As more than one hundred world leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) from October 3 – November 12 to set a roadmap to deal with the looming climate crisis, several Indian-origin environmentalists have been at the forefront of the climate revolution.
These Indian-origin leaders from countries around the world are advocating for a cleaner and more sustainable world, and among the voices who are expected to be heard and echoed through policy-making councils of governments in coming weeks as they seek to convert climate skeptics into climate enthusiasts.
This week all eyes are on Alok Sharma, the UK government’s climate chief and cabinet minister. Born in Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, the veteran British politician was chosen as the president of COP26 by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and is a recognized global voice against climate change.
“People have understood that climate change is an issue which does not respect borders. And I would make the case that climate change is the biggest security risk for the world from a security perspective, whether rising sea levels, food availability or forced migration. That’s why it’s vitally important that every country steps up to the plate at Cop26,” said Sharma, 54.
A Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) from Reading West since 2010, Sharma moved to the UK from India with his parents when he was five years old. A qualified chartered accountant, he served in Prime Minister Theresa May’s government as Minister of State for Housing from 2017 to 2018 and minister of employment from 2018 to 2019. In 2019, Sharma, who took his oath in the House of Commons on the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scripture, was appointed to the cabinet by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as Secretary of State for International Development.
Another leader who is creating waves worldwide is Aleesha Gadhia, only six years old, who recently won the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Points of Light award for her campaigns to raise awareness over deforestation and climate change. She was instrumental in raising more than £3,000 for the UK-based non-profit Cool Earth, which works with rainforest communities to cease deforestation and lobbies businesses to generate more sustainable practices. She is the climate activist and “mini ambassador” for the non-profit.
Gadhia, who lives in West Bridgford in Nottinghamshire, with her parents, has also established a climate change club at her school. She was also recognized for sending out hundreds of letters and emails to top firms in Britain and other influential people in the business, encouraging them to take climate action. For her, it was not the first time to be in the limelight. Earlier this year, she had taken up another challenge. She rode 80 km on her scooter to raise money for Cool Earth for which she received the backing of Queen Elizabeth II and environmentalist Sir David Attenborough.
It was a proud moment for Indians worldwide when leading Indian environmentalist and economist Ligia Noronha, who traces her roots to Goa, was appointed as United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Head of the New York Office at UNEP (UN Environment Programme) on April 1, 2021.
With 30 years of international experience in the field of sustainable development, Noronha has previously served as Director of UNEP’s Economy Division based in Paris and Nairobi, where she led UNEP’s work on climate mitigation and energy transitions, on inclusive green economies, as well as on the nexus of environment, pollution, and health.
Described by the US media as the “new generation’s voice on climate change,” Varshini Prakash, 28, is a known climate activist and executive director of the Sunrise Movement. This US youth-led political movement advocates for political action on climate change, which she co-founded in 2017.
Prakash is serving on Joe Biden’s climate task force and as an advisory board member of Climate Power 2020, which advocates for increasing American voter interest in climate action.
A leading advocate of the Green New Deal: a 10-year plan that envisages mobilizing every aspect of American society toward 100 percent clean and renewable energy by electing politicians who will make climate change a priority in their tenure and removing fossil fuel interests from politics. Prakash was born and raised in Massachusetts.
Sometimes dubbed as the Pope’s climate scientist, Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, 75, had predicted that “bizarre weather” would be amplified by 50 percent if the world did not act quickly.
Originally from Chennai, Tamil Nadu, Prof. Ramanathan graduated from India and then moved to the US, where he received a Doctorate from the State University of New York. He is now a Distinguished Professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and UNESCO Professor of Climate and Policy at TERI University in New Delhi.
Prof Ramanathan, appointed by Pope John Paul II in October 2004 as an academician of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, now personally advises Pope Francis. He wrote his first paper on the climate changes taking place throughout the world in 1975 when he was just 31.
He was also instrumental in discovering that climate warming was not caused simply by carbon dioxide but also by shorter-lived “super pollutants,” such as chlorofluorocarbons and soot.
Born in India, Jigar Shah, who is Executive Director of the US Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office that aims to help America’s innovators get their best clean energy ideas off the ground, moved to the US with his family when he was one year old and settled down in Sterling, Illinois when he was eight.
He gained prominence as an American clean energy entrepreneur, author, and podcast host and advocated and created market-driven solutions to climate change.
He was previously co-founder and president at Generate Capital, where he focused on helping entrepreneurs accelerate decarbonization solutions through low-cost infrastructure-as-a-service financing. Before this, Shah, 47, founded SunEdison, which pioneered “pay as you save” solar funding.
Indian-origin teen climate activist Anjali Sharma is on a crusade for change in Australia. She became a household name in Australia after she filed – along with seven other teenage environmentalists – a court case against the Australian government for the future harm to children due to climate change.
While giving its verdict, the Federal Court said that it is the responsibility of the government to protect children from any future harm due to climate change. The “Sharma decision”, as the judgment is popularly known in Australia, was hailed as a big win for teen activists, and they were praised for their keen pursuit of change.
The high school student from Melbourne had argued in her petition that due to continuous carbon emissions in the environment, by the end of this century there will be severe forest fires, floods, storms, disease, and economic loss, and even deaths.
As there is a growing consensus that rapid coal phase-out will be required to meet a global net-zero by 2050 goal, renewable energy has become cost-competitive in countries worldwide. And leading this clean energy revolution is a leading first-generation entrepreneur, Sumant Sinha.
Sinha is the founder-chairman and managing director of ReNew Power, a multibillion-dollar firm that is India’s largest renewable energy company, with nearly 10 gigawatts of power generation assets, mostly large-scale wind and solar farms. It now generates one percent of India’s total electricity annually and is helping mitigate half a percent of India’s carbon emissions in a year.
Sinha is co-chair, Electricity Governor’s Group, and member of the Stewardship Board on Shaping the Future of Energy and at the World Economic Forum and serves on the board of directors of the US India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) and chairs the Climate Group’s India Advisory Board.
Varun Sivaram, the Senior Adviser to John Kerry, the climate czar serving under President Joe Biden, is among those leading the charge in the US. Sivaram, just 32, is a Californian, Rhodes and Truman Scholar, and holds a Ph.D. in condensed matter physics from St. John’s College, Oxford University, where he developed third-generation solar photovoltaic coatings. He also went to Stanford University to pursue engineering physics and international relations with honors in international security.
He helped shape the US government policies supportive of innovation as the energy and climate program director at the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior energy advisor to the Los Angeles mayor and New York governor’s office. Time Magazine has named him one of its 100 Next most influential people in the world.
Satya Tripathi is the Secretary-General of the Global Alliance for a Sustainable Planet. He has previously served as a senior adviser on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at UNEP. He has worked for the UN since 1998 in Europe, Asia, and Africa on strategic assignments in sustainable development, human rights, democratic governance, and legal affairs.
Tripathi, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degree from Berhampur University, Odisha was previously the director and executive head of the United Nations Office for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD)+ Coordination in Indonesia, as well as for the United Nations Recovery Coordinator for the US$ 7 billion post-tsunami and post-conflict recovery efforts in Aceh and Nias.
This article is part of a new series, Indiaspora Features, which commissions journalists to write about topics of interest for the global Indian diaspora.
Kavita Bajeli-Datt is an independent journalist associated with South Asia Monitor. She has worked in prominent Indian news organizations like IANS, PTI, and The Week where she wrote extensively on health, crime, politics, and art and culture.