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Geopolitics of Climate Change and India’s Position

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  • September 19, 2008
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: R Rajagopalan
    Discussants: Ashutosh Varshney & Sunil Chauhan

    Climate change and security as a subject of enquiry is now being pursued by the IDSA in a comprehensive manner. Scholars from the non-traditional security cluster, since 2008, have been presenting papers and delivering talks on the topic. In April 2008 a run-up workshop was held on the security implications of climate change for India. A national workshop on security implications of climate change for India is planned on October 30, 2008. A working group under Dr Arvind Gupta, Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair, IDSA comprising nine IDSA scholars and three outside members (a climatologist, a disaster expert and an economist) has been formed for the purpose. It is intended that the draft report will be presented in the roundtable discussion. There has also been interaction with MEA officials on the various aspects of climate change.

    Uttam Kumar Sinha who is working on the bilateral aspects of the climate change and also on international negotiations has recently authored a chapter in the re-launched IDSA Asian Strategic Review 2008 titled “Asia and Climate Change”. His paper “Geopolitics of Climate Change and India’s Position” in the fellows’ seminar was a logical movement from regional analysis to a global one.

    The seminar was chaired by Ambassador R. Rajagopalan, who is a member of the IDSA Executive Council. The two external discussants were Prof C.K. Varshney, former Dean of School of Environmental Science, JNU, and former Chairman Environmental Research and Wetland Research Committee, Ministry of Environment and Forests, and Commander Sunil Chauhan, from the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation, United Service Institution of India. The internal discussants were Vinod Kumar and Medha Bisht. The participant-level was high reflecting the interest in the topic and the growing concern over climate change. Over 20 scholars and members of IDSA attended the proceedings.

    The paper by referring to the debate in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in April 2007 explained how the issue of climate change is being “securitised” and how a counter argument is being built up to “desecuritise” it. India strongly criticized the “catastrophic scenarios” posited by the Stern Report and articulated a more “immediate and quantifiable threat from possible conflicts arising out of inadequate resources for development and poverty eradication as well as competition for energy.” The author identified loosely structured blocks of states with their own mix of concerns and actions on climate change. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) with concerns and fears of rising sea levels and large submergence of the coastlines think from an “ecological effectiveness” and finds a willing partner in EU. The second group is of OPEC and various industrialized countries that look at climate change from an economic angle. Such groups are seeking “economic effectiveness”. The third group is the developing countries echoing the north-south divide and articulating concerns from a “social justice and equity”. There is also the G5 (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) which in the recently concluded G-8 summit challenged the economic dominance of the West and pivoted mostly around south-south cooperation.

    At the heart of India’s position on climate change is the notion that it must be allowed to pollute on a per capita basis equally with the West. India has thus been propounding the “per capita emission” line. It is a strong unconditional position that immediately shifts the responsibility on to the shoulder of the developed countries to drastically cut emissions. It also allows India the space and time to grow at a sustained pace and strengthen its poverty alleviation and developmental programmes. But even more significant is the assurance that its per capita emissions will never exceed that of developing countries. It is a position of confidence and self belief in its economic policies, a challenge and a message to the developed world that it will not be pressurized in the negotiation process. While the per capita argument is quite justified for India, it also suggests a dogged resistance in its approach, a grandstanding of its newly acquired international status. But to be a serious player in global politics requires finely balancing self interest with certain global responsibilities and commitment (at least to be seen doing). This is not a moralistic position that India so pitifully pursued in the 1960s and suffered so seriously.

    While the ‘per capita emission’ is being largely accepted including the UN, there is a certain perception that India’s position is one of extreme rigidity with no allowance for even a self determined gradual carbon emission reduction quota. India here is missing out on a positive leadership role. Another critical element of this leadership is to dehyphenate itself from China. India’s approach to climate change is based on energy security and sustainable development while the Chinese plan focused on emission reduction. China has overtaken the US in total emission, though its per capita pollution is lower than that of the US.

