The international community is at the cross roads of climate negotiations. The meeting of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and Kyoto Protocol at Bali, Copenhagen (where the formation of the like-minded Brazil, South Africa, India and China or BASIC group took place), Cancun and Durban saw the slow marginalization of India’s position and stand on common but differentiated responsibilities. India’s former negotiator Ambassador Shyam Saran was right when he noted that “it appears that the focus has shifted from climate to economics and geopolitics”. As a matter of fact, climate change negotiations have always been informed by sovereign national interest. It is questionable whether, except for rhetorical purposes, any country is concerned about the cosmological problem or the health of the earth as an ecosystem. Politics and economics have been the main motivators for climate change negotiations so far, with geopolitics providing the background music.
But what about the science? The science of climate has not yet made an impact on politics, polity and policy. Yet, the proof is there for all to see. Besides anecdotal evidence about rapid changes in climate, the usual prediction about the onset of climate change induced late winter and early summer got reversed this past winter, with the Northern Hemisphere witnessing an unusual cold spell in February 2012. In the state of Punjab, it may be apt to say that there was a “second Lohri” (traditionally 13 January is celebrated as the coldest day in the festival of Lohri) in February. What caused its Lohri’s ‘second coming’? Recent findings from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show that while the Arctic region has been steadily warming in recent decades, anomalously large snowfall during recent winters has affected large parts of North America, Europe, and East Asia. The decrease in the autumn Arctic sea ice area is linked to changes in the winter-time Northern Hemisphere atmospheric circulation, resulting in more frequent episodes of blocking patterns which, in turn, lead to increased cold surges over large parts of the northern continents. Moreover, the increase in the atmospheric water vapour content in the Arctic region during late autumn and winter, driven locally by the reduction of sea ice, provides enhanced moisture sources, thus supporting increased heavy snowfall in Europe during early winter and in the northeastern and midwestern United States during winter. It has consequently been concluded that the recent decline of Arctic sea ice has played a critical role in the recent cold and snowy weather. What this shows is that, climate change and global warming will manifest in extreme swings of weather in terms of temperature variations; in other words, extreme weather events will increase in frequency and intensity. We already sit on a temperature time bomb of the over 2 deg Celsius limit, which is likely to be reached in a decade or so.
Climate change discussions may not have collapsed altogether, but difficult and bruising negotiations lie ahead. There will be immense pressure on developing countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa to accept legally binding emission cuts. Developed countries are adamant that all current major ‘polluters’, which includes countries like India and China, also be included in any future emissions cut agreement. As pointed out by Arvind Gupta and Akash Gaud:
“While complex negotiations can be expected, stronger action to limit CO2 emissions will have to await 2020 when a new climate treaty is expected to come into force. Furthermore, mobilising $100 billion per year in Green Climate Fund at a time when the world is facing the threat of serious economic slowdown will be difficult. At Durban, the parties managed to buy time but failed to show the urgency to tackle climate change issues.”
Presently, the European Union is again in the driving seat besides the “axis of polluters” like the US and Canada who are not members of the Kyoto treaty as well as Russia and Japan which are showing their unwillingness as countries mandated to take the lead in mitigation through emission reduction. It is clear that the biggest gainers of such an approach are the fossil fuel- driven industries of the North and other major polluters. Some advanced economies also want sectoral identification and they do not want all technologies or gases combined under one basket; black carbon, soot and smog are also part of this idea.
While the Indian government may have declared victory at Durban, commentators are not amused. A number of commentaries have appeared in the media and journals urging India to proactively engage and influence the post Durban platform process. Carbon space and equity are under dispute. Developing countries are now divided, with small island nations having drifted away. There is also divided opining on issues which should be the key focus of India’s stand— adaptation versus mitigation. Legal minds are urging upon the need to formulate an approach that combines attention to industrialised countries’ historical responsibility for the problem with an embrace of India’s own responsibility to explore low carbon development trajectories. If India wants ‘equity” back in the climate change debate, it must develop a strategy and constitute a strong negotiation team to implement it. This will also demand a participatory national action plan on climate change not only at the national level but at the state and district levels as well. But where is the State and District level action plans on climate change? Climate change is not yet on the priority list of any political party’s agenda.
In climate change related issues such as farming, there is disconnect between rural and urban India. It is also worrying that un-seasonal rains at the beginning of harvest festival of Baisakhi (13 April) gave another jolt in this regard. But this jolt was not given to or felt by rapidly urbanising India which has lost its appreciation of the farming community that feeds it and provides the country with food sovereignty. The media largely ignored the impact of these unexpected rains. Urban dwellers were in fact delighted to get cool breeze, delay their use of air conditioners or coolers and, at most, were tense only over traffic jams caused by flooding of roads due to drainage congestion (similarly, during winter fog, urban dwellers were only concerned with delayed or cancelled flights and trains). But the farmers providing food security have been devastated. No one will give them ‘dearness allowance’. Unconcerned by this turn of events, corporate and business interests have been quick to point out that since now most farmers are fed up of farming, their land can be bought and housing societies, hotels, malls, and factories can be constructed on them. Such thinking is fraught with the long term danger of neglect of food and livelihood security.
Food and nutrition security in an era of rising population and climate risks should be on the top of the agenda of policy makers. And it needs to be integrated with the action plan for climate change. This demands a greater consensus amongst the states on variations of the National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC) that is suitable for their circumstances. Peoples’ participation by raising awareness of simple matters such as reducing, reusing or recycling water, preserving forests and planting ecologically suitable trees, promoting the use of public transport, cycling and walking, etc. must be pursued. The unglamorous low politics of agriculture and livelihood need to be given higher priority in national debates. Given the present state of the absence of ecological consciousness, climate negotiators are no different from nuclear disarmament negotiators since both are esoteric and highly evolved issues. Yet, there is a crucial difference as well; in the case of dealing with climate change, nothing worthwhile can be achieved without public participation.
Another aspect in this regard is weather and climate prediction. The recent Tsunami warning worked well and there is sufficient satisfaction with the government bureaucracy and scientists over the improved capacity to forecast a tsunami. But can such a capacity be built up for micro regions measured in farm sizes of less than a hectare for rainfall and similar information? This is a Herculean task and requires computing power, more research, infrastructure/wherewithal and algorithms. Building up this capability should become a national mission. Only then would it be possible to adapt to the impact of climate change and variations. Local actions therefore become as important as international negotiations.