Kirti Manian (01:05): Hi Neelima. Welcome to our show. We are delighted to have you with us. I am going to get started by asking you this. Before we learn more about your climate journey, it will be great to hear some stories about your travels as well. You are an incredible photographer and writer. Can you articulate your experiences in a couple of places that’s left you spellbound, especially if they were brushes with nature?
Neelima Vallangi (01:26): Yeah, so, thank you for having me on the show first of all. I am really glad to be part of this and talk to you about climate change in general. So, to answer this question, yeah, so, I have been travelling for nearly a decade now and all that time spent in the mountains and nature has definitely played a very huge part in shaping my character and my world view. My most memorable incidents have always been, you know, experiences that remind me of the stark beauty of the wilderness of our world. So, let’s say, something like spotting a snow leopard on a far-away ridge or walking between high mountain passes of Himalayas in Uttarakhand with no one else in sight for like days together. So, these are the kind of experiences that I chase and that’s been my life for the past ten years I would say.
And one of the last places that I went, before the pandemic brought everything to a standstill, was New Zealand. So, in New Zealand, the diversity of landscapes totally blew my mind. I was honestly not expecting that, but I think that’s also the charm of travel, in its ability to surprise you. So, from strange Californian redwood forest to geysers which are very rare in Southern hemisphere and phenomenal glacier landscapes in the southern Alps, I feel especially grateful for such encounters that only entertain you and enthral you, but also inform you on the geological wonders of our planet, and mostly experiences like that. So, because everything has come to a standstill after, I think this is what the New Zealand journey is, what is fresh in my mind right now…
Kirti Manian (03:02): [laughing]
Neelima Vallangi (03:03): … which I keep going back to during the pandemic.
Kirti Manian (03:06): Yeah, I know you were travelling a lot. And you know this goes onto my next question also in some way. Do you think that because you stopped travelling, climate became important, or was that always there, kind of at the forefront of your mind? And we’d love to know when did this climate journey get started? And please do tell us more about your newsletter ‘Climate Matters’ as well.
Neelima Vallangi (03:28): I can’t say for sure that because I am not travelling, I have shifted focus to climate change. I think this had already happened last year because even when I was in New Zealand, we visited this Tasman glacier in South Island which is New Zealand’s largest glacier and it’s retreating at a record speed. So, at that point I already had some idea about climate change in general. As in all of us are aware of climate change, but, you know, unless we get to the specifics it doesn’t really become threatening. So, until let’s say 2019, I knew something called climate change is happening, it’s a problem. But you know I was not extremely bothered about it and I didn’t feel like, okay, this is like a major existential threat or something like that. So, I had no such feelings towards this crisis at that point.
But once I slowly started gathering clues here and there through my travels, that’s when I started connecting the dots. So, last year again when I was in New Zealand, we visited this glacier which was retreating at such a speed, and talking to people there and you know, they were giving some information why this is a problem. But again, not like a very specific overview of the whole issue, but you know, it was part of a problem. And that’s how slowly I began realizing that this is a much bigger problem than we know, as in, in public awareness, not from what scientists know. Scientists already know about all this and they have been trying to tell, warn us about it. But the public awareness and political leadership does not consider it a problem at all with the required urgency.
So, maybe, yeah, last year was when I was like slowly getting into this already and I felt like at that point it also made natural progression from my life as a nomad for like so many years to maybe start working on something more concrete. Also, yeah, the concern for climate change was also escalating because of my personal experiences.
Kirti Manian (05:26): Hmm.
Neelima Vallangi (05:27): So, both of these put together is when I decided like yeah, maybe I should focus on climate change and not just travel anymore. So, in a way I’ll have to say, maybe I got lucky that I made this decision before the pandemic happened, because otherwise I think I would have been full of resentment that I am not able to travel. But I had actually made this decision last year even before all of this happened that, you know, that I am going to stop and maybe focus on climate change communication for a while. So, yeah, that’s how it all started.
Kirti Manian (05:57): Your newsletter. I’d love to know how that got into place and what has the response kind of been?
