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Why South Asian Americans Are Speaking Out About Climate Change

When islands disappear in Bangladesh or crops fail in India, we're not looking at abstract numbers, but at people who may be part of our extended families

On Sunday, I was at the People's Climate March in New York City, learning, sharing, and marching with three generations of South Asian American activists to the beat of dhols (drums). It was an emotionally charged day. I have been working as an organizer within the South Asian community and as a landscape architect for over a decade, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I fully understood how these two identities came together. South Asian Americans embody the dilemma of climate change. Our home countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are among the most climate-impacted in the world, but we live our lives in a nation that's the single biggest historical emitter of greenhouse gases.

South Asians contingent at the People’s Climate MarchPhoto courtesy Brown and Green: South Asians for Climate Justice South Asian Americans — whose home countries are among the most climate-impacted in the world, yet who live in a nation that’s the single biggest historical emitter greenhouse gases — embody one of the dilemma’s of climate change.

When the People's Climate March was announced, my group, San Francisco Bay Area-based Brown and Green: South Asians for Climate Justice knew we needed to be there to help amplify voices from the global frontlines and to add our voices and perspectives to the climate justice movement.

Some of us may be America's doctors and engineers, cab drivers and motel owners, but we are defined by more than our professions. According to a 2012 survey, 67 percent of Indian Americans consider themselves environmentalists, and 69 percent would prioritize the environment over the economy. Our values are far greener than many other sections of the American population.

Most of us are also recent immigrants, tracing our roots in the US to after 1965 (when the legacy of racist anti-Asian immigration laws ended in the wake of the Civil Rights movement). That means when there's climate-linked flooding in Kashmir, sea level rise in Bangladesh, crop failures in India, or glacial lake outburst floods in the Himalayas, we're not looking at abstract climate-impacted communities, but at people who look like us, who might be part of our extended families, with whom we share language, religion, or other cultural touchstones.

We make up 1 percent of America, and if activated, we have an opportunity to help shift our national conversation around global environmental and climate justice. And the conversation is beginning. Yesterday’s event brought together the South Asians for Climate Justice contingent — 11 South Asians groups coming together to develop a shared analysis and participate in the People’s Climate March together.

The South Asians for Climate Justice contingent marched under the larger banner of  "Frontlines of Crisis, Forefront of Change," following indigenous communities, domestic workers, migrant workers, and other frontline communities. Participants carried signs in a variety of South Asian languages, and marched to the beat of drums. The contingent looked like our community usually does: Sikh college students, climate researchers, domestic workers, queer activists, parents coming to support their children, professors, poets, Pakistanis, Indo-Caribbeans, Californians, Canadians, mixed-race folks, reporters, aunties, dhol players, and more.

Many of the participating groups have deep roots in the community. The Bangladesh Environment Network has been working to connect the global Bangladeshi diaspora with environmental issues and movements in Bangladesh since 1998, providing scientific, financial, and organizational support to groups back home. EcoSikh, founded in 2009, puts the Sikh faith’s ecological values into action in an age of climate change. Both groups enjoy substantial name recognition and support in their respective communities.

Other groups were newer to the issue, but made the connection between local and global. Many members of the New York-based Indo-Caribbean Alliance connected to the climate justice movement as survivors of Hurricane Sandy. Members of Chhaya CDC, which advocates for housing and economic opportunities for South Asian immigrants in New York, saw climate change as robbing communities around the world of their support systems, whether in New York or in their homelands.

Members of Brown and Green and other affiliated South Asian organizations also gathered at a parallel event in Oakland, California. One member, a researcher working on climate models held aloft a sign saying “I’m South Asian. I did the maths.”— a reference to Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” article (note: South Asian use the British short form of “Mathematics” which ends with an “s”). Others carried a large banner saying “Capitalism = Imperialism = Inequality = Climate Chaos,” followed by a shared hashtag: #DecolonizeTheClimate.

South Asia is climate ground zero, and our actions in the US can either reduce the risk or further endanger 1.7 billion people in the Indian subcontinent. That means every time we take action in the US to vote for climate leaders, shut down another dirty energy facility, divest from mega-polluters, or reinvest in real solutions, we achieve a double victory — not only helping communities in the US but also communities in our homelands. Whether through faith or community, research or activism, South Asian Americans are embedded within the climate justice movement.

Barnali Ghosh
Barnali Ghosh is a San Francisco Bay Area climate activist, landscape architect, and radical history tour guide. She organizes with Brown and Green: South Asians for Climate Justice. In 2009-2010 she traveled around the world without flying to draw attention to the impacts of aviation while documenting the work of people working on solutions to the climate crisis. She is a board member of TransForm, a California transit, walking and biking advocacy group.

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