Posturing as policy

Print edition : July 16, 2010

Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organised conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe...

THESE words of Frederick Douglass, a leading light of the Abolitionist movement, who fought to end slavery long before the American Civil War, are very relevant in today's global context. First, there are strong similarities between the world today (in spite of a first black President of the United States) and that of Douglass' time, when blacks were slaves in the U.S., and again, the era of apartheid in South Africa. Secondly, Douglass' statement about neither persons nor property will be safe in the context of the current confusions and controversy around the international negotiations on climate change, could very well relate to the earth the common property that all human and other sentient beings own and share. At stake is not just the future of individuals, nations and lifestyles, but that of the common property of humankind, the planet and life itself.

The irresponsibility of the elites, both in the North and South, could actually push the entire human species into extinction. Considering that millions of other species and sentient beings die every day, what does it matter if the death and disappearance of homo sapiens should also happen. The problem, however, is not about the human species disappearing; it is that one section of humanity is arrogating to itself the right to make this happen. No individual or state can deny the right to life of any human being of this or a future generation.

In this fundamental principle, of the right to life, lies the ethical, moral and practical imperative of addressing the impact of global warming. It is a non-negotiable basis for discarding the fraudulent private-property-rights-based approaches to dealing with the consequences of climate change approaches meant to obfuscate the seriousness of global warming and create a smokescreen of manufactured confusions, debates and the so-called scientific scepticism about a human-induced warming of the climate. The first challenge all responsible governments, citizens and organisations face in preventing global warming is to be correctly informed about both global warming and the politics that denies it.

In this respect, An India that Can Say Yes, Praful Bidwai's substantive work, makes an important contribution. The author and the publisher, Heinrich Boell Foundation (HBF), deserve appreciation.

Climate change poses complex challenges in evolving policies in all sectors of the economy and at all levels. Debating such a complex issue is made more difficult by the fact that while it is mainly a problem of the global atmospheric commons there is a reduction ad absurdum involved in looking for a nationalist perspective on it. A national perspective has normative possibilities; nationalist ones are cul de sacs. Praful Bidwai does grapple with this problem.

The unpalatable reality of the climate change discourse in India is that it is suffused with only nationalist, ultra-nationalist and pseudo-nationalist perspectives. The internationalist perspectives of yesteryear beginning with the stalwarts of the Independence movement are out of the window. Crude nationalism competes for public policy space even in matters relating to the earth's environment. Not to mention the difficulties of genuine democratic public policy debate in a country in which a national opposition party makes a nuisance of itself to democratic debate by trying to hijack (backed periodically by lumpen muscle power) every public policy issue and straitjackets it in pseudo-nationalist positions; the latter mainly because of its own lack of intelligence and capacity to understand any serious scientific or international issue.

Bidwai does not get himself into a bind by taking nationalist postures; he tries hard to evolve a national perspective but is unable to avoid a nation-state perspective in looking at Copenhagen. Though, in Chapter 4 he gives some sharp perspectives on the kind of international stand India should take on climate change discussions, including moving away from the per capita norm. The publication's value would have been higher had it included a section on the international legal dimensions at the heart of the success or failure of climate change negotiations. There is a need to step back and renew the discourses on the principle of looking at new ways of safeguarding state sovereignty through cooperation and compliance, especially with regard to treaties that involve resources that are the common heritage of humankind. To begin with, the United Nations, however flawed, must be salvaged as representing the normative architecture of international governance, opposed to the positivist architecture of global trade and economic regimes under globalisation.

Both the HBF and small, but influential, Scandinavian foundations, such as the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, have made significant contributions to the international discussions on renewing and reforming the U.N. and providing the global community with the much-needed critical perspective on the world order and environmental governance. References to the latter would have been useful.

The Law of the Seas, a unique international treaty relating to natural resources, had recognised in the 1980s the important principle of the common heritage of humankind, a principle opposed tooth and nail by the U.S. (at the high point of Reaganism). Yet, almost all nations and groupings, barring the U.S., adopted the treaty. The U.S. isolated, ultimately gave in. The principle of common heritage found its way into the biodiversity convention, too.

Ironically, although there were early proposals for an umbrella treaty like the Law of the Seas on climate change, the framework convention route that was adopted with a convention plus protocols meant no agreement on fundamental principles with each item negotiated over time a disastrous approach considering that time is of the essence in tackling global warming. It also meant giving short shrift to a number of first principles with regard to environment and sustainable development from a global perspective. This, in spite of the considerable success in developing an international law on sustainable development.