Neelima Vallangi (06:03): Right, so, if I have to, you know give a timeline, it all started just over a year ago from today actually. And that’s when I had come back from my trips in the Himalayas and New Zealand, then I saw the glaciers melting and all that stuff. And that’s when I finally realized like okay this is something that everyone needs to be concerned about.
But when I wanted to talk about it to people, I realized many people don’t understand what climate change is or how big an issue it is. And I myself was very limited in my vocabulary and understanding to like say why this is a problem. I had this gut feeling that, or some kind of understanding because you just agree with what the scientists say. You are not going to disagree with what they are saying or like find faults in their arguments. And the climate, the scientists’ consensus is like very clear that climate change is happening and it’s happening rapidly.
Kirti Manian (06:52): Hmm.
Neelima Vallangi (06:53): But beyond that there was no way for me to talk about it. If I wanted to like talk to someone and say like listen, climate change is a problem, I realized I don’t have the understanding or the vocabulary to even like have simple conversations. So, that’s when I decided I’ll read up myself and I thought I’ll just start having basic conversations on social media. So, this was a year long plan at that point. I just thought if I am concerned about it, if no one else is talking about it, I might as well just start talking about it. But, yeah, a year later that simple idea has grown into something very big and a whole new career path for me, and has brought on a lot of learning and opportunities as well.
So, one of the developments I am really excited about is this project called ‘Climate Matters’, my newsletter where I help people make sense of this planetary crisis where I cover the science, the social and all other aspects of climate change in very simple and easy to understand terminology. So, it’s a hundred percent reader funded publication at the moment which has been very encouraging because I was not sure if people want to read something like this first of all because it’s all depressing news if you think about climate change. It’s really not a lot of good news that you can give or hopeful news that you can give at this point. It’s all about listen this is happening and we have to start working towards it. So, that is most of climate coverage if you see currently.
So, I was not sure if people will be willing to read something like this and even fund something like this. But, yeah, the response has been very encouraging and I am very excited to see where it goes, because in the process of writing articles to simplify climate change, even my understanding has like gone through the roof from compared to let’s say what it was one year ago. So, I think it’s a win-win for everyone, for me and the audience.
Kirti Manian (08:37): [smiling] And what about your documentary, ‘The Human Cost of Climate Crisis’? What prompted you to get that going and what stage is it at now currently?
Neelima Vallangi (08:47): So, I am collaborating with a filmmaker Deej Philips to make a feature length documentary film on the human cost of climate crisis set in Nepal. And in this documentary, we are trying to portray how global warming is messing with our hydrological system and how it is affecting communities already. And we chose to focus on emotional character driven narratives, film introduced in a cinematic style so we can draw the audience in through beautiful frames that tell a haunting story, and then present the whole context around climate change. Otherwise if it’s all just science or things like that, it’s really not very engaging to begin with.
So, my co-producer Deej and I, we both felt like our skills could be put to good use to raise awareness about climate change, and both of us have personally invested in this. And we both also had the time and intention to see this through. So, that’s how we decided to collaborate. And it’s been a great experience so far. Despite the pandemic throwing us a huge curveball by delaying the production schedule by a couple of months. We are finally back on track and a lot of work is going on right now. And we are targeting to have this film by December 2020.
Kirti Manian (09:52): And how are you planning to release the film, can I ask?
Neelima Vallangi (09:55): We don’t have any concrete plans yet. So, there are several avenues, try to get it optioned by any of the news channels or work with some media companies. So, yeah, I am still investigating that. So, that will also happen in the next couple of months. The ultimate aim would be like we’ll find an avenue which has a maximum reach. So, it is not just going to be something, some kind of a vanity project where we want to get our names out. So, the ultimate goal would be that, you know, for a pick, a medium distribution channel which will give us maximum audience centrally. The whole point of it is to make, raise awareness on climate change, I mean just close to like a small audience. Then it’s pretty much useless. So, yeah, I’m evaluating what are all the best options that we have and let’s see what comes of it.
