Sunita Narain, a Delhi-based environmentalist, activist, author, Director General of Center for Science and Environment (CSE) and editor of the fortnightly magazine, Down To Earth, received the prestigious Edinburgh Medal.

Edinburgh Medal is an award presented to women and men of science who are judged to have made a significant contribution to the understanding and wellbeing of humanity; previous recipients include Prof Jane Goodall and Sir David Attenborough.

Here is Sunita’s Medal Address which she gave at a ceremony on Wednesday, 18 November:

“Thank you so much, Lord Provost, and good afternoon everyone. I am delighted to be here today to accept the Edinburgh Medal for 2020. I am only sorry that I am not there physically in your beautiful and gracious city which has given me this honour and privilege. The Edinburgh Medal for 2020 is, in my view, a reminder of our tumultuous times and the need to make transformational changes in our world. So thank you, once again, for this honour.

It is clear that climate change could not happen at a worse time in human history. Every year we are told it is the hottest year, till the next year comes around. It is getting worse year after year. From forest fires, to increasing frequency and intensity of storms, to blistering cold waves and spiralling heat. But we are so distracted – today from COVID-19 to yesterday’s economic crisis and the daily skirmishes that are raging across our countries. Climate change simply does not seem to be a priority and we don’t have the bandwidth to handle it.

But we must. The fact is climate change is real; it is happening and it is making the poor in our world even more marginalized and even more insecure. In an increasingly unequitable and climate-risked world poor people find that they cannot cope anymore. They have no option but to migrate – from villages to cities to new countries. This will make the already volatile politics of immigration even more nasty and will feed insecurity, not just of the poor but also of the already rich.

What we find today, however, is that instead of taking tough and decisive action, the world is finding new ways not to act at the scale and the speed that is needed. So, I want to discuss today what must be done in our world – to make it less insecure, less angry and less carbon-risked. Remember, climate change is a great equalizer. It will affect the rich and the poor. So, what must we do? What must we do when we understand that our sheer existence is at stake, nothing less?

Let’s also note that this future impending climate crisis will be much worse than today’s COVID-19 disruption. This itself is unprecedented; a tiny virus has brought the entire world to its knees. You can call it the revenge of nature. I believe that COVID-19 and its shock therapy should be a wake-up call. It should teach us what we must do better in the post-COVID world.

In many ways you could argue that our world is paying for years of procrastination and prevarication. Today multiple back-breaking crises are unfolding, simply because we did not fix what was broken in the past. We are confronted with COVID-19, which is leading to a health crisis and economic collapse, destroying the livelihoods of the poorest and the most vulnerable. As we can see from the upheaval across the world – whether it’s in India or in the United States or in Britain or in the UK – the poor have been disproportionately hit by the virus. They have suffered twice: they have lost lives to the contagion and they have lost livelihoods.

But even as this health and livelihood crisis is unfolding in front of our eyes, there is another disaster which is taking place: climate change. We can see the impacts of this in my country, India. This year, even as India battled the virus, it was hit repeatedly by cyclones, which devastated lives and property. Then came floods because of extreme rain events. We know the aftermath of these events is worse because it takes away the development dividend and years of public investment into building infrastructure to improve the lives of the poor. It cripples local economies; makes communities poorer and more vulnerable. This year, we have even seen attacks from locusts, which are, again, destroying the fields and livelihoods of farmers – and these disasters are multiplying and magnifying the human distress because of COVID-19.

The link to climate change of these disparate events is incontrovertible. Today it is that the poor of the world who are worst hit; they are victims of COVID-19 and they are victims of climate change – the poor who are not responsible for the stock of emissions in the atmosphere; but are at the frontline of the devastation. We need to remember this.

We need to remember this because COVID-19 has taught us that the world, our world, is interconnected and interdependent; we are as strong as the strongest link; or as weak as the weakest. The poor are hit today but if the disease survives we will all be in danger.

This is the same as climate change. If the rich continue to pollute; do not create space for the poor to grow; it will simply not work. We need cooperation, we need equity and we need climate justice.

This is something that we have learnt in my country, in my own city of Delhi. My city of Delhi is battling the battle of its life to combat toxic air pollution, which is filling up our skies and damaging our lungs. But we know in Delhi that air pollution is a great equalizer – it hits the rich and it hits the poor. All the air purifiers in the world cannot save us; we need strategies for clean combustion and this must be affordable for all. The fact is today, if the poor woman uses biomass to cook her food, because she has no alternative, the smoke from her cook stove will go into the airshed where all of us breathe. We need clean energy for all. If the industrialist continues to use coal because the cost of clean energy is too expensive then again, it will not work, so we need to discuss access to clean energy for all; for clean air for all. We need to discuss affordable and convenient mobility for all; for clean air for all. We cannot keep investing in private transport which meets the needs of some; we need transformational solutions in Delhi, and if I may say so, also in Edinburgh.

This is the same as the need for investments in public health, water or sanitation. We have made systems that work for some; then, all will be at risk. In this case, my flush toilet is linked to underground sewerage; it takes my excreta to a treatment plant; but the bulk of my city is still not connected; their waste goes untreated into the same river, and so the end result is pollution. And what we have learned from the COVID-19 health pandemic is that we need to ensure clean water to all. This is the biggest determinant of public health and wellbeing.