As a matter of fact, Principle 27 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development commits states and people to further develop international law in the field of sustainable development'. The common good was to take pre-eminence over narrow state interests.

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and its appendage, the Kyoto Protocol, on the other hand, have consistently undercut the principle of the earth's resources being common heritage, a very important basis to ensure ecological integrity, and worse, supplanted it with private property rights discourses.

In a reflective Preface, doubling as a personal statement of his politics and commitment, Bidwai says, Pessimism about managing the commons in cooperative and sustainable ways is unwarranted. He then underlines, in contrast to market-driven and state-directed approaches, the benefits of cooperative and collective solutions to deal with the global atmospheric commons. The latter, however, is not elaborated in the book.

A DRILLING CAMP on a glacier near the summit of the 4,884-metre Puncak Jaya mountain in the Indonesian part of New Guinea island, a June 2010 handout photo. Scientists led by alpine glaciologist Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University have begun drilling ice cores at the shrinking tropical glacier to collect data on climate change.-REUTERS

Undermining settled principles of international environmental law is the way international treaty on issues relating to ecology and environment have evolved in a neoliberal world. The UNFCC and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol are part of that evolution.

The substance of the UNFCC and the Kyoto Protocol is best put in the words of Larry Lohman, a top international analyst of the politics of climate change and global warming, who is referred to by Bidwai also.

Lohman says, The commonsense solution is both to reduce the use of the earth's greenhouse gas dump overall and to divide up the dump more equitably. On the surface, it may seem that the 1997 Kyoto Protocol does both. The Protocol requires rich industrialised countries to start cutting emissions first by about 5 per cent by 2008-2012 while, for the time being, leaving southern countries alone. Yet appearances are deceiving. At the same time the Protocol targets the North for some small emissions cuts, it also quietly gives the North quasi-property rights over the atmosphere, leaving the South out in the cold. Similarly, while on paper the Protocol seems to be mapping out greenhouse gas cuts, in practice it subsidises increased emissions. These are the real points of the Kyoto Protocol and they remain unreported in the newspapers.

So, should we still put all our eggs in the Kyoto Protocol basket? Bidwai, while being critical of the Kyoto Protocol, is not in favour of abandoning it. He even credits it with having a rational kernel or component.

The politics of science' is part of the tactics to underplay the threats posed by global warming. Questioning the scientific integrity of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its Chairman R.K. Pachauri is a part of that politics. The IPCC does not do any original research, nor does it carry out the work of monitoring climate or related phenomena. Its assessments are based mainly on peer-reviewed and published scientific literature. With all its shortcomings, the integrity of the IPCC is still recognised, making it difficult for climate change sceptics and special interests like the multinational oil companies to undermine its reputation.

Pachauri, a civil engineer, became its Chairman in 2002, as a George Bush favourite and against the wishes of the European Union, a matter well reported then in scientific publications of repute. The Bush administration wanted Robert Watson, an outspoken climate scientist, replaced.

U.S. environmental groups saw the hand of Exxon Mobil and others lobbying Bush to get rid of Watson. Pachauri, spouting anti-American rhetoric, was seen as an ideal replacement and was expected to be soft on U.S. energy policies that affect climate change. The more serious charges that have surfaced recently relates to a conflict of interests in his dealings. He is accused of receiving payments for his institution (The Energy and Research Institute). Bidwai does not touch upon these issues relating to conflict of interest, which have a bearing on the credibility of the IPCC.

The connections between conventional environmental protection and policies to deal with climate change also needed examination in the book. Environmental protection, ecological conservation and regeneration play a critical role in both preventing and reducing the impact of climate change. The challenge is in prioritising the choices in terms of the range of interventions in the environmental protection domain and in the ordering and sequencing of actions to be taken with regard to dealing with activities that are deleterious to the environment and ecology from a perspective of global warming.

In the enforcement of environmental protection laws, though, the laws clearly state control, prevention and abatement, the whole range of activities undertaken deal with only piecemeal control and prevention, and rarely abatement. Unless abatement activities are pursued vigorously, the environment can never be really protected and restoration of the environment and ecology will never take place. Any amount of control and prevention would still do very little to enhance the quality of the environment. In such a perspective, protection of the environment and contribution to enhancing the environmental assets of the nation would mean moving away from end of the pipe' control and regulation regimes to inside the pipe, input, throughput and output processes, in terms of eco-efficiency. Regulatory institutions such as the Pollution Control Boards need to be re-engineered totally.