Kirti Manian (10:41): Good luck with that. We’ll look forward to seeing it as well. Can you talk more about being featured by India Climate Collaborative as one of their forty young leaders to raise awareness about climate change? What work did you do and what were your learnings?
Neelima Vallangi (10:54): For someone who just randomly started working on climate change communication very recently, I was delighted to have that validation. But if you think about it, it’s also kind of unfortunate in the sense that there are not many people talking about climate change in the public sphere in India yet. Which is a very big problem because India as a country is highly vulnerable to climate hazards. And the public and policy makers need to discuss this openly so we can come up with a plan to, you know deal with the climate impacts. So, yeah, it was both, good and bad in a way if we consider the overall implications. And they were just trying to like pick some people who are working on climate change…
Kirti Manian (11:34): Ahh, right.
Neelima Vallangi (11:35): In climate change space. So, they were just highlighting forty people who are doing something about it in whatever way. So, I spoke about communication because my entire work is based on raising awareness. There were others who were like working on solutions like waste management or energy transition or things like that. So, it’s just a collection of people highlighting the work that they are doing.
Kirti Manian (12:01): Okay, got it. So, I want to talk about climate change in India, and you have said this now, people don’t pay attention, and this is a topic that really demands our attention. What do you think are the key issues that we are being faced with, and should we kind of look at always the big picture or shall we try and seek nuances within issues, where should our focus be?
Neelima Vallangi (12:21): So, I feel India is at a unique disadvantage when it comes to climate change, and that is because of our extremely diverse geography and demographics. We are going to face issues with everything from sea level rise to food security to glacial retreat, extreme rainfall, intense cyclonic activities and widespread heat. I mean we have all these geographies. So, we are going to be pounded with all these concurrent disasters at once. It’s like we have won the climate change bingo card. And we have to deal with all of these environmental disruptions while still trying to eradicate poverty among millions of our people. So, we have an extremely tough challenge ahead of us and we need a whole lot of vision, courage, imagination and innovation if we were to come up with ways to adapt to climate change. And this being a global problem with highly localized consequences, we cannot afford to ignore one in favour of the other. So, we’ll always have to keep one eye on the big picture that is reducing overall global emissions, and the other one on how to adapt the local impacts with minimum loss.
Kirti Manian (13:24): I like this mention, you said that India has won the climate bingo card. That does not sound good at all Neelima. [laughing].
Neelima Vallangi (13:30): I know it is very… [laughter].
Kirti Manian (13:33): When you say bingo right, that means you have won the lottery, [laughing] but in this context unfortunately you know. And I read about this enough about this to understand that always a vulnerable populous gets affected right. If you have privilege, you can get by some level, right, but I mean…
Neelima Vallangi (13:49): Right.
Kirti Manian (13:49): It’s always a vulnerable populous that always gets affected. What do you think about women being disproportionately affected by climate change? I have asked this question before, but I would love to hear if you have any solutions in mind.
Neelima Vallangi (14:04): So, one of the things that we should understand about climate change is that it exacerbates all the existing flaws that are in our society. So, women will be disproportionately affected by climate change because we haven’t achieved gender parity yet. And their problems and issues will continue to get worse with escalating climate impacts. It will become that much harder to close the gap as rising inequality and loss of opportunities both fuelled by climate change, push more and more women away from equality and development. So, to begin with I think considering impacts of climate change in every development plan would be one way to deal with this.
Women’s’ advancement is not immune to climate risks and a plan that takes into account how disruptions such as flooding or drought or water stress would uniquely and negatively impact women, is a good place to start. But you know like, many people have already said before, there is no single solution to climate change, and I think the only thing that we can do about it is just consider all of its implications in every group’s livelihood.
So, it’s not just women, even poor people if you see between economic sections. There is like one section which is more vulnerable to climate impacts than the others. Of course, in the end it will come for all of us, but some people are at a better position to handle this. So, I think the same is also true with women. It’s not like women have a specific disadvantage, but it’s just that they are already vulnerable. So, it makes that vulnerability even more pronounced.
