Shaping opinions on global warming demands passion and perseverance. It’s why Aarti Bhalla will be the only Indian at Al Gore’s Climate Project summit
Playing hide and seek with death is not a good way to spend a childhood. But by the tender age of eight, Aarti Bhalla had already hoodwinked the grim reaper twice. That was 40 years ago. Today, she is all set to join an elite defence force for planet earth, to be trained by former US vice-president Al Gore. It is a privilege alright—Bhalla is the only Indian to have been chosen from among 2,000 applicants across the globe to attend the Climate Project’s Australia Asia Pacific Summit scheduled for three days in Melbourne, starting 11 July.
Aarti’s tryst with nature dates back awhile. In her 20s, she fell in love with the Himalayas. She’d be found perched on top of buses and cars, almost anything with wheels headed for the mountains. “I have been to places in Himachal and Uttarakhand that even a local pahadi (person living in the mountains) wouldn’t have seen,” she says.
High-altitude climbing, rappelling and skiing, she’s developed expertise in all these. What started as solitary trips, turned into group excursions, and soon she found herself playing expedition leader.
By the time Aarti’s relationship with the Himalayas entered its phase of maturity, she had found another motivation, one that brought out the activist in her. As a trained practitioner of alternate medicine, she had always ached to do something more meaningful than acupuncture and reflexology sessions. News of melting Himalayan glaciers and depleting flora and fauna pushed her towards a shift in career—to eco-tourism. “You can say that my passion overtook my profession,” she chuckles.
Though Aarti wasn’t armed with the required degrees or certificates, her familiarity with the Himalayan terrain and zest for travel shone through, and she was hired as a tour leader by Intrepid Travels. “I began work in the Delhi branch of this Australian company,” she recounts, “Soon, my work was recognised and I was promoted to the post of Responsible Tourism Coordinator.”
Given her restless mind, she was not content merely with the tasks assigned to her. It was in a bid to satisfy a deeply felt curiosity that she began her research on global warming. After browsing through heaps of books at a library, Aarti came up with a presentation on the subject for her colleagues. “My company had taken a pledge to be carbon neutral by 2010 and my presentation on global warming was in sync with this decision. I had also heard of a new concept called energy auditing and I decided to assess the processes in our office.” Impressed, the company’s head office in Melbourne took the cue and embarked on an energy auditing process for its offices worldwide.
It was then that Aarti came across a novel process of auditing trips. As a starting exercise, she was given the task of assessing 38 trips around the world. “Flights are the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide in the world,” she says, “Say, you travel from location A to B and during that trip some 200 kg of carbon dioxide are released in the atmosphere. We try to offset that carbon emission by adding a minuscule amount to the price of the ticket. That amount is diverted towards renewable energy projects or something that would serve the environment.” This effort won Aarti a sustainability award from her company and a nomination to the Climate Change Summit.
As Aarti breaks into an excited chatter about this prestigious conference, it is hard to imagine the torment of her childhood. “I am a very accident-prone person,” she says, “My first accident happened when I was one-and-a-half years old. I fell from the second floor to the ground below and barely managed to survive.” The freakish string of accidents continued, and at the age of eight she suffered 75 per cent burns. “Doctors would whisper to each other that only a miracle could save me,” she shudders. But she didn’t give in. It was to prove a long haul. She emerged from hospital a year later, so disfigured that her neck, jaw and lips had got stuck to her chest.
For years, the simple act of looking up at the sky was agony. Her mouth had become a closed gash and she could only be fed a liquid diet. “I was taken to hospitals in India and the UK, where I underwent about 42 reconstruction surgeries.”
The experience was difficult in many other ways as well. She entered her teens looking on as her friends preened in front of mirrors. “That’s the age when everyone wants to look great and attract the opposite sex. I, however, could not do that,” she says, glumly.
Aarti kept her angst mostly to herself. To her friends, she was the shoulder they could cry on, someone who had all the answers to their problems. But few knew that this seemingly jovial person would lock herself in her room and cry for hours. “I would cover up my face whenever I left the house,” she says, “I would be scared to step out of the house in fear of all the whispers that would follow my back.”
And then, at the age of 19-and-a-half, Aarti attended a Gita lecture. It gave her life a sense of purpose. “But it wasn’t that my life underwent a drastic transformation,” she clarifies, “I was still the biggest pessimist on earth. At that time my father was my greatest strength. He tried to bring me out and encouraged me to engage in adventure sports.”
LESSON OF LIFE
It was actually a financial crisis that hit her at the age of 32 that completely transformed her outlook. “It’s like when you read a history book, you can’t remember all the chapters but can remember some aspects mentioned in it. The same thing happened to me. Some teachings from the Gita started coming back to me, and I was like, “Hey, this really works in real life.” She saw her complexes vaporise, a new sense of resolve take its place, and life take a turn for the better.
Since then Aarti has had no time for self pity. She believes in learning from the past and seizing the day. She has already thought extensively about the tasks that she will take on after returning from the summit.
“When I come back, I will try and mobilise political will and also start a grassroots initiative for the environment. We are a country of the masses, and awareness has to be created on an individual level. I will also make presentations to various corporate houses, media organisations, schools, colleges and resident welfare associations,” she says, ticking off her to-do list.
She needs to make five presentations before the Copenhagen Summit in December 2009, the big one that aims to forge a new global deal on containing global warming. And that’s what makes this July summit at Melbourne all the more important. The delegates need to mobilise opinion for a consensus. “My life is a series of unpredictable events. I didn’t expect to be selected for this summit, but I was.” With some effort and luck, maybe there’ll be some surprises in store as far as shaping opinion goes, too.