Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard

Harvard Kennedy School of Government | Harvard University

A Conversation with Sunita Narain

A Conversation with Sunita Narain:
Politics of Science and Technology in Climate-Changed Worlds
Harvard Kennedy School of Government

The year was 2005. The Supreme Court had yet to reject EPA’s “laundry list of reasons” for why it should not regulate carbon emissions. Carbon emissions had yet to be declared “air pollutants” under the Clean Air Act. The Conference of the Parties had yet to improve its negotiation process in the run-up to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP 21). The IPCC had yet to publish its Fourth (or Fifth) Assessment, affirm evidence for human-induced climate change as “unequivocal,” or win a Nobel Prize. A Corporate Watch rally and a document co-authored by Sunita Narain had yet to see the full force of a global movement of communities, indigenous peoples, women, and farmers. In these foregrounding days to the present crisis, Sunita Narain sat for an interview with a science journal.

In a two-page, printed version of the interview, she had much to say about the relational elements that limited governance and sustainable development. About infrastructure, she said,

“You have from all evidence been able to manage your water systems. But your answers are not particularly our answers. My message is, therefore: Please do not preach. Please do not push these as the solutions that will work in our part of the world. And do this with humility. We all need a lot more humility in advocating solutions and approaches.”

About decentralizing technologies such as rainwater harvesting, which her Centre for Science and Environment had promoted for decades, she said,

“The problem has been much more to break through the technocratic, bureaucratic systems that exist in any country, to be able to drive a new idea, particularly one that doesn’t bring in too much money and is going to be much more complicated in its delivery systems initially…You are talking about creating institutions of people, an idea which weakens the role of bureaucracies. It is not something that any bureaucracy is very keen on.”

It was a stunning interview for the ground that it covered, and for its message that our politics of science and technology must be rethought, reformed, or forsaken. Time passed. The IPCC won its Nobel. EPA was told to get to work, and, begrudgingly, it did. The climate justice movement coalesced. The Paris Agreement was ratified. Decarbonization strategies were prepared. The largest tribal uprising in decades, led by the Standing Rock Sioux and drawing hundreds of tribes, opposed the final segment of a $4B pipeline and sent cries of “Mni Wiconi” to the ends of the earth. Thousands of subnational leaders pledged “We Are Still In” after regime change in the United States.

And yet, the Paris Agreement bases climate adaptation on “the best available science, and as appropriate, traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples, and local knowledge systems,” an uneasy demarcation. The Dakota Access Pipeline is operational, connecting Bakken oil fields to a tank farm in Illinois. The Clean Power Plan is a testament to administrative rationality, and little more – it will likely be repealed. We witnessed the collapse of infrastructure in the heart of the Global North. Cities and towns are described as “the next Flint, Michigan” after a crisis the Michigan Civil Rights Commission found was rooted in systemic racism and unconscious bias. Unconventional energy redraws rail, terminal, pipeline, and other infrastructure across farms and forests, sagebrush steppe and sacred lands alike.

In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Jose and Maria, crises spread in unexpected ways and unite new communities, on the ground and in digital space, and shape unlikely allies, claims, and solutions with unprecedented velocity. Rallies against regulatory neglect reach a fevered pitch. But there remain politics of science and technology that we do not get right, or that we ignore, or that silently strip the work that is getting done of its full spectrum of possibility. On December 5, 2017, members of the Harvard community met with Sunita Narain as well as a panel of scholars including Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard University), Janelle Knox-Hayes (MIT), Adil Najam (Boston University), and Noelle Selin (MIT) for a conversation moderated by Gregg Macey. The workshop began with a purposefully broad question, based on Narain’s words from the Environmental Science and Technology interview: How can our politics of science and technology – our ability to address the uptake of decentralized technology as “creating institutions of people,” approach infrastructure and other systems development with “humility,” or open the halls of bureaucracy to civil society and local and indigenous knowledge – meet the challenges of the present crisis?

Climate-Changed Commons Governance

The workshop focused on four themes that animate Narain’s work. The first is “Climate-Changed Commons Governance.” The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) works on several core issues, including air pollution, “making water everybody’s business,” food and water safety, and effective and equitable climate governance. A theme that links these issues is commons governance and the absence of “smart regulatory institutions” to manage them.

For example, in 1991, Narain published Global Warming in an Unequal World with CSE’s founder, Anil Agarwal. They argue that using per country emissions to allocate carbon emissions quotas is an example of “environmental colonialism,” because it ignores historical responsibility for the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, discounts the gap in energy intensity of economies and lifestyles between the developed and developing world, shifts attention to increased energy use and deforestation in countries such as India, and fails to distinguish between “basic needs” emissions and “luxury” emissions. Narain and Agarwal present alternative models for how to share commons, such as allocating the earth’s absorptive capacity on a per capita basis (which at the time would have given India 16% of the world’s absorptive capacity, which was more than the country’s annual carbon emissions). In addition, they call for the world to develop other alternative models, algorithms by which the right to “subsistence emissions” could be protected.

