Clinton's India visit: Climate change hot button issue

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Last week, Secretary of Sate Hillary Rodham Clinton became the highest American dignitary to visit India since Barack Obama's election. Of course, this is not her first visit to India -- she was there almost a decade ago as first lady alongside the very popular Bill Clinton -- but this is different. Now she is Secretary of State and is representing the Obama administration. Now, she is talking international policy. 

I am no expert in international politics: but besides okaying a defence deal and allaying fears that the U.S. would not pressure India to engage in a dialogue with neighboring Pakistan, the shrillest rhetoric had to be coming from talks about climate change. India's stern stance that it would sign no biding carbon emission caps isn't new, but hogged the headlines nevertheless. As Financial Times reports, India pretty much shot down any pressure to reduce emissions:


"There is simply no case for the pressure that we, who have been among the lowest emissions per capita, face to actually reduce
emissions," Jairam Ramesh, India's environment minister, told Mrs Clinton. "And as if this pressure was not enough, we also face the threat of carbon tariffs on our exports to countries such as yours.

"We look upon you suspiciously because you have not fulfilled what [developed countries] pledged to fulfil," added Mr Ramesh, who described the dem-ands by the developed world as a "crisis of credibility."

[Read India-U.S. joint statement here]

The Politics: First, the short-term. Clinton's visit came close on the heels of an India-Pakistan joint statement of cooperation signed in Egypt that was in for some scathing criticism in India (and much praise in Pakistan). The Indian Prime Minister had a lot of explaining to do about what many back home -- including members of his own party -- saw as a sign of weakness and too many concessions made to Pakistan. 
A strong stand protecting India's economic interests was absolutely necessary to keep the peace on the home front, especially on a issue India believes it has the moral upper hand.
Moreover, India is also preparing to work out its climate strategy for a United Nations conference in Copenhagen this December. India, along with China, recently pushed back on pressure to agree on definitive carbon caps. It will most likely want to keep its right to unfettered growth, which, it says, advanced nations have enjoyed thus far with no caps placed on them.

In the longer term, this visit was expected to reveal if an Obama-led administration will actually be good for relations with India. President Bush's general international unpopularity notwithstanding, India's relationship with the U.S. strengthened many-fold in the last eight years under the Bush administration. In fact, it has been the best ever in the 60 years of democratic India's history, the boldest example being the highly-debated civil nuclear deal that ended a three-decade ban on nuclear trade between the two, paving the way for India to gain access to the international nuclear market hitherto unavailable to countries that have not signed the non-proliferation treaty. (In fact, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made the climate change argument that this was necessary to stop India from using more carbon-based sources of energy.)
Will the Obama administration bock the deal? No, assured Clinton. The deal is on.

There also seems to be a sense in India that the Obama administration's priorities are different and Indo-U.S. relations may be shaped by these priorities: economic and health care crises back home and, a war abroad that the U.S. needs Pakistan to help out with (which complicates the American view on Indo-Pak relations). Climate change is another big-ticket item on the Obama administration's agenda, and some emerging threats that the U.S. may impose sanctions on countries that refuse to agree to binding emissions caps is likely to make India's protests even sharper. In this article written before Clinton's visit, one Indian security analyst said:

Whatever she might say to please India, the reality is that Pakistan and China are more important to the US at present than India. Pakistan is important for the US to prevent another 9/11 on US soil and tor prevent a catastrophic act of terrorism involving the use of weapons of mass destruction. China is important to aid the US's economic recovery. 

Comparatively, India's utility to the US is limited. [...] We can expect positive statements and gestures from her, but one cannot say definitely how sincere they would be.

Another analyst adds:

The Afghan theatre is also important for Obama's political future, who would like a second term in office. A defeat in Afghanistan is inconceivable for them. All this adds up to a certain focus on Pakistan, whose role is so important that it has to be in the first circle of US foreign policy concerns. In South Asia. The US's focus will be to not antagonise Pakistan to make gains in Afghanistan.

Climate change and India's future:

According to the United Nations Development Programme statistics (2004, 2005), India's per capita carbon emission is among the lowest in the world, even behind China. Industrialized countries like the U.S., Canada, Japan and Australia are among the worst polluters based on this parameter.

However, at the same time, India is the fourth largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world, behind the U.S., China and the Russian Federation. Also, coal, one of biggest sources of carbon dioxide emissions, is the primary source of energy supply, both in the U.S. and India. At some point, given her population and rapid growth rate, the relative ratios will stop looking so good, and India will have to deal with the demons of climate change on its soil.

Which is why international wrangling over carbon caps are of less interest to me than India's own goals for domestic climate change. We have severe environmental challenges like the rapid disappearance of forest cover, wild life and water bodies. From personal experience I can tell that alternative renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, is are being tapped into in parts of the country, but the efforts seem to be more localized and need-based.  Does India have a comprehensive climate change policy?

For the first time a year ago, India introduced a climate change plan, with broad outlines but no concrete goals or timeline. Setting a strong domestic climate policy is critical to the country's own health. For a country so dependent on climate, we cannot afford to neglect our own nation's health, international pressure or no.
Indians have the advantage of living environmental-friendly lives simply by virtue of tradition and need: smaller houses that are constructed to keep it cool (no money for air-conditioning), more public transportation (cannot afford cars), few energy-guzzling dryers, a reverence for nature, lesser consumption in general. But the question is, as we get richer, will we abandon these "good habits" that may have developed over the years without an awareness of how crucial they can be in containing climate change?

We have an opportunity here to convert our "green traditions" into lifestyles.

Now that a new government has been sworn in, it would be nice to see some real deadlines and goals in place.

Other bloggers on climate change and India:
Sid's blog
Confessions of a closet geek

The Unpretentious Diva at Reason for Liberty
Taking Note


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