    India’s other position on climate change is that it does not considers it a “threat” and particularly not in the sense of considering military options as a response. India’s stress on “collaborative action at the global level both through mitigation and adaptation in accordance with the common and differentiated responsibilities of the different countries” points to its faith in the UNFCCC as the agency for carrying out negotiations. So clearly for India an effective climate regime with equitable burden sharing can help tackle the adverse impacts and linking climate change with security is far-fetched and unnecessarily alarmist. Climate change is a concern but India would rather be worried about freer and fairer trade particularly of agricultural products and correcting the distorted trade practices of powerful countries.

    The geopolitics and domestic political considerations will remain critical determinants to the negotiation process leading to 2012. The changing power equation and a predominant shift towards Asia will see new groupings and alignments that will impact the existing climate change regimes. In the coming years, the spotlight will increasingly fall on India, China and also the US, the chief protagonists in the emission targets. Since the new agreement needs to be concluded by the end of 2009 (Copenhagen Summit) so as to give countries adequate time for ratification, the politics will intensify. For India, however much it digs to its position, pressures will come from different directions on different interlinked issues. Before the G8 summit, India braced itself from the US on imposition of tariff barriers against exported goods from India that are seen as products with large carbon footprints, such as iron and steel. The Japanese at the recently concluded Accra Climate Change Summit took the issue of “sectoral approaches” with India, in order to establish “international energy efficiency standards” for polluting industries across the world. Has India given itself limited space for negotiations thereby constricting its ability to manoeuvre? If India is interested in world emissions, its own emissions are important. There lies the challenge and the dilemma. India has long experience in negotiation on climate change and has been at the forefront of the debate ever since Mahatma Gandhi made the ‘greed and need’ connection. India will have to reconfigure its position. ‘Greed’ and ‘poverty’ are powerful arguments in the climate change debate but will not help clinch the emission issue. It has to be seen whether India will reconfigure its position. Of equal interest will be to observe whether other regimes, groupings and alliances will challenge the Kyoto Protocol. At the end it is not about the sacrosanct nature of the Kyoto Protocol or which other regime should come into existence. The challenge is to be proactive, innovative and find solutions to the problems.

    Professor C.K. Varshney commented the real issue was that of the extra carbon in the natural cycle due to fossil fuel use. Much more scientific work needs to be done. As far as India’s position, he felt that it only served the purpose of short- term. In the long- term we need to focus more on issues of energy intensity and efficiency. He reminded that we often are too much human centric and neglect loss of biodiversity, which in any case will not permit the current lifestyles. There was a discussion on the geopolitics and security aspect. Some members from the audience felt that it is the “politics” and not “geopolitics”. Cdr Sunil Chauhan mentioned that in a globalised world contiguous borders are not relevant any longer and thus the term “geopolitics” is in order. Medha Bisht mentioned that we need to take into account the environmental, human and social costs of big infrastructure projects such as dams as they can be counter productive.

    There was also an exciting discussion on the referent object. While the author had taken it as climate, Vinod Kumar felt that it should be survival. While others felt that the nation-state is the ultimate referent even from the human security perspective.

    Professor C.K. Varshney also elaborated on the uncertainties and dangers of geological sequestration of carbon. He mentioned that land-to-plant forests are also limited and too much reliance on aforestation thus has its own limits. Elaborating on Gandhian thought, he mentioned that it in no way, means to go backward in the past, but instead to find alternative solution, which necessarily may not be technology driven. What economic model India is following was also discussed. Some felt that we are blindly aping the West and we need to see how vulnerable we are internally due to the weather beaten economic path we are opting for. Enormous ecological challenges and social stresses are evident in the future.

    The paper generated considerable discussion and well overshot the defined time. Importantly it did not drift from the core feature of the paper. The chairman in agreement with the speaker summed up the proceedings by mentioning how important the topic is and how critically important it is for India to be proactive and not only posturing and grandstanding.

    Prepared by P.K. Gautam, Research Fellow at IDSA and Co-ordinator of Non-Traditional Security cluster.