OP-ED: Borders don’t matter (in the age of climate change)

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From a planetary perspective, the Ladakh conflict hardly matters

Another tense week in the Himalayan heights where India and Chinese territory meet, after troops from the giant neighbours bludgeoned and killed each other in hand-to-hand combat on the night of June 15. 

We are now in the formal procedures of de-escalation. On June 19, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to reassure an all-party meeting that there had never been any incursion in the first place: “Not an inch of our land has been lost, neither has anyone occupied our posts.”

Those assertions are disputed by an overwhelming chorus of independent analysts, who say the status quo in the Galwan valley has indeed been overturned. Earlier this week, excellent satellite images released by Maxar (an American space technology company) seem to confirm that Chinese outposts have moved forward of the “Line of Actual Control” which has prevailed since 1962.

But there’s something else unmistakably apparent in those high-resolution images captured from the upper atmosphere. The opposing forces are locked in hostilities over an astonishingly precarious scrap of riverbed in this pitiless “high altitude cold desert” 5,000 metres above sea level. The next time the valley floods, everything will be erased, and they will have to start all over again.

Make no mistake, it’s going to happen. Just a decade ago in 2010, a single night of heavy rainfall set off massive flooding and mudslides across Ladakh, killing hundreds, and massively damaging scores of villages and towns, including the capital city of Leh.

More of the same is on its way. According to World Weather Online, the quantum of annual summer rainfall in Ladakh soared from 30mm in 2009 to over 140mm in 2019. The average number of rainy days have gone from 8 to 20 in the same period. This part of the world once suffered catastrophic floods every century, but now they are expected to occur constantly.

These are the realities of anthropogenic climate change caused by massive human interventions in the Earth’s ecosystems. Looked at from this planetary perspective, the Ladakh border conflicts are trivial and hubristic. A few kilometres one way or the other makes no difference when both sides are going to be wiped out.

It is an uncanny echo of the Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction, but this time neither side has their fingers on “the button.”

In his landmark 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh pointed out with great acuity: “The lack of a transitive connection between political mobilization, on the one hand, and global warming, on the other, is nowhere more evident than in the countries of South Asia, all of which are extraordinarily vulnerable to climate change.”

Ghosh warned: “What is true of India is true also of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal: climate change has not been a significant political issue in any of these countries … Instead, political energy has increasingly come to be focused on issues that relate, in one way or another, to questions of identity; religion, caste, ethnicity, language, gender rights, and so on.”

This is precisely what is happening across the sub-continent, and also perfectly explains the pointless “nationalist” posturing we are compelled to endure, even in the throes of a global pandemic. 

And yet, rather ironically, the one unavoidable lesson of the Covid-19 emergency is that our fates are inextricably linked. There is no escape from humanity’s common destiny.  

Earlier this week on June 20 — officially just the first day of summer in the Northern emisphere — the Russian Arctic recorded its highest temperature ever, a previously unthinkable 100.4 degrees Farenheit (38C). The permafrost is melting.

On the same night, outside my home next to Miramar beach in Goa, on the Konkan coastline of western India, powerful ocean waves crashed to their previous highest ingress, just metres from our compound wall. What had happened only once before, during an unprecedented cyclone, has now occurred in the first week of this monsoon. 

The two record events are profoundly interconnected. They cannot be wished away. No amount of aggressive posturing is going to change them. 

For a glimmer of hope, we must turn to the straight-talking 17-year-old environmentalist Greta Thunberg, who takes so much abuse for stating obvious truths most of the world would prefer to deny.

In a new radio program “Humanity Has Not Yet Failed,” the Swedish teen reminds us, “in a crisis, we all have to take a few steps back and act for the greater good of each other and our society. In a crisis, you adapt and change your behaviour … We have passed a social tipping point. We can no longer look away from what our society has been ignoring for so long … From a sustainability point of view, all political and economic systems have failed, but humanity has not yet failed.” 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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