Kirti Manian (15:31): This is so true, this is so very true. I am going to move away from this and look at social media and how you have talked about climate grief on Instagram for instance. I am curious to know how the reception has been, have people been accepting of you, has it been that and then suddenly you are writing about climate change? Has that been a thing or are they more accepting of you because you have been talking about it, about climate change in that sense?
Neelima Vallangi (15:55): So, I did not find any resistance from people following me when I started talking about climate change because that’s also been kind of my personality that I don’t talk about travel all the time.
Kirti Manian (16:06): Yeah.
Neelima Vallangi (16:07): It’s always something that is adjacent. So, it’s like if I see inequality in travel, then inequality features very highly in all the posts that I put up on Instagram. Or if it’s like some kind of environmental disruption, then that also features, not in a very serious way but I think that’s consistently been my personality that you know, I don’t talk about just for travel sake. So, it’s always, it brings some of the other issues but not in depth. So, it was not a very big shift when I said I am going to talk about climate change because at that point they were already used to this kind of a personality where she does not talk about one thing exclusively but it’s like a mix of different issues and, yeah. So, there was no resistance, definitely the response has been like super encouraging. And everything that has happened so far has happened because of the response that I got from those initial posts where people were really open to having these discussions and, you know just trying to understand this and even acknowledging this as a problem. So, definitely the response has been very encouraging.
Kirti Manian (17:06): Do you think people get visual fatigue, like when you look at Instagram and for instance, in your case it’s different, but people just see constantly, look at that, you know and typical image people have like polar bear, a starving polar bear somewhere right. Do you think people kind of get fed up, like, why is it always floods, why is it always images that are being thrown at people in that sense?
Neelima Vallangi (17:28): I wouldn’t say it is visual fatigue as such, that’s definitely a failure of the media to have a better strategy to like talk about climate change. So, they were like focused on some things which made it kind of repetitive and disconnected from reality. But the fatigue is real. And I think it’s not about what images they are seeing, but I would say it’s in terms of constantly seeing only impacts and no solutions. With climate change there are no straight forward solutions which makes it even more challenging to engage with a problem consistently. Like even if you are worried about it and you are concerned about it, after a while you feel like there is literally nothing that you can do because when you understand the problem, it probably feels like, you know it is totally out of our hands, at least out of our individual hands.
So, then you are left with this feeling of helplessness and despair. So, I think that’s where the fatigue comes from. So, if we have more transparent discussions on what is causing the problem, why is it so difficult to solve climate change and complete uncertain, twisted, untrodden path we have ahead of us. If we discuss more about these things then I think it may help allaying some of that fatigue. I mean we are in unprecedented times and unchartered quarters. So, all of us have to simply embrace the uncertainty and work with that. But if you don’t acknowledge that uncertainty, then it feels like you are just showing impacts which are not scary, but you know, there is like nothing you can do about this, there is no way even to like make sense of these feelings. So, that definitely causes the fatigue, which brings me to the point about climate grief that you asked.
Kirti Manian (19:10): Yeah.
Neelima Vallangi (19:11): So, I think climate grief is like a double edged sword, it’s both talking about climate grief is like kind of a double edged sword for me at least. On one hand people who have been in the throes of climate or ecological grief already, they found solidarity and shared comfort when I also started taking about it openly.
On the other hand, there were several others who have been introduced to this feeling only through my post, or maybe recognized this as what they were feeling after I started talking about it. And they are now in a situation where they are unable to deal with this inescapable, ever present fear and concern for the future. And I personally believe there is no escaping climate grief anymore because we have fundamentally altered the climate and we are going to face the consequences in any case. So, we might as well learn to live with it by learning to accepting the reality and managing the grief.
Kirti Manian (20:01): And in that context when you talk on social media, I have been reading your newsletters, so, I know how you present that in newsletters. But on social media what do you think is like the grim reality kind of being thrown at you, what’s the best way to keep it on social media actually?
