The climate crisis is about the Global South’s present

Not the Global North’s future.

In India, where this year alone people have endured drought, cyclones, floods, heatwaves and landslides, the climate crisis has already arrived [File: Sivaram V/Reuters]

COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, was an event where less than 0.0004 percent of the population met to negotiate our lives. World leaders, through their decisions on how to limit global heating, are the powers deciding who gets to live and who gets to die. Keeping temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) is not negotiable, and yet, we are not on track to meet it. According to Climate Action Tracker, even with the targets pledged during COP26 we will be heading towards 2.4C (4.3F) of warming.

Amid this, COP26 has been criticised as the most “exclusionary” summit ever for civil society organisations, people from the Global South and those with disabilities. COP26 Coalition, a UK-based civil society coalition of environment NGOs said two-thirds of the people who it was helping travel to Glasgow were unable to make it because of visa restrictions, accreditation problems and COVID-19 vaccine inequity as a result of uneven access to vaccines. This was especially harsh on the Global South, with many people denied a seat at the table. Activists from the Global South who managed to be at COP26 despite these hurdles have been cut out of pictures and excluded by the media. The exclusion of the Global South is a common theme in climate conversations and negotiations.

When we are excluded, our voices are silenced, our experiences go unheard and the reality of the climate situation in the Global South is blurred. This exclusion becomes a refusal to acknowledge the proximity of the climate crisis and casts it as a problem of the future when millions are dying today.

Young people around the world are anxious about the future, and rightfully so, but a warped focus on it suggests that the general populace would rather care about white children’s future than the Black, Brown and Indigenous children’s present. If this is to continue, then we have already lost.

In my country, India, the climate crisis is an unwanted caller that has taken up space in our homes. She is not scheduled to arrive at a later date – she is already here. The world is currently at 1.2C (2.2F) above preindustrial levels and this is already brutal for so many people in India.

Less than 50 percent of Indians have access to safe drinking water. Droughts, coupled with increasing demand and terrible groundwater management, make access to this water even harder. Lack of safe water means lack of sanitation, especially during a pandemic. For some villages, droughts are becoming a way of life. Some 20 percent of the country faces drought-like conditions.

Elsewhere, there is extreme rainfall. Just last month, the southern state of Kerala experienced flooding and landslides due to heavy rainfall. This killed 42 people and stranded thousands. In northern India, heavy rain battered the state of Uttarakhand, causing flooding and killing at least 46 people. In my city, Bengaluru, the airport was flooded due to unprecedented rains.

We in India have experienced most of the morbid climate calamities on the menu ranging from cyclones, floods, and landslides to heatwaves and drought just this year. We know what it feels like to be affected by the climate crisis in numbing detail.

I first noticed the preoccupation with the future among activists at Fridays for Future International when I joined the movement in 2019. Our campaigns and conversations focused on the future, and they did not measure up to the emotion of marginalised communities, such as the ancient tribes who have had their land snatched and laid siege to in the name of coal in India’s Hasdeo forest, or people who have watched their homes wash away in floods.

Our messaging did not even come close to covering what it means to be an Adivasi (Indigenous) activist like Hidme Markam who was imprisoned earlier this year and charged under counterterrorism legislation used to punish environmental defenders. The 28-year-old land and women’s rights activist had been protesting against extractive mining and for locals’ rights as well as fighting for Adivasis jailed on false charges.

Environmental activists including myself (I was jailed for 10 days and released on bail in February during the ongoing farmer protests) are punished by the Indian government for asking for a liveable planet. Sudha Bharadwaj, a trade union activist, lawyer, and teacher turned 60 in jail the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s commitments at COP26, with pledges including carbon neutrality by 2070 and an increase in the share of electricity generated by solar, wind, and other non-fossil fuel sources. Bharadwaj has worked to secure better wages for workers and land rights for Adivasis but was accused of being a Maoist with plans to overthrow the government. More than three years after her arrest, her trial is yet to start.

On the same day as Modi’s announcement, a group of more than 50 Adivasis in Chhattisgarh state walked 30km (19 miles) to highlight the rising air pollution due to coal-fired thermal plants in Raigarh. People from these communities have had their land and forests taken away to build coal mines. Coal has affected their livelihoods and health, yet our prime minister wants to expand coal mining. Last year, India launched an auction for 38 new blocks for mining. Some of them pass through Adivasis’ ancestral land.

I could not unsee the overlapping injustices in my country and was desperate to change this.

At Fridays for Future, I raised the issue of how our stance of focusing on the future removed us far from ground realities and we could no longer continue this. We cannot fail to highlight the loss and damages happening in the Global South now. When we do, we do an injustice to Adivasis and environmental defenders on the front line of the climate crisis.

This is why we at Fridays for Future decided to start MAPA – Most Affected People and Areas. MAPA was created to ensure that the focus is on people who are most affected by the climate crisis, to focus on the present, not just our future. We have been working on centring voices of those most affected through our campaigns, and by bearing witness to the loss and damages caused by the climate crisis today.

To fight the systems that are responsible for the climate crisis, we need news organisations, activists and governments to first acknowledge the urgency and proximity of the climate crisis. To elicit climate action, we must change conversations. We must live in the moment. And we need to strip environmentalism of its white garb because if we do not fight for the present – there is no future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.