The latest battle in a long history of battles in Oxford was sparked by the Traffic Neighborhood Scheme, a network of barriers and cameras being built in my area as part of efforts to reduce air pollution linked to the death of 1 in 17 people who live in the city.
These measures are not extreme. Each household gets 100 days exemption from traffic barriers per person. The traffic planters leave the vast majority of the roads untouched. But these gentle restrictions have led to mass gatherings filled with howls of anger and torment. The vandalism rate on bollards and plant grids is so high that cameras have to be installed. Not a week goes by without someone expressing their frustration at traffic calming measures in the most restless manner possible.
On the other side of the world, in Delhi, where I spend half my year, a catastrophe of a completely different kind is unfolding before our eyes. Forty years ago the population was 6 million. Now, amid the influx of refugees fleeing internal conflict, deforestation and the slow death of centuries of village life in rural India, it’s growing so fast that it’s projected to be the world’s most populous city by 2030, with nearly 40 million people .
I can remember as a kid I could look down the street where we lived. Today visibility is 100 meters on a good day due to vehicle emissions, bush fires and construction dust. Back then you could put a book down and when you picked it up hours later, it wasn’t covered with a layer of dirt.
A 40 °C (104 °F) day used to be the cause of public comment; Now this conversation will be saved when the temperature reaches 50℃. I can remember rich people exercising in parks without being out of breath after 10 minutes. The true measure of wealth in Delhi today is how little one has to go outdoors. And all within 20 years.
Living part of the year in Oxford and part in Delhi, I run a consultancy building business relationships in India and the UK and also work with street children. In Britain, I am an avatar of the coming Asian century, a success story of first-generation Sunak immigrants.
In India, my British accent means I need to know what I’m doing. There I can see the results of two centuries of nonexistent economic growth under British rule. In Britain I can enjoy what these fortunes have built. And these are the two worlds between which I travel. One of the consolations, the argument over license plate recognition cameras, floral vandalism, anger that a drive to John Lewis could be 20 minutes longer. On the other hand, a subcontinent facing food riots.
In the face of climate catastrophe, the greatest privilege is that of time. Great Britain has been a colonial power for about four centuries. It has had more than 200 years of industrialization, 75 years of peace, and more than 30 years of knowing the magnitude of the climate problem ahead. A country with some of the most innovative companies in the world and recent advances in nuclear, solar, wind and hydropower technology has nothing to fear. What was the use of centuries of colonial exploitation if not to build Britain’s riches for this very moment?
But the attitude of wealthy Western countries towards the climate crisis seems to involve more heartbreaking and soup-throwing than action. Over the past 40 years, residents of Britain and the western world have outsourced their high-carbon industries to China. What they don’t seem to want to do is the hard, hands-on work of building decarbonized economies that benefit working people and create jobs.
Compounding the problem is that Britain has the luxury of time in another way: the climate crisis is hitting India faster and harder, and I see it every time I’m there. One of the most bitter ironies of global warming is that it will exacerbate existing inequalities. The G20 countries are responsible for more than three quarters of global emissions. But Pakistan, which was recently hit by catastrophic floods that submerged a third of the country, accounts for less than 1%. The effects of the climate emergency will be least felt in northern Europe, home of the industrial revolution and the birthplace of the modern world and its dependence on carbon emissions.
In Kashmir, where I always holidayed as a child, the climate crisis has transformed the region from an alpine wonderland into a sectarian furnace, with mid-summer temperatures of 40°C. I remember coming to the capital city of Srinagar back then to admire the crystal clear waters of Dal Lake and its houseboats. Now, excessive dumping has led visitors to marvel at the colors and rapid growth of competing out-of-control algal blooms. Tourists who ask if they can go swimming are met with disbelieving looks.
The dream of every Kashmiri business man I know used to be that it would become home to world-renowned ski resorts that attract millions each year. Now glacier retreat, very variable, often non-existent snowfall and winter temperatures above 10°C have put those dreams on hold. The apple harvest, which provides a large part of the region’s farm income, has become late and fickle with frequent failures. A growing body of research is linking higher temperatures to increased political violence. Kashmiris, with their typical gallows humor, ponder how much worse the situation can get.
And so the big cities – Delhi, Srinigar, Islamabad – are deluged with the results: young men out of work, from small failed farms, cut off from their villages and their culture. Underpaid, sucked into the life of crime, they are perfect fodder for extremist organizations. A third of India’s population is under 18; two-thirds are rural. In a subcontinent where young, frustrated, hopeless men are the currency of political violence — and where the key political figure is the price of onions and its impact on household food availability — India has an endless supply.
Meanwhile, northern Europe will, at least initially, have its warmest autumns on record. Several thousand fewer people will die from the cold, tourism will boom and there will be increased potential for crops previously considered unsuitable for the UK climate.
Britain is not in the ultimate decline, as it often seems to want to believe. Its history, its confidence and its worth to the world did not end in 1945. Britain did not grow rich from rejected building permits. The country houses, the dreaming towers, the suburban mansions, the delightful misconceptions about cream teas, the riches of Britain did not create themselves. They were the product of centuries of tireless investment and innovation, of constant progress, of angry neighbors, of snarls and jeers, of tearing up the solid, stained fabric and building something new.
The 21st century is a vast, tangled intersectional issue of intergenerational justice, racial justice and international justice. Britain risks sacrificing its future and that of billions around the world if it does not act now, when there is time and while government can still make a difference.
If not, it will soon have much bigger problems than traffic barriers, planters and license plate recognition cameras. It is confronted with something that no amount of money can prevent, run from, trade away from, or shout down.