The major constraint on climate change is not politics, It is time

Malini Mehra
CEO, Centre for Social Markets

IN AN interview to Sanctuary Asia Jairam Ramesh, minister of state for environment and forests, lists his priorities as follows: 1. Significantly improve India’s natural forest cover; 2. Establish an effective environmental grievance redressal regime that is effective, speedy and fair; 3. Chalk out an effective climate change agenda that is both pragmatic and self-sustaining.

Almost before he has begun to implement these crucial steps, an entrenched bureaucracy, a largely uninformed (on climate change) Indian polity and sections of the media that make no pretence about taking partisan positions on climate change have taken out their long knives.

Climate change has been such a leadershipfree zone in India for so long that now, when a minister is showing leadership on the domestic and international agenda, we do not know how to deal with it. Jairam Ramesh’s now famous leaked letter to the prime minister challenges many of the shibboleths that have guided India’s climate policy for too long. Much of what it reportedly suggests should be welcomed if India is to address climate change, the biggest threat to her prosperity and development.

Let there be no doubt. Equity is a central feature of climate change and deep emission cuts by rich nations are essential. Ramesh reiterated this publicly in The Hindu on October 20: “India’s interests alone should drive the negotiations, and legally binding emission cuts and international verification [of India] are non-negotiable. [But] there is no harm in having discussions on other issues.” If the world is to find a way out of the morass of climate politics, nations must liberate their minds and adopt new thinking and approaches that put climate action first and recognise our ultimate interdependency.

Bittu Sahgal
Editor, Sanctuary Asia magazine

For more than a decade, the only narrative in town was that India was a hapless victim of climate change. We did not cause it and it was not our problem. At international meetings under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Indian negotiators pointed fingers at western nations accusing them of having caused climate change. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was a response and demanded a meagre 5 percent average cut of industrialising nations by 1990 levels. Compensation for poor countries unable to adapt to climate change was demanded by way of technology transfer and finance from rich nations.

This focus on the outside world and a tendency to hide behind our poor, led to little or no effort to situate climate change in the domestic context. We did not take it seriously. Small armies of officials, NGOs and academics spent large sums of public money in highly-politicised, arcane international meetings on climate change. Little of this was translated back home. We were so busy finding people to blame, and obsessed with the politics of other countries, that we forgot to create a domestic debate on climate change back home. The result has been an abject failure of political leadership and investment in making India climate-resilient. Floods, droughts, cyclones and other extreme weather events have been increasing in frequency with severe human and wildlife impacts.

What we have been left with is a largely ill-informed and impoverished political debate on climate change. Parliamentary surveys have found an abysmal level of understanding amongst our politicians about climate change impacts, implications and the hardening international science calling for urgent action. Even now, most senior politicians – from all major parties – confuse climate change with the ozone hole and pigeonhole it as an ‘environmental’ issue less worthy of attention.

This is the bigger picture within which Jairam Ramesh’s recent efforts to transform India’s climate policy must be seen. An acute intellectual observer of Indian climate policy, and someone persuaded by the need for action, he is trying to overhaul the outdated positions and alliances India has been adopting.

BRINGING INDIA’S climate policy kicking and screaming into the 21st century means talking honestly about what India can and must do on climate change regardless of what other countries are doing. This is not a zero-sum game. Credible national actions build confidence all around. They have a positive impact on the trust-building that has been highlighted as a key deficit in multilateral negotiations. And this is not just a developed country problem.

Save the Earth Glaciologist Edson Ramirez examines a melting part of Bolivia’s Chacaltaya glacier
Photo: AP

To date, the climate change quid pro quo has been entirely conditional. Ramesh has broken that link. He is arguing as a true climate visionary that action on both mitigation and adaptation must be taken in our own national self-interest. If we do not, India’s poor will be defenceless and our economic competitiveness will be shattered. Charity begins at home, he is suggesting. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who won us our freedom, would probably have agreed, and then pointed out that the strategy would have a better chance of success overseas, on high-stakes climate negotiating tables.

In Ramesh’s words: “There is no change in my position on the basic issues of what developed and developing countries should do to fight climate change, but everything else should be negotiable.” His efforts in ramping up Indian action on climate mitigation, investing in renewables, and leveraging our forest cover, have been bold and welcomed by many who are serious about climate action. But they have been unexpected given the historical role that India has played as the ideological spokesperson for political blocs such as the G77/China. In a G20 world, with India seeking a place at the UN Security Council and wishing to be a major player on the defining challenge of our time, the G77 is acting as a brake on forward-looking, progressive international climate policy.

To date, the climate change quid pro quo has been entirely conditional. Minister Jairam Ramesh has broken that link

Ramesh’s moves will be welcomed by those who have long been ignored in this debate amongst the heavyweights– the small and vulnerable nations now united in political blocs such as AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States) and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). For too long, these nations have been bullied and intimidated by the real power brokers in alliances such as G77/China – increasingly reflective of OPEC interests. Instead of being supported, these nations have been muzzled by the oil lobby and climate sceptic regimes within the G77/China. Many of these vulnerable nations such as the Maldives and Bangladesh are in our neighbourhood and will relish finally seeing a strong, pro-climate champion in India.

The environment minister’s proposals are bold and some of them contentious. But they are sorely needed – every one of them – if we are to have a more honest and effective debate. They are reflective of new thinking and an imaginative mind that thinks outside the box and seeks solutions that are desperately needed. Ideological purists may not be satisfied. But this is not about them – or about ideology. It is about recognising that the major constraint on climate change is not politics, it is time. We cannot gain more time. But we can change the politics. And this is what Jairam Ramesh has done.



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