CSE’s work on and advocacy for such models to equitably share the carbon budget and “operationalize equity” in climate agreements continues to the present. In “Sunita Narain Analyzes the Paris Agreement,” we get a sense of why Narain ultimately said this of COP 21: “the world literally scraped the bottom of the barrel to tie up a weak and unambitious agreement to control climate change.” In part, this is because the developed world may, under the Paris Agreement, continue to disproportionately “appropriate carbon space” and swiftly eliminate much of the remaining carbon budget before Nationally Determined Contributions are reconsidered, revised, and resubmitted in a few years.
In this and more regional attempts to govern commons, a pattern emerges: (1) A problem is identified (such as severe particulate matter concentrations in the Delhi airshed); (2) a range of contributing factors are identified, sometimes through great effort on the part of NGOs such as CSE (e.g., vehicle traffic, diesel emissions, power plants, dust on roads, construction, burning garbage and crop residue); (3) parties claim that they are “only 1% of the problem” of the commons resource at risk; (4) compromises are reached that fail to share land, water, or air within limits with a growing number of people; and then (5) climate change presents a qualitatively different challenge that swamps an existing compromise (e.g., the changing nature of monsoons that leads to dense fog that limits air dispersion at ground level; the growing frequency of floods in times of drought). We have yet to develop or adequately implement the kinds of approaches to “climate-changed” commons governance or “algorithms” that Narain and Agarwal called for more than 25 years ago.

Technology in Context and Commons

Technology is central to Narain’s work on commons governance. It must be designed, adopted, and managed in light of not only changing nature, but also the “soft power” of nature and local control over it. The soft power of nature can be found in weaker, distributed power such as solar and rainfall versus concentrated power such as aquifers and coal. For example, in India, hundreds of millions of people are involved in farming, live in rural areas, and rely on rainfed agriculture and forests for fuel. Narain argues that these farmers, “through their intensive use of natural resources, are not responsible for environmental degradation. It is the extensive use of resources on a commercial scale, involving highly energy-intensive and extractive industrial methods” that is to blame. To oppose concentrated power, CSE promotes technologies that “create institutions of people.” These technologies are designed for distributed populations that interact with commons sustained by the soft power of nature.

For example, CSE won the Stockholm Water Prize for their work to promote decentralized water management, or rainwater harvesting – the capture and storage of rainwater in tanks, ponds, and rooftops to recharge groundwater for irrigation and drinking water during times of low rainfall or drought. Narain describes rainwater harvesting as putting technology “into the hands of people.” But it must be done with appreciation for context (e.g., the soft power of nature, changing nature) as well as development that encourages participation in management of scarce resources shared within limits among growing numbers of people. This challenge plays out repeatedly in the work of CSE, not only in watersheds through adoption of rainwater harvesting technology, but also with mundane objects such as air conditioners, which CSE found were certified according to test standards that assumed temperatures that are increasingly exceeded in India. When a temperature of 45 degrees Celsius is reached, “5-star” air conditioners function with the energy efficiency of “1-star” machines. Other technologies, such as electric vehicles, have unintended consequences when promoted without context or commons in mind, such as when policies in India encourage the use of diesel hybrid cars.

But when technologies are developed and adopted with context and commons in mind, Narain points out that the “answers and options change.” Electric vehicles can be reframed as e-mobility in a region where most people do not own cars and “chaotic” traffic – pedestrians, cyclists, para-transit, and public transit in shared space – when designed around the relative prevalence and needs of user groups, can move more people more efficiently than roads designed for growing single-passenger vehicle trips. Water shortage, ailing, expensive-to-replace pipelines, and vulnerable aquifers can be reframed as watershed protection through decentralized rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge, and storage for irrigation and drinking in times of drought. Expensive, concentrated sewage treatment plants that municipal governments cannot afford to maintain can be reframed as a challenge of ecological flow, or how to shift extraction of water upstream or downstream to maintain sufficient flow and dilution for common river use. When viewed in light of context and commons, and when advanced in ways that “create institutions of people,” technology may yield, in Narain’s words, “leapfrog answers” that are well ahead of their time. We discussed the roles that engineers, planners, and policymakers can play to design and harness technologies that create institutions of people while respecting context and commons.

Infrastructure and Perverse Policy

Narain is also deeply concerned about infrastructure and systems, and the policies that interact with them in “perverse” ways. Examples include pollution control that shrinks the size of particulate matter and raises new public health concerns, or river embankments and dams that allow silt to accumulate and threaten a watershed. Systems and infrastructure shift or concentrate risk in ways that are unexpected but also create opportunities for what Narain calls the “environmentalism of the poor.” Narain argues that while the rich engage in NIMBY in order to push a problem away (such as through shipment of hazardous waste from the US to Africa in the 1980s before the Basel Convention), resistance to shifting risk by the poor is grounded in arguments that waste has to be managed differently. We see these arguments in the Principles of Environmental Justice as well as in the Bali Principles of Climate Justice.

