solutions will not just come out of laboratories but also from schools, communities, and markets.

Transformational changes are needed in the way we educate future generations by adding climate science and its consequences into curricula at all levels. An excellent example is the TROP ICSU project, which has developed lesson plans for all disciplines from physics, chemistry, and biology to economics, social sciences, and humanities. I have produced many videos for them and have talked to the teachers who participated in the training programme. Education can now also be made freely available online, as I provide through my YouTube channels.

Higher level educational institutions are tuning into the reality that education is not complete unless real-world problems are solved on campus. Net zero and sustainability need not just be curricular activities but in fact can be implemented on campuses with innovation, team building, project management, and engagement with governments, the private sector, and communities. A good example is the sustainability lab of the University of California, Santa Cruz. The Indian Institute of Technology Bombay aspires to build such a lab now.

These well-rounded students will go out in the real world and amplify the positive outcomes of implementing solutions. Academia, governments, and the private sector can drive infinite innovations to decarbonise the system. This is an urgent need and much more productive and effective than just putting up signs discouraging everything that is fun and natural to us. 

Also Read | The world is grappling with a climate challenge that has defied predictions

Reducing emissions from energy, food, agriculture, land use, industries, transportation, and buildings can yield rich and marketable solutions that will lead to an optimistic and decarbonised future. Exciting innovations and opportunities to make money while saving the planet are plentiful in strengthening the sinks of greenhouse gases in degraded and agricultural lands, rural and urban areas, lakes, and oceans. Finding ways to suck down greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in large quantities is the holy grail of innovation and for humanity’s liberation from climate change.

Modern Birbal would focus on the roadblocks

One should not underplay the importance of reducing consumption independent of the climate change issue. About 30 per cent of the total number of deaths across the planet are now from cardiovascular diseases. While climate disasters such as cyclones, wildfires, landslides, floods, and droughts make for shocking headlines, the total number of deaths from natural hazards have been reduced to less than 1 per cent of the total deaths.

The reductions in the loss of life from natural hazards are thanks to the advances in the science and technology of disaster prevention, management, and recovery. But the disasters in health outcomes related to overconsumption are not just about science and technology. They are about the tendency to overconsume in our modern lifestyles.

Also Read | Are we headed into climate hell? Is IPCC the one to save us?

A clear example is the excessive and dangerous consumption of sugar. Sugar is now in everything we consume as food or drinks. Sugar production is not good for earth either. A modern Birbal would focus much more on driving behavioural changes that are good for health and the planet’s future, such as cutting back on sugar.

The worst consequence of overconsumption and of the production of all human necessities and luxuries is air pollution. Air pollution is directly and indirectly responsible for most human diseases. Climate communications do not emphasise air pollution enough in terms of the co-benefits of climate action.

Birbal would help us separate real fun from mindless consumption. Saving the planet should not be a luxury that only the rich can afford with their EVs and organic food. Our future should be optimistic for all. Full of flowers, chocolate, and romantic trips.

Today’s youth are capable of imagining and delivering such a future. With better communications from us.

Raghu Murtugudde is Professor, IIT Bombay, and Emeritus Professor, University of Maryland, US.

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