President Obama simply cannot afford to advocate further austerity to Americans reeling under a recession, and Jairam Ramesh, India’s pugnaciously articulate environment minister, won’t be satisfied unless Obama does precisely that. As Ramesh explained to an American interviewer on Tuesday: “In the United States, emissions are lifestyle emissions. For [India], emissions are developmental emissions. You’re asking [India] to compromise on development … You change your lifestyle and then we’ll think of compromising on development.”
India’s argument resonates throughout the developing world. From Brazil to Bangladesh, Obama’s sermon on shared responsibility strikes as an affront, akin to a burglar telling his victim to split the defence costs. The voluptuaries of the west may advocate, without a hint of remorse or irony, that billions of people in India and China and Africa renounce material comforts and advancement which developed nations take for granted; but developing nations seem to be firm in their conviction that, though climate change is a real threat, those who have contributed overwhelmingly to its causes – and continue to pollute the planet in the spirit of carpe diem – must also be the ones to devise and pay for solutions to curb it.
But India has a habit of invoking the injustices of the past to suppress the failures of present. New Delhi repeatedly refers to the fact that, measured by per capita emissions, India ranks near the bottom of the list of worst polluters. This may be true, but it is a disingenuous argument. Per capita figures are meaningless (and unjust) because they are arrived at by apportioning the pollution that is principally produced in the urban centres, where wealth is concentrated, in equal measure to a billion individuals – an overwhelming majority of whom have been denied the dividends of pollution. India is adducing its poor as the reason for its intransigent stand. But its recent history is replete with instances of the state displacing the poor to create vacant lands for wealthy corporations – in effect socialising the costs of pollution while privatising its profits. Unlike corporations, the planet belongs to everyone. So concessions on emissions, if they can be worked out, must be linked to the equitable distribution of profits derived from pollution.
Working to prevent climate change will not be enough. States must actively seek to establish contingency measures to deal with its consequences. Bangladesh’s land mass is literally shrinking. It is more than likely that India will have a colossal humanitarian crisis on its hands in the not too distant future, with Bangladeshis crossing the border into West Bengal on a scale that will make 1971 appear puny. India cannot turn them back, but it cannot conceivably bear the cost of their absorption alone. New Delhi should start pushing for a global fund from which it can draw later. As a country that has lost more lives to climate change than any other, India also has a duty to make its rich – the beneficiaries of its emissions, the inhabitants of its mini-Americas – pay the costs.
Regardless of the results of the Copenhagen summit, India must stop playing the victim and take the lead in combatting climate change. It has already made impressive strides, and the government has announced a series of ambitious plans to produce renewable energy and substantially reduce India’s dependence on fossil fuels. According to the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, solar thermal power plants can fulfil India’s energy needs. Since sunlight is abundant, the “potential is unlimited”. India could electrify not only itself but all of Asia and Africa. In the process, it could help save humankind from extinction. This would be a fitting tribute to its founder, Pandit Nehru, who at the turbulent time of its founding dedicated India to the “larger cause of humanity”.