Monday, November 26, 2007

The Heat Is On!

A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri

Introduction: In development, as in life and love, some lessons are learnt only the hard way. One that I particularly remember – anything given free has no value to the recipient – was learnt while running a medical services programme in western Rajasthan. Another – that as long as something affects only the poor, nothing will be done about it – the moment it starts affecting the middle classes and the rich, even in a minor way, and you can be sure that it will move up priority lists, resources will be made available, and action will be taken. And there will subsequently be little need for the Ajit Chaudhuris of the world, the small fry of development, to worry their little heads and/or waste their meagre intellectual, financial and emotional resources in looking at meaningful interventions. Look at action on air pollution as against on basic education services as an example.

And therefore, ladies and gentlemen, I find myself in an interesting conundrum vis-à-vis climate change. I was, until recently, unworried! Sure, the world is warming up – apparently saying that it isn’t is today’s equivalent of holocaust denial. So what? The developed world is going to be affected. And even if this is in a miniscule proportion to the rest of us, fact of life number two has already begun applying. Hit films have been made, Nobel Prizes (for peace??) have been won, and we have to lace our project proposals with a new buzzword to get approvals from the international donor community. And then, a lecture by Sir Nick Stern[1] gave me something to think about.

A Stern Warning: Stern first explained the phenomenon by likening the earth’s atmosphere to a giant warehouse in which there were inflows and outflows of greenhouse gases, and a resultant stock of carbon in the atmosphere. An increase in this stock has led to the phenomenon of global warming – a gradual heating of the atmosphere and climate change. This in turn is changing (and will change) lives through rising temperatures and water – more drought and floods in more extreme forms, changed rain patterns, etc.

Stern says that global warming is a different phenomenon because it is –
· Global – so it cannot be addressed by local action, unlike, say, pollution in Delhi (addressable by converting public transport to CNG through legislation) or vehicle congestion in London (addressable by a congestion charge).
· Long term and irreversible – the last significant global warming phenomenon was experienced when the ice age changed over to today’s climate.
· Uncertain – nobody quite understands the phenomenon, how it works and what the precise consequences will be. The past ten years have seen events on a scale that have never happened before. We know that average temperatures have increased by 0.8 centigrade over the past 50 years, and the pace is increasing. At a 3-centigrade increase, the earth will lose half its species. At a 5-centigrade increase, human settlements will have to move to higher latitudes[2]. If no action is taken – the ‘business as usual’ approach – temperatures will be 5-centigrade higher by the next century.
· The scale is gigantic – if we take strong action, the world could stabilise at a 3-centigrade increase in temperature at a cost of one percent of global GDP. This is considerably less than the cost of inaction, estimated at five percent of global GDP.

Though India is not the source of the problem (and is the only major world economy that has a lower per capita carbon emission average than that necessary to stabilise the temperature at a 3-centigrade increase), it is extremely vulnerable to global warming. We are seeing, and are likely to see –
· Extreme rainfall events
· Retreat of glaciers and snow
· Increased droughts and floods, in more severe forms
· Water scarcity in the long run because of reduced inflows into our river systems
· The effect on the monsoon is not yet understood

Some issues: Stern weakens when he talks about what needs to be done – he speaks of a vague ‘new global deal’ with a key role for India within it. He speaks of the need for developed nations to double aid flows (the standard western response to any problem) to 0.7 percent of their respective GDPs (hey, wasn’t this supposed to be for things unconnected with climate change, like basic health and basic education?) to developing countries (have you heard of the 85 percent corruption out here, Sir Nick? And what happens to poor countries that are not carbon criminals?). He says that carbon emissions do not have a connection with economic growth, which belies all available evidence[3].

So what? We all know that averages mean nothing in this country, and a later Greenpeace report pointed out that Indian families earning over Rs. 30,000 per month are among the most prolific sources of carbon emissions in the world. As long as we have sufficient numbers of poor people who are unable to contribute to global warming, we will get pats on our backs as a nation. And as long as global warming affects only those on the fringes, who contribute least to it, and leaves the fat cats in Delhi and state capitals alone, there will be little incentive for the bureaucrat-politician-contractor nexus (or what is euphemistically called the government – the key player for India in Stern’s global new deal) to do anything other than absorb the increased aid flows and swell bank accounts.

In the short run, we in the development sector will have to adjust to this latest fashion as we have adjusted to previous ones – by cutting ‘HIV/AIDS’ from earlier project proposals and pasting ‘global warming’. The slightly more sincere can indulge in some ‘majboori ka naam Mahatma Gandhi[4]’ and organise carbon credits for tribal farmers we work with, and subsequently convert them into money in the various new carbon exchange mechanisms that have come up and are gradually increasing in sophistication.

But – in the long run – we will as a nation need to choose between the currently in vogue high consumption high growth economic model and one that is based upon more temperance. How many poor people will die before hard choices are made? Your guess is as good as mine! As a sector, if we work towards these choices being made earlier rather than later, we may be able to save more than a few lives.
[1] Sir Nick Stern is the author of the Stern Report that guided the British Government’s policy towards climate change. He is now at the London School of Economics, and spoke to LSE alumni at the British Council during a visit to Delhi last month.
[2] The change from the ice age to today’s climate was a 5-centigrade change. Before this, all human settlements were in the tropics.
[3] The possible reason for Stern saying this would be political. The consequence of saying that economic development is a cause of global warming would be the opening of cans of worms along the us vs. them lines of ‘you cause it and we bear the consequences’, ‘you screwed the earth in enabling your economic development, now why can’t we’ and questioning one of the most basic tenements of the World Bank/IMF cabal that economic growth is the answer to all evils.
[4] This roughly translates to making a virtue out of necessity.

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