Neelima Vallangi (20:17): I would say this, just embrace the uncertainty and the grief and do not hide it, because there is no solution to this at this point. I mean there are pathways to reach there, but the implementation is not going to be straight forward. And it will need a lot of experimentation, it will need a lot of innovations, it will need a lot of reconfiguring the existing systems. So, there is a lot of uncertainty involved in just trying to deal with this situation. So, I think it would just be best if we just present it as it is instead of thinking like the audience is incapable of making sense of this kind of difficult emotions. Because by hiding scale of the crisis and the urgency of the crisis and the challenge of it all, I don’t think we are doing anyone any favour. We are just giving false hope which I think is very wrong because right now we are in a very bad situation and I think we need to just acknowledge that we are in this bad situation and it’s going to be a challenge ahead of us.
Kirti Manian (21:19): Got it.
Neelima Vallangi (21:19): I think honesty is the best way.
Kirti Manian (21:21): Right, okay. And in this context what do you think about the quality of the climate change narrative that’s reported in the Indian media? I am just curious to know like what do you think Indian audiences need to understand much better about climate change, and do you think it’s a personal touch, it will make them think you be like it could happen to me….. what would you like to change about it?
Neelima Vallangi (21:41): I must say climate change coverage in India media is non-existent. It’s not there. So, everything that I have learnt, I have learnt from Twitter which is a great platform, because all these scientists keep talking about it. And I think, yeah, most of what I have learnt is from there. Once I see their conversations, I get some bits and parts and then, you know, then I come back and read more on my own from the international organizations who are working on climate change. So, it hasn’t been easy to like learn all of this on my own as someone who is not coming from an academic background working on climate change.
As a journalist, I think it was a very steep learning curve for me, and I learnt all of it only from the international media and the international scientists’ community. So, then extrapolating what that means for India became a little bit of a challenge because in India we don’t have this kind of coverage at all. So, it was like some papers here or some papers there and it was not easy. So, I would say yeah, we don’t have proper climate change coverage in India at all. We don’t have any newspaper that has a climate change beat, we don’t have a famous climate change journalist. So, yeah, right now I would say it’s non-existent.
But I will say that there are some specialized publications, like Down to Earth or Mongabay or Third Pole that do a little bit of reporting on climate change, but that’s not for a general audience or for general awareness. They do good work if we consider that. They are covering climate change, so, that is good. But the problem in covering climate change is that it’s both a global and a local problem at once, So, most stories tend to cover the localized impacts which do not mean much unless they are connected to the big picture. And unless we have a clear idea of a big picture, it is impossible to comprehend the scale and urgency of the crisis.
So, a glacier melting in itself might not mean much for the whole world or, you know, for even us as a country if a glacier is melting in Himalayas. It really does not mean much for us here. But what does it mean for us is that majority of glaciers are melting worldwide and how that will affect fresh water availability for millions of people. A cyclone hitting a coast might seem like a standalone event, but what does it mean for us when cyclones are forming rapidly, intensifying suddenly and that rate goes much more than they used to before. And this is happening worldwide again.
So, the fundamental idea behind any good storytelling practice is to focus on a single character, event or community, so we are able to generate empathy in the audience. But that in it fails us miserably when it comes to climate change coverage because a story where hundreds to millions of people are affected is news and not an emotional story that stays with you on a personal level. But if we focus on one person or community, then it is seen as an individual tragedy and not a global problem. So, the challenge then is in covering the climate crisis that we have to tell stories that are intimate, highlighting the threat of climate change, and then connect it all with the global roots of the problem.
So, this is what I’d like to see a lot more of. So, if you see someone, a farmer suffering somewhere, you feel like it’s an individual tragedy or something, but, you know, it still has to be connected to like why this is happening and what are the global causes that are causing these impacts to this farmer and how it affects all of us. Even storytelling wise it’s a very difficult challenge which is why, yeah, I think there’s been not much progress on coverage in India.