I say this to you and I talk about air pollution in my city and the need for clean water because of the fact that what we have learnt is that the strategies for environmental management must be inclusive and affordable for all, and only when they are inclusive for all can they be sustainable. This then points us to the action we need on climate change. For too long we have talked about

working on climate change without considering the needs of the poorest in the world, and that really is something we need to repair and change.

So, in the end, COVID-19 is the result of our progressively worsening dystopian relationship with nature. It is also the result of years of lost time, when we could have invested in public health and building a more equitable society where the poor are not doubly hit. It is the same with climate change and every other issue that stares us today. Too much time is wasted in denial or not just getting our act together to act at the speed and scale that is needed, but let’s remember today: we do not have the luxury of time anymore. My generation has squandered that privilege away.

So what do we do? This is where, post-COVID, there is the opportunity to reimagine work and production. On the one hand we can build local economies and resilient futures and on the other hand we can create value for work, which then reduces consumption as the cost of production will increase. If we reinvent work and production we will combat climate change.

First, we need to improve the management of our land and water. We need to build the wealth for the poorest and improve livelihoods. And, by doing this, we mitigate greenhouse gases, as growing trees sequester carbon dioxide; improving soil health captures carbon dioxide and most importantly, changes in practices of agriculture and diets will reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. This is where the answer will lie.

We also have to invest deliberately in the economies of the poor; we have to build their capacities so they cannot just withstand the next calamity, but indeed overcome the calamity. We must invest in creating ecological assets – from rainwater harvesting to better food systems that are resilient. We must also redefine what we mean by resilience and this is where the technocratic modern world needs a rethink of the way we consider resilience. Often high-input agricultural systems are seen to be productive, but they are less resilient. Farmers are more vulnerable to shocks when their debts are high. We need, therefore, to understand the strength of smallholder agricultural systems that are multi-crop, low-input and built for shocks. We must strengthen those and not replace them with ours. The knowledge of the poor is not poor. They are illiterate but they are not resource illiterate. Our effort must be to learn and not just give.

Secondly, let’s define the future of production; redefine the future of production. The biggest problem of our contemporary world’s economic model is how it has discounted the cost of labour and of environment. When the world signed the agreement for combatting climate change in the early nineties, it also signed on the free-trade agreements that were built on taking production to where it is cheapest to produce. We have in this model disregarded the cost of environmental protection and we must correct this. In India, we have seen how workers have gone back home during the COVID-19 crisis and their value as producers has become visible. Today, the Indian government and Indian industry recognizes the need for investment and the need to invest in the wellbeing of labour. This will increase costs. But this is good, not bad. So, we have to talk about this. We have to talk about how we can move beyond a consumption-based economic model?

If we work seriously on this, we can also find, we will find solutions to climate change, which is definitely the biggest catastrophe that will hit humankind and is hitting us already today. It is not about investments in renewables, even though that is important; it is about investment in energy access for the poor; it is about building local and resilient economies and moving beyond consumption-led growth.

I say this because I see new efforts to find half-solutions to the problem of climate change. The latest buzzword is ‘net-zero’ – which really means that the world is going to delay action and find a new way to be able to reduce its emissions in 2050 by arguing that it will be ‘net-zero’, and net-zero means that we will live within the planetary boundaries. We will not emit more than what the planet can absorb through the global and national sinks. But we have not calculated what it will mean to live within this ‘assimilative’ capacity of the planet. We have massively transgressed the natural boundary, and so by saying that we will be net-zero in 2050, it seems to be an easy sell. Today there is some comfort in saying this because it staves off the inevitable pain – it pushes the action to the next generation and after. But we know we cannot buy ourselves out of this crisis. We need to act; and action has to be transformational. To live within a net-zero climate future means that we have to drastically reduce emissions in our world; create the space for the poor countries for their economic growth; and still be able to plant all the trees in the world which can absorb our carbon dioxide. It’s a tall challenge, and that is why it is important for us to be real. It is important for us to understand the urgency and the need for action.

Consider what has happened in the US: energy-related emissions are down 30 percent in the past decade in the United States. They have shifted from coal to shale gas, a massive opportunity for the world to have seen a real reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But the country will still miss its small Paris commitments – commitments that are totally disproportionate to the contribution to the problem. Why? Because the United States, even though it has seen a 30 percent reduction in its energy-related emissions it has increased its emissions in every other sector, from transport to industry, and this is because the cost of energy is so low. Unless we change this – unless we understand the need for taking drastic action, we cannot combat climate change, and if the US fails, if large polluters fail, then all of us fail.

I know when I say this, it sounds defeatist; pessimistic even. But no. I say this because I believe that we can and must do better. In these COVID-19 times we have seen disorder and disruption at a scale that we never imagined, and so we need the same scale to fix what is broken in our relationship with nature. The future, like never before is in our hands. Nature has spoken. Now we should speak gently back to her. “Tread lightly on Earth” has to be the way for the future. Thank you very much Lord Provost, and everyone else for listening to me, and thank you so much once again for the honour.”

For more on the Edinburgh Science Festival who awarded Sunita this medal click here