My Climate Story

Rituraj Phukan

Sep 27, 2021

I live in Assam-- a biodiversity rich, climate-impacted state in Northeast India. The diversity of the land mirrors that of its people, with the cultures and traditions of the many ethnic communities living here matched only by the region’s natural largesse. The peace and harmony that was once prevalent did not last through my school years. We are now at the cusp of an impending climate crisis as the most vulnerable state in India.


I grew up in the middle of civil unrest. A student-led movement against the illegal immigration of displaced people, known as the Assam Movement, caused unimaginable turmoil in my region. My father did not support the agitation, and my family was ostracized as a result. During those difficult years, I would often wonder why people would want to leave their own countries and cause trouble in other lands.


Years later, I watched the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and it opened my eyes to climate change. The film brought back those distant, traumatic memories and answered questions that had lingered in my mind since childhood. I realized that the influx of migrants into my state might have consisted of people displaced by rising sea levels and other climate change impacts. I could finally make the connection.


In 2013, I travelled to Antarctica as a member of the International Antarctic Expedition team led by Robert Swan, who was the first person to have walked to both the North and South Poles. The team of corporate, academic and environmental leaders from 28 countries was invited to gain firsthand experience of how climate change was impacting the fragile ecosystems of the remote continent.


One day, we were summoned to the top deck of the expedition ship Sea Spirit for the Iceberg Ceremony, a solemn occasion to reflect on an important landmark of documented warming in the polar regions. It was 7:00 AM and one of the coldest and windiest days I have experienced. There were exceptionally large, broken-off iceberg shards --called “tabular icebergs”-- in view. We learned that these were the remnants of the Larsen B Ice Shelf that had collapsed 11 years earlier.


“Back in 2002, most people did not believe in climate change,” our expedition leader said. He pointed to the iceberg in front of us. “When the Ice Shelf started to collapse,” he continued, “scientists said it would take a long time to break apart. But after the cracks were first noticed, it went down very fast and collapsed in less than four weeks. Throughout the day, you will see these icebergs where they should not be. Now that you have seen how the impacts of climate change are already happening here, you must help spread the word and ensure the world’s leaders take decisive action before it is too late,” he explained.


The Antarctic ice sheets represent a volume of 32 million cubic kilometers. If melted, they would cause sea levels to rise by over 200 feet! Even the partial melting of these great, ancient ice sheets could inundate large parts of low-lying countries. This knowledge further opened my eyes to the vulnerabilities of low-elevation countries and to the humanitarian disasters that might occur in poor countries without the resources to accommodate an influx of displaced people. These realizations took me back to the unrest I had seen in my childhood.


The International Antarctic Expedition opened my eyes to the threats of global warming’s impacts and the vulnerabilities of my state, but it was also empowering to know that solutions exist to avoid the worst-case scenarios. When he set up the ‘E-base’ in 2008, Robert Swan became the only private person in the world with a base in Antarctica. During the “E-base Goes Live” event in March that year, Robert and a small team spent two weeks living at the base, which was powered entirely by renewable energy, and sending broadcasts to the world. It was the first time in history that people lived in Antarctica relying solely on renewable energy. His mission was to prove that if such drastic changes can be made in the harshest conditions, they can be made anywhere in the world. He succeeded. His famous quote will continue to inspire millions for a long time: “The greatest threat to the planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”


A few months after the International Antarctic Expedition, I got trained as a Climate Reality Leader. My interest areas revolve around indigenous communities, water, and biodiversity. Having worked in some of the most water-scarce areas in India, I always say that water is the local issue of global climate change, for people and for biodiversity. In my native Assam, I work with fringe forest communities to develop locally sustainable solutions to facilitate coexistence of humans and wildlife.


Across the Arctic, I have taken part in ongoing citizen science projects to understand the dynamics of ecosystem changes, and I have seen the devastating consequences of those changes for people and wildlife. My firsthand experiences of infrastructure damage, permafrost melting, and ecological changes have been many. I have also come to understand the consequences of arctic amplification, a phenomenon where temperatures rise faster in the Arctic than in other parts of the world, particularly because the loss of sea ice makes the ocean darker, causing it to absorb more heat. The implications for global weather are now increasingly evident and could cause upheaval in faraway countries. 


For example, the South Asian monsoon, which sustains agriculture for nearly half of humanity in India and neighboring countries, is already being disrupted. In a study conducted by India’s National Center for Polar and Ocean Research, scientists found that the decline in the loss of sea ice in the Arctic may be causing extreme rainfall from August to September in India. What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic; it affects us all.


One incident stands out as an example of the vulnerability of our species to the unbridled power of nature. At Longyearbyen, I saw the Global Seed Vault being repaired after unexpected flooding some years back. Also known as the Doomsday Vault, it was built as a backup for humanity, with millions of seeds and protective features to preserve major food crops for hundreds of years. Despite this herculean engineering accomplishment, high temperatures and heavy rainfall damaged the infrastructure less than 10 years after its inauguration.


It is heartening to see progress continuing towards sustainable development goals despite the challenges of climate change. With the advent of technological innovations, and with the exemplary efforts of the many  individuals and groups driving transformative social and behavioral change around the world, we might yet be saved from catastrophic climate change.


In Assam, my friend Jadav Payeng stands out as a role model for climate action and for rewilding the planet, having single-handedly created a forest harboring tigers, elephants, and rhinos. Known as the Forest Man of India, he has been conserving and restoring ecosystems and rewilding a barren land for four decades, something that conservation leaders have prioritized only this year!


Yet, my main reason for hope in my climate journey is the emergence of youth leaders who continually push for transformative changes and net-zero emissions. In every country, young people have taken to the streets, gone to court, written books, and provoked lifestyle changes, creating an unprecedented momentum towards a better planet. And the most important reason for being confident about averting widespread devastation in my region is that many of these passionate and informed young people will be in leadership positions in a few years.

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