Of Climate and Political Change

The threat of climate change – which poses an array of economic consequences – is missing from the political debate as Indians prepare for April-May general elections. “The impact of climate change has become more urgent and definitely more evident than it was five years earlier,” suggests Nayan Chanda, YaleGlobal editor, in his column for Businessworld. The “monstrous cyclone Phailin that took 60 lives and caused damages worth $4.15 billion in agriculture and power sectors in India, was a recent reminder of the growing threat.” Researchers predict not only severe weather but more property damage along with widespread food and water shortages. Government subsidies for basics like water and fuel may win votes in the short term, but encourage waste over the long term. Political leaders who fail to promote sustainability or prepare for anticipated disasters as predicted by researchers around the globe are failing in their responsibility to society at large and future generations. – YaleGlobal

Of Climate and Political Change

The key issue of addressing climate change is missing from India’s political discourse
Nayan Chanda
Thursday, April 3, 2014

Every few years, democracies get a chance to choose policy options on critical issues and elect leaders to implement those policies. To judge by all the noisy television debates, acres of news reports and hundreds of rallies now in progress in India leading up to the April-May elections, a vital topic is not on the agenda: environment. Unlike the 2009 elections, held a few months before the Copenhagen UN Climate Change conference, when all the major parties highlighted their strategy to deal with climate change, the subject is absent this year. This lack of concern misses an opportunity for a national conversation on a subject that underpins all economic policies. This is ironic.

The impact of climate change has become more urgent and definitely more evident than it was five years earlier. The intensity of extreme climate events has steadily grown — from unprecedented drought in some parts of the world to record rainfall and blizzard in others. In order to sound alarm bells for the general public, the world’s largest scientific organisation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has issued a sharp report on the “rising threat of climate change.” It says: “people [should] understand what we know: human-caused climate change is happening, we face risks of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes, and responding now will lower the risk and cost of taking action.” While a particular climatic event cannot be definitively attributed to global warming, the report made it clear that recent extreme events were likely related to rising temperatures caused by humans.

Last year’s monstrous cyclone Phailin that took 60 lives and caused damages worth $4.15 billion in agriculture and power sectors in India, was a recent reminder of the growing threat. Extreme events aside, there is now a large enough body of studies predicting that with a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature by 2030, there will be significant shortfalls in rice and coarse cereals production in large parts of India. Already, parts of the country are reeling under power and water shortages (according to the WHO, 97 million Indians don’t have access to safe water ) and that situation is going to worsen as water tables retreat and rising temperature dries up the Himalayan ice pack and riverbeds. The Water Resources Group estimates that by 2030, demand for water in India will outstrip supply by as much as 50 per cent.

It is perhaps understandable that topics like climate change do not appeal to voters, especially in an election year when they are eager to see an end to corruption as well as economic growth and jobs. Politicians trying to garner votes will promise free or cheap water and electricity and blazing economic growth by promoting investment and cutting regulations. Unless politicians accept the need for sustainable development and measures to adapt and mitigate the threat of climate change they are putting in peril the future of the very electorate they are wooing — the youth.

Responsible politicians should be aware of the cost of some of the goodies dangled before the electorate. While subsidised water for the poor can be justified, promise of free water would lead to harmful wastage. In their zeal to cut bureaucracy, politicians should not ignore the importance of environmental regulations to protect ecology. Outlining his economic vision BJP’s Narendra Modi said in passing that “bio & environment technologies must be evolved for future growth”. Greater emphasis requires to be placed on the need to wean India off the polluting coal — India is currently the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

A recent Yale University national survey of 4,031 Indian adults found that 54 percent wanted India to make a large or at the least a moderate scale effort to reduce global warming. A national conversation on the subject, especially before the general election, would have been more effective in defining India’s mission than an opinion survey. 


The author is editor-in-chief of YaleGlobal Online, published by the MacMillan Center, Yale University.

Copyright 2014 Nayan Chanda