Kirti Manian (25:14): You have explained it really well and it sounds so complex at the same time, right. Like you are talking about something as simple as how do we get people to relate with the people that are being talked about in this story, and at the same time understand that there are, these are the things that could happen very well to you as well as a person, right. So, you have explained it really, really well.
I want to talk about climate activism and Greta Thunberg herself has said that school strikes have achieved nothing. The greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 4% since 2015. Do you think informed climate activism will or should become a thing in India, and do you feel this kind of activism can actually have an impact?
Neelima Vallangi (25:52): Definitely. So, like I said before, India being highly vulnerable to climate hazards, we need a lot more climate activism so that the current policy recommendations will take into account the future implications of climate risks. We cannot randomly invest in coal or destroy ecosystems without considering how these will become a problem for current and future generations.
Unfortunately, that vision seems entirely missing in our current leadership. And I think youth is in a good position morally and practically to demand that from the government. So, yeah, and I am really happy to see, I mean, it’s a very nascent movement at this point, but I am happy to see it just start, and I am looking forward to where it leads to, because unless the public gets involved, the governments will not change anything. So, I think, I mean that’s how our democracy fundamentally works towards right, you tell them what you want. So, unless we tell them this is what we want, we are not going to see the changes that we want.
So, yeah, definitely we need a lot more climate activism in India. And I also believe it will have an impact because if you see the monumental shift that happened between last year and this year on how the entire world perceived climate change, it’s entirely because of the youth climate movement globally.
Kirti Manian (27:09): Yeah.
Neelima Vallangi (27:09): They were also able to get a lot of policy reforms in their countries. So, definitely there is a lot of potential, and yeah, we need to see a lot more activism for sure in India because, yeah, we are going to be battered by climate impacts left, right, centre.
Kirti Manian (27:27): As you called it your bingo card, man I can’t [laughing] get over that.
Neelima Vallangi (27:30): Yes.
Kirti Manian (27:30): I am sorry, I really cannot get over that [laughing].
Neelima Vallangi (27:34): That perfectly defines our situation.
Kirti Manian (27:37): It really does. So, now to my last question. You have said you don’t want to sugarcoat the apocalypse that is happening right now. Does anything we do matter at all? And lastly, if you still think we can do something about the climate crisis, what is your call of action to our listeners?
Neelima Vallangi (27:55): Of course, it matters what we do. We created the problem, so it is also within our ability to solve this problem if we want to. So, we need to understand that tackling climate change is not an individual problem to be solved on a personal level. It is a collective responsibility. And the entire discourse is based on taking things away from people and policing their chassis, we are not going to make much progress. But when we collectively demand for the systems to change so that people can live a sustainable low carbon lifestyle without destroying the planet, that would be how we can affect a positive change.
For example, heat is going to be a huge problem in the coming years, I mean it already is, but obviously a lot more people, they’ll be facing these heat waves and they’ll also possibly have economic independence to actually afford an AC because yeah, we are trying to raise all these people out of poverty. So, then if we ask people not to have air conditioning to save the planet, that is a counter intuitive solution, that is not going to work.
But let’s say if the industry develops energy efficient devices, and then it is easier for people to simply adapt to these low carbon alternatives. Same with vehicular emissions. If we are asking people to give up personal vehicles without providing good public transportation alternatives, that is going to backfire as well. So, this is where the challenge lies in reimagining how we live without sacrificing our development or others’ rights and still reduce our overall emissions rapidly. Yeah, I mean this is a wild problem, but it is what it is and you are stuck with it. So, now we need to think of how we can collectively address these challenges without leaving anyone behind.
Kirti Manian (29:36): Oh, I like that thought a lot, I like the thought of first collectively asking for suggestions and second about not leaving people behind because that always inevitably does tend to happen.
Neelima Vallangi (29:45): Right.
Kirti Manian (29:46): So, I like those lines of thought. Thank you so much Neelima. I have had a lovely time talking to you and I am sure our listeners have learnt a whole lot as well. So, thank you very much for making that time, we really appreciate it.
Neelima Vallangi (29:57): Thanks, Kirti, I had a really great time talking to you about all of this too.
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