During Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to India last week, Indian environmental minister Jairam Ramesh expressed India’s views on climate change policy: “There is simply no case for the pressure that we, who have been among the lowest emitters per capita, face to actually reduce emissions.” Other less-developed countries (LDCs) have similar, though perhaps less aggressive, attitudes. The problem is, developing countries now make up a significant portion of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (China emits the most carbon dioxide of any country, and India is fourth). While it’s true that LDCs still emit greenhouse gases at much lower per capita rates than developed nations, a successful policy to combat climate change will require their cooperation.
The arguments about whose responsibility it is to curb climate change are well-worn by this point, but they still threaten to thwart meaningful international collaboration. Developed nations point out that the LDCs will soon account for a large majority of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. LDCs shoot back that industrialized nations created the climate change problem and that it’s only fair that LDCs also get a chance to modernize their economies without environmental restrictions. Both sides have valid points. But the developing world’s unwillingness to address the problem will have devastating consequences that will harm LDCs far worse than the developed world.
As an example, take Ramesh’s claim that fears about receding Himalayan glaciers are a “preconceived notion … based on western media.” Not only is Ramesh’s allegation entirely untrue—an Indian research institute predicted last year that, at the current rate of melting, the glaciers may disappear entirely by 2035—but it is grossly irresponsible for India’s government to take that position. Unless the world does something soon, climate change and environmental damage caused by reckless development policies will cripple developing economies and create a massive humanitarian crisis.
Himalayan glaciers feed major rivers including the Ganges, Barahmaputra, Mekong, and Yangtze, which provide fresh water to billions of people in South and East Asia. When the glaciers are gone, those mighty rivers will shrink dramatically, and some may even become seasonal water sources. Already, droughts in India are causing wars over water, reduced precipitation has caused grain shortfalls in Pakistan, and 500 million Chinese lack access to clean water. If the glaciers melt, water shortages could affect over one billion people. LDCs claim that environmental regulation is prohibitively expensive, but a humanitarian disaster wrought by climate change will cost them far more.
Frustratingly, the parameters of an agreement have existed for years. Any successful international climate change policy will be based on a system of cash transfers from rich countries to fund LDC’s environmental programs. Indeed, developed nations admitted their historical responsibility for most greenhouse gas emissions in the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Developed countries must also acknowledge that, as the world’s richest nations by far, they have the capacity and responsibility to bear the brunt of solving a global problem. At the same time, LDCs need to recognize their own crucial role in reducing future emissions. More importantly, though, they must realize that climate change threatens their very existence. Developed nations should make it clear that they are willing to fund meaningful and effective environmental measures in LDCs. But unless the LDCs get on board, they will face an environmental catastrophe that will more than erase the economic gains they’ve made over the past few decades.
In December, representatives from over 170 countries will meet in Copenhagen to discuss the future of international climate agreements. These efforts have the potential to significantly advance environmental policy, but only if the world stops playing the blame game and recognizes climate change as a global problem that everyone must help to solve. Progress in preparation for Copenhagen has reached an impasse in the form of bickering over financing for the LDC’s efforts to cut emissions. But something has to give. Either the world will reach a compromise to share the burdens of climate change policy, or we risk a future of environmental disasters and state failure triggered by severe natural resource shortages.