Amidst the ground with fresh green and dry brown leaves, two hands come together to cup a baby sapling plant that is growing from dirt.

Call To Action: What Is The South Asian Diaspora Doing About Climate Change?

Cover photo courtesy of Unsplash

After a long weekend with temperatures in the triple digits, I was ecstatic for the week to begin and the temperatures to drop. I opened my window to a blanket of smoke and an ash laden windowsill — and immediately closed it after breathing in the dangerous particles in the air.  It felt like something out of an apocalyptic movie, with a desolate darkness instead of the radiant, California sunshine. Blue skies were replaced with a reddish-orange atmosphere. As it came around to lunch time, the streetlamps were still on replacing what was supposed to be the sun illuminating the day.  This was the reality for those of us living near the wildfires on the West coast. 

An orange sky casts a dark glow over the day time at a street crossing, with buildings to the sides.
Photo of California wildfires by Milkovi. Courtesy of Unsplash.

With the California wildfires, the arctic melting, extreme storms in the East coast, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the devastating effects of climate change. Therefore, being sustainable and environmentally friendly is more important than before. However, there are still inequities when it comes to the impact of climate change and one´s ability to be sustainable.  These inequities are systemic and stem from the western history of colonization. Western civilizations have spent years taking resources away from countries while at the same time furthering the climate crisis through advanced capitalism. The ways in which we look at the issue of climate change depends on whether we view it from the eyes of the privileged or the eyes of the colonized. 

When we think of countries like India, we think of the enormous amount of pollution and smog. But it is paramount to question why countries like India are like that. Is it the sheer amount of people and cars? The amount of poverty? Or is it because of colonialism? Recalling that the British Raj ruled over India for almost 200 years, I would argue that it is the latter. Colonialism has caused and continues to cause an enormous amount of dissonance from the ways in which India is able to prevent pollution to the ways in which the very government is structured. The British Raj created long-lasting turmoil but the Western world continues to avoid any responsibility.

The United States has the most amount of carbon emissions but they take the least amount of responsibility for their actions. The United States, however, is fortunate enough to have the resources necessary to combat the negative effects of climate change, even though they have created the problem. Since the Industrial Revolution, the United States has contributed the most amount of carbon emissions in total compared to those of other countries. Today, The United States has contributed 5.141 GT of carbon emissions, approximately 15% of the world’s total carbon footprint. Although the emissions of both India and China are continuing to rise, the United States has contributed the greatest amount of carbon emissions overall. Given that India and China have a much larger population than the US, this difference in carbon emissions is notable. 

Countries like the United States have known that marginalized communities face the brunt of the most detrimental effects of climate change yet they choose to block the passing of The Green New Deal, a resolution outlining a detailed plan to combat climate change in the US,  and exit the Paris Agreement, a global effort created by the United Nations to combat climate change on a large scale. 

A crowd of people protests; someone holds up a brown sign with the green words "SAVE THE PLANET"
Photo by Markus Spiske. Courtesy of Unsplash

Despite the stereotype of Asian Americans being frugal, we still do not understand the impact our actions have on our home countries. South Asians in the United States frequently hear about what their families are facing in their home countries and then they buy an excessive amount of plastic water bottles. Sustainability is not a singular action but rather is a chain reaction in which one individual has the power to impact the overall conditions of climate change. And South Asians have to recognize that what is happening in their home countries needs to be addressed in the ways they practice sustainability in the US and within the rest of the South Asian diaspora. 

My family went from being incredibly environmentally conscious to contributing to the overall climate change of India. It is also important to note that families making this shift are not always to blame. Cultural differences in consumption are major contributors to the climate crisis. Countries like India, though overpopulated, do not contribute as much as Western countries to the total overall carbon footprint of the planet. Why is that, given that the population of India is 17% of the world’s total population?  Part of the issue is that the US is built on waste and overconsumption. From our incessant plastic bag usages (even after going to brown bags) to the ways in which we rapidly consume fast fashion, it is hard to avoid it. We have spent far too much time taking the Earth for granted and now it is time that we stand up for our home countries as well as the rest of the world. Those within the South Asian diaspora need to recognize the privilege they have as even when the entire sky is turned orange due to wildfires, we have firefighters on the front lines doing everything they can to stop it. On the other hand, floods in Mumbai are uncontrollable with the government not having enough resources to prevent the further devastation of the city. 

We may think the detrimental effects of climate change are distant from us and that there is no way to change the impact of it in our home countries. However, the wildfires on the Western coast and the extreme temperatures in the East Coast beg to differ. Climate change is upon us and it is not going away. But we have to recognize that countries like India have been facing these extreme weather events for many more years than we have. This is inequality. Countries like the United States have the privilege of ignoring the issue until it stares us right in the face but what about countries with a lack of infrastructure? They have had to cope with this for years and watch the US continue to contribute without making any changes in their consumption. The reality is that some of us have faced far too many consequences from their actions while others have had the privilege to sit back and watch. 

Climate change does not impact every country in the same way, regardless of their contribution to the problem. Soon enough, however, it will get worse unless those in the diaspora begin to make minor but impactful changes in their lives to help marginalized countries better fight against climate change. Those minor changes are important but more needs to be done because no matter how much we wish that to be enough, it will not be until Western governments put their money back into the planet they have spent so many years destroying. Those with the largest carbon footprint are the corporations, military, and governments of Western countries but countries like India are facing the worst of the impact. 

If the past few months have shown us anything, it is that monumental change occurs when we face institutions together with an absolute determination for that change. The South Asian diaspora has spent far too long on the sidelines despite watching their home countries continue to struggle against a fight they did not start. For better or for worse, those of us in the United States have the privilege to make a real difference and with that comes a heavy responsibility. But it all starts in the ways in which we begin to view the world, start conversations, choose a sustainable lifestyle, and continue to be unwavering in our resolve to fight for our planet. We have contributed to the problem so I ask you, how are we going to contribute to the solution?

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