Bidwai avoids discussions on regulation and regulatory institutions but does not fail to address issues relating to eco-efficiency. He provides a good number of examples in India of such work that is going on, while noting that they are not mainstreamed through conscious changes in policy.

With regard to activities that contribute to global warming, clearly two important steps are required. One is to put an end to activities whose impact could result in the crossing of threshold limits in terms of changes in ecosystems. Crossing the threshold would make it very difficult or almost impossible to undo the damage. The other is to reduce, in a calibrated sense, activities or interventions that would not allow ecological recovery and environmental sustainability to happen.

Bidwai points out the deep flaws and inadequacies in the National Action Plan on Climate Change, thereby illustrating the total lack of coherence between environmental protection, forest regeneration and national climate policy. These are issues that the Ministry of Environment and Forests should take charge of urgently; such responsibilities should not be outsourced to non-governmental organisations, in some cases self-servingly called centres of excellence.

Bidwai's work is a sharp and accurate analysis of India's failure in shaping a genuine public policy on climate change, including the farcical and non-representative nature of the Prime Minister's Council on Climate Change, the shadow dancing that the Government of India does on policies relating to climate change and the posturing it is reduced to at international fora. Yet, this book gives the impression of being urban-biased and elitist.

Timed for the Copenhagen Climate Conference, the publication is a mix of lobbying, advocacy and policy critique. The title though, echoing Obamaesque rhetoric, gives it an advocacy stance and this is possibly the reason that it misses out on a vast section of the Indian population, the farming community. Except for a passing reference to agriculture in the context of groundwater, views of farmers' movements or their representatives are missing. The views and comments are restricted mostly to those of NGO interlocutors and persons Bidwai perhaps considers as radical environmentalists with links to organisations such as Greenpeace.


Many activists in Asian countries see international organisations hijacking local activism and actually making money out of it. It is well known that local activism is critical for building and broadening the base of environmental activism and democracy at the grass roots. International organisations have responsibilities at other levels.

To address the issues of climate change, what we need is not publicity stunts or credit card activism by international organisations capturing national space but work and interventions with greater staying power and which involves different sections of people, particularly the rural youth. Bidwai provides glimpses of work of a more sustained nature, as in Chapter 7, titled The Domestic Imperative, in which he refers to the grass-roots work for natural regeneration of rural areas by young individuals such as Piyush Seth, who was jailed in January 2010 for protesting against the harassment of Gandhian activists in Madhya Pradesh.

Bidwai correctly refers to the huge potential such work has if linked to panchayats and block development offices, in terms of local control over and regeneration of natural resources. There are other such examples in the book on interventions at other levels, such as in urban areas, in the reduction of energy use, in natural air-conditioning, and so on.

However, a critical dimension is missing. It is the discourse on rights and the connection between Indian democracy, democratic institutions and democratic processes even speculation, let alone a serious examination whether they have any positive link to India's climate change policies. Ways of mobilising these institutions and ensuring that democratic processes function for all and not for the upper crust alone are critical in the climate change context. In the absence of such an approach, even a genuine concern for the rural poor and the marginalised could become patronising.

The poor, especially the rural poor, and women come across as only beneficiaries. Mitigation and transition to climate-sensitive public policies may often require technology and technological interventions, but that should not blind us to the fact that to achieve equity and entitlements to technology require the recognition of rights.

This is a reality to be recognised by anyone who seriously tries to examine climate change issues and looks at ways to address them. For example, if one upholds the principles of common but differentiated responsibility in climate change discussions internationally, then logically they should be applied nationally as well. Members of Parliament representing rural, coastal and tribal constituencies can see what resource transfers are rightfully due to them for the contribution their constituencies make towards adaptation and mitigation.

Organic farmers and horticulturalists practising water and energy conservation policies should automatically become eligible for incentive payments as a right. Instead of fighting the cutting of fertilizer subsidies, political parties should see how these funds can become incentive payments to those enhancing resource endowments and contributing to conservation. These approaches could be tested in our courts by creative law groups. Towards all of this, Bidwai's work definitely opens many doors.

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