One of the starkest examples emerged as CSE tried to make sense of air quality in Delhi and elsewhere over the last two decades. Narain argues that “we know the causes of air pollution, but in the political theatrics around it, each solution suggested is contested.” The fact is, at least one of the causes proved elusive until CSE set to work. The subject was a refinery byproduct called pet coke. The US has the world’s largest refinery capacity, leaving it with 36m tons of the byproduct to sell in a given year. The approval of new systems such as the Dakota Access Pipeline is an example of “carbon lock-in,” or infrastructure that ensures the cost-effectiveness or reliance on fossil fuels such as tar sands for one or more generations. It also increases the supply of pet coke, once refineries in the Midwest and along the Gulf Coast accommodate dirtier fuels such as tar sands. With increased supply, the price of pet coke crashes. India now imports about 10m tons of pet coke per year.

Reformulated fuels regulations in the US contribute to greater sulfur content in pet coke, as sulfur is removed from oil and left in the waste product. CSE tests found that pet coke has sulfur content of 65,000-75,000 parts per million (ppm), compared to vehicle emissions standards in India that have fallen from 50 ppm to 10 ppm. CSE investigated who in the National Capital Region was buying and using such fuels. They learned that pet coke and furnace oil are exempt from state taxes and are cheaper given policy shifts in the US and China and growing refinement of tar sands. Oil and gas infrastructure battles run their course from Alberta to Northern California to the Great Plains to the Gulf Coast, as infrastructure interacts with policy in perverse ways to transfer pollution from one product to another and send it abroad. The cheaper fuels are used by industry to such an extent that coal-fired and natural gas power plants in parts of India run at 20% capacity. Sulfur emissions from industry use of high-sulfur fuels to generate power in furnaces and other operating units are converted into particulates when they interact with air and moisture, and a public health emergency ensues.

The “environmentalism of the poor” is now global, as the principles of environmental and climate justice make clear. Civil society is increasingly aware of how fights over local land use are linked to infrastructure that interacts with policy in perverse ways and shifts risks across the globe. We hear this as participants in refinery healing walks and tribal uprisings over pipelines describe the scope of the problems they face and why they are involved. Waste must be managed differently, not merely shifted around, is what increasingly diverse alliances argue in increasingly rich ways. We discussed the growing awareness of infrastructure that by its design, placement, and interaction with policy can shift and concentrate pollution, even before NIMBY is triggered in wealthier pockets of the world.

Local Knowledge and Serviceable Truths

Narain has two strong convictions about knowledge that she stresses in talks and through her writing. First, “they know what to do.” Narain says that the environmentalism of the poor is based on deep local knowledge: “They know that when the land is mined and trees are cut, their water source dries up or they lose grazing and agricultural land. They know they are poor. And they are saying, loudly and as clearly as they can, that what others call development will only make them poorer.” With local knowledge as a foundation, we can address climate-changed commons governance, develop decentralizing technologies that respect context, and challenge infrastructure in light of its ability to lock in, shift, and concentrate risk at regional and global scales. At the same time, Narain notes that “We don’t know methods of moving ahead. We don’t know what to do…how to do it. I know today that if you want to have cleaner air in Delhi, you need to reinvent mobility, but we don’t know how to do it.” This tension, between recognition of the role of local knowledge in averting ecological crisis, and our inability to take action at the appropriate pace or scale, suggests that we have much to do to reconcile local knowledge and scientific knowledge.

We’ve been aware for some time that scientific and technical professions contribute to injustice and unsustainable development. For example, technologies result in concentrated energy and chemical production in facilities that are difficult to inspect or monitor, that are incompatible with public oversight, and that disperse benefits and while concentrating costs. But now we are in a time of transition. CSE is at the forefront of several of these – green energy, low-carbon, and epidemiological, to name a few. Each transition moves in fits and starts as it attempts to recognize and respect local knowledge, the crucial linkages that local knowledge allows people to draw, and the new forms of development that local knowledge can promote and with which it is compatible. This raises the notion of “serviceable truths.” Sheila Jasanoff defines them as “a state of knowledge that satisfies tests of scientific acceptability and supports reasoned decision making, but also assures those exposed to risk that their interests have not been sacrificed on the altar of an impossible scientific certainty.” Serviceable truths question the role of science as prior, or the creation of “high-quality knowledge [a]s the most important goal to be served.” Narain’s work over 35 years inspires us to reconceive development, pollution control, and other challenges as the design of serviceable truths.