The Gods Must Be Crazy

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

Fist Things Fist: If this section heading doesn’t look quite right it’s because there are a few r’s missing. That was true this week of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, a panel of Democrats whose Republican sparring partners boycotted work on the climate bill co-sponsored by Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). The Republican senators criticized the majority for moving ahead without an EPA analysis of the bill, which is similar to one that the House approved in June. The bill passed out of the committee this morning by a vote of 11-1, with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) voting against it, and all the R’s abstaining.

Committee drama set the stage for Sens. Kerry, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to announce yesterday that they are pursuing parallel negotiations on a climate bill, and are in discussion with the administration, Senate colleagues, and outside interests, including the newly minted American Businesses for Clean Energy.

Expectations for the Copenhagen climate talks continue to drop so low that the conference might end up being declared a success solely on the basis of having enough folding chairs and scratch paper for attendees. Climate envoy Todd Stern told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that in Copenhagen the U.S. hopes to lay groundwork for agreements on contentious issues in the near future.

About Our Recent, Unexcused Absences…: What many Indians lack in understanding “global warming,” they make up for in knowledge that their climate is changing. That’s a central takeaway from Climate Post‘s recent three-week voyage through India. It’s also the central problem in writing about climate change: Scientists commonly define “climate” as a statistical average of weather events, somewhere, over a long period of time. So personal observations, such as, the rainy season isn’t so rainy lately, are of limited scientific value. We can note that extreme events–flooding, drought, erratic weather, coastal erosion, the rest–resemble predictions, if they do. But there’s “no man behind the curtain” of climate change.

These on-the-ground observations may be of limited scientific value. But what makes them tangible is the way that en masse they begin to shape the very non-scientific public awareness and politics. Krishnendu Bandyopadhyay, a Times of India special correspondent, told me that editors have focused attention on climate change prompted not by politics, as is frequently the case in the U.S., but with declining agricultural productivity. The eastern Indian state of Odisha (called Orissa until 2 weeks ago) has many concerns. If there is an environmental problem happening anywhere in India, or the world, it can also be found in Odisha. And climate risks in this region are halting. Last week marked the 10th anniversary of a supercyclone that killed 10,000 people and dislocated more than 1.5 million there. Poorer areas never recovered and fears linger. “They shouldn’t call [storms] ‘low-pressure systems,'” said Prafulla Kumar Dhal, who works for a local social welfare agency called BISWA. “They should call them ‘normal-pressure systems.'”

The U.S. climate debate often feels hollow (mostly–anyone remember Katrina?) because it is largely driven by political concerns and scientific data, not people experiencing the meteorological weirdness that, if nothing else, Occam’s Razor suggests may be partly influenced by climate change. It’s a common assertion in the climate community that poor and vulnerable nations will experience the severest dislocations. It’s a less common assertion that poor and vulnerable nations are already beginning to see strain, are aware of it, and are unhappy. In some ways I learned more about it my first two days in India than in the previous 10 years I’ve spent writing out it.

Beyond the Foreign Section: The Indian trip was organized by the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Information Programs, though I traveled as a private citizen unencumbered by any official messages, tasks, or requests. Mostly, I was asked to go over and meet with Indian journalists so that we can compare notes about what works and doesn’t in climate coverage, and find ways to work together. The trip culminated in a New Delhi journalism conference, organized by the International Federation of Environmental Journalists, about bridging the gaps between climate change reporting in the North and South.

Discussions frequently turned to how difficult it is for Indians to see anything beyond Washington, and for Americans to see anything beyond Delhi. Some Indians I met tend to see America as monolithic or a cartoon. President Obama is seen by some as no different from President Bush on climate policy, even if he has the Senate to fault. Many Americans who think about it see India only as the first part of the phrase “India and China,” without recognizing the complexities, that 99 percent of Indians live below the U.S. poverty line or that there are 100 million-200 million more Indians without electricity than there are Americans in total. There is much work to do bringing Indians and Americans together electronically.

Now Appearing on the International Stage: India’s Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, is interesting to watch. He must balance the demands of his government, which is reluctant to amend its incalcitrant position in the climate negotiations, and his interlocutors in the West, who are reluctant to amend their incalcitrant positions in the climate negotiations. This week he is encouraging Indians to see climate change as a leadership opportunity–and a responsibility to the future, and to internalize its meaning rather than play victim to a problem of the West’s creation.

The Obama administration appears poised to make more progress in its bilateral relationship with India than with any other nation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will visit Washington this month and enjoy President Obama’s first state dinner. Trade and geopolitics are bringing the two nations together, cautiously.

Statistical Threats Leave No Fingerprints: India may be more vulnerable to large-scale climate change than any other nation. Seventy percent of its rainfall comes during monsoon season. Unusual variability in the monsoon has led to drought and flooding. Melting Himalayan glaciers threaten fresh water supplies for hundreds of millions. The Bay of Bengal is eroding a string of Odisha villages I visited. BISWA’s Prafulla Kumar Dhal spoke of an important temple, the adjacent wells to which had dried up. “The gods know that the climate is changing,” he said, seemingly incredulous. Maybe so, maybe not. Some weird stuff is happening in India. The question, what if anything will we do about it, remains unanswered–in Washington, New Delhi, Copenhagen, and elsewhere.

Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available at Grist.