CIVICUS discusses the hopes and roles of civil society at the forthcoming COP28 climate summit with climate justice activist Disha Ravi, founder of India’s branch of the youth-led climate movement Fridays for Future.
What issues do you work on?
India has the whole menu of the climate crisis on offer – you name it, we got it: from searing heat waves and devastating floods to land degradation and the encroaching menace of desertification. Alarmingly, deforestation has been accompanied by the relaxation of environmental regulations for the sake of profit.
I am a proud member of Fridays for Future India, a collective that seeks to address a multitude of pressing issues across the country. It is important to acknowledge that while governments might prioritise development, we must be aware of the steep price this can exact in terms of environmental degradation. Striking a balance between progress and sustainability is a challenge we must urgently tackle because in their quest for what they believe are sustainable ways of development, governments often end up doing more harm than good.
How did you become an activist?
My journey into activism began when I was around 18 or 19 years old, ignited by a deep-rooted connection with my family’s farming background. My grandparents, who are farmers, faced the harsh reality of a water crisis that struck their region. However, at the time I lacked an understanding of the direct link between the water crisis and climate change. As I matured, I began noticing striking parallels between my family’s experiences and similar challenges faced by other communities across Bengaluru, in the southern Karnataka state.
It took some time, but through rigorous research I discovered that what was deemed a regular occurrence was in fact a result of the escalating climate crisis. This realisation served as the impetus for my journey into activism, as I became determined to unravel the truths behind these issues and work towards meaningful change.
What’s it like to be an activist in India?
Being an activist in India is scary. India is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists. This particularly hazardous environment engenders a sense of unease among all of us.
Traditionally, threats and prosecutions loomed over environmental defenders living in rural areas. However, the scope of these threats has evolved, now extending to encompass urban activists like me as well. It’s worth noting that while urban activists were once casually dismissed as mere ‘tree huggers’, the tide has shifted, and we are increasingly perceived as formidable adversaries to the government’s agenda.
Tragically, no one is immune to the consequences of activism. I have been detained for my environmental work, a stark illustration of the risks involved. To provide context, my arrest in 2021 was tied to my support for the farmers’ movement, a pivotal moment in the fight against India’s repressive farm laws. Although these laws have since been revoked due to sustained resistance, legal proceedings stemming from my involvement remain ongoing.
Technically, I’m not even allowed to talk about this, but I can share that the challenges and constraints are very, very real. The cases that were filed are still pending, which means they are still conducting investigations and I may still have to face trial. I will have to go to court many times, for a variety of things. I think that’s pretty much all I’m allowed to say.
Being an activist is draining, so persisting in this journey demands a resilient spirit and an unwavering commitment. For me, nature is my main powerhouse. Spending time in nature, and doing it with friends and fellow activists, replenishes my spirit and gives me energy. The simple act of enjoying nature together, even in silence, nurtures my soul and imparts a deep sense of peace.
What advice would you give to other young people starting this journey?
Seek out like-minded people whose aspirations align with your own and cultivate a robust support network is the best advice I can give to other young people who would like to become involved in climate activism and make a difference in their communities. Collaboration is the cornerstone of effective activism; together, we can amplify our impact and create lasting change. We also embrace learning together, which means embracing the inevitability of making mistakes. This collective journey thrives on shared wisdom and experiential learning.
So in this vital endeavour, it is important to remember that you are not alone. The uncharted territory of climate activism calls for a diverse and united front. Allies and connections help you stand unwavering in your commitment to a greener, more sustainable future for all.
How do you connect with the global climate movement?
Fridays for Future has evolved into an increasingly interconnected and collaborative force, transcending geographical boundaries. Along with a fellow activist and friend, Mitzi Jonelle Tan from the Philippines, I have embarked on a mission to identify shared challenges and craft effective solutions.
Our efforts are focused on bringing the voices of people from all global south regions, including from countries such as Argentina, India and the Philippines, into climate dialogues and negotiations.
Our aim is to ensure that our voices and demands are heard because we are the ones suffering the most from the impacts of the climate crisis. For us, climate change is not an abstract concept of future concern but an urgent reality of the present that requires immediate action, right here and right now.
However, most of our work thrives in the digital realm because it’s quite expensive – especially for young people – to meet in person and we are very scarce in funding. Despite this, we haven’t limited our operations to certain countries that might be closer in distance from us – we cover the whole world!
And while there’s obviously strong ongoing collaboration among us in global south countries, we also have a lot of allies in the global north that support our work.
What priority issues do you expect to see addressed at COP28?
I hope holding the COP in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a global south country that is also part of Asia, will be an opportunity to push for debt cancellation and funding for adaptation and mitigation. Such financing should not manifest as burdensome loans but rather as grants that empower nations to address climate challenges proactively. The imperative for knowledge and technology transfer between nations is another pressing issue on my radar.
Accountability is paramount. I hope for substantive action that departs from hollow promises and superficial solutions. Our society requires robust adaptation and mitigation funding to confront the multifaceted challenges brought by the climate crisis.
Though mitigation’s absence from the COP agenda is disheartening, I am optimistic about its consideration in some form, alongside creative funding mechanisms for adaptation. The demand for a loss and damages fund is another beacon of hope and I am eager to witness its progress.
While my expectations may seem ambitious, the urgency of the climate crisis demands no less than a comprehensive and steadfast commitment to change.
Do you think COP28 will provide enough space for civil society?
I have my doubts regarding civic space conditions in the UAE. I read an article about a message issued by the COP presidency saying that climate activists will be allowed to protest and express our opinions freely, but I do not know much of this I can trust. This is a country where protest is not allowed, so it feels weird that we will be allowed to protest when their own people are not.
Having such space is however vital. The active involvement of civil society in climate talks is not a luxury but an essential imperative. Civil society serves as a conduit for the voices, ideas and aspirations of the people, propelling the discourse beyond mere rhetoric. Our insights and perspectives are equally valid and informed, and we are entitled to a seat at the table.
What are your expectations for COP28’s outcomes?
The discourse surrounding COPs and their efficacy often echoes a sentiment of disillusionment, and regrettably, this assessment does bear some merit. I had the opportunity to attend COP27 in Egypt and it was quite disappointing because there were lots of talk and promises but no legally binding commitments and not much action. There was just a small win for a loss and damage fund, but it was too little, too late if you ask me.
I am optimistic though, but my optimism does not come from world leaders, who have certainly failed us. We wouldn’t be in this position now if they had acted in time. We’ve had 27 COPs so far!
Honestly, world leaders shouldn’t even need a COP if they wanted to take action. They can do it anytime because they are literally the most powerful people on the planet. But they refuse to do it.
My hopes emanate from the resilience and dedication of fellow civil society activists who have been actually taking action. And I just hope we will be able to achieve justice together.
Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIVICUS.