Climate-change Cassandras are prone to warning that unless governments take draconian action to limit carbon emissions, the world will suffer grievously and the poor will be hardest hit. Yet here in India, home to more poor people than any other country, a left-of-center government is sounding less than convinced by these prophets of doom, to say nothing of their prescriptions for salvation.
“The climate world is divided into three: the climate atheists, the climate agnostics, and the climate evangelicals,” Jairam Ramesh, India’s Environment and Forests minister, told me on a recent evening. “I’m a climate agnostic.”
Mr. Ramesh, a member of the Congress Party with close ties to the politically dominant Gandhi family, is hardly a household name in the U.S. But among people who follow climate debates closely, he is by turns admired and detested for his occasional outbursts about both the science and the politics of global warming.
Last year, he publicly dressed down Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she pushed for India to adopt binding emissions targets. He was among the first to question the bogus claim by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035. He has spearheaded an Indian climate-change research institute—an implicit vote of no-confidence in the IPCC’s science. He has also “repeatedly” told his countryman and friend, IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri, to “draw a line between climate science and climate advocacy. . . . Leave that to Al Gore . . . or Ban Ki Moon.” Elsewhere in our interview, Mr. Ramesh dismisses Mr. Gore as an “evangelical.”
Questions of science aside, Mr. Ramesh also pours scorn on what he sees as the hypocrisy, bad faith and the sheer impracticality of current political approaches to climate change. International negotiations on the subject are a “complete quagmire,” he says. “We have a Kyoto Protocol in which the U.S. has not ratified. The Europeans are not going to be taking on commitments unless the Americans take it [on]. The Americans are saying we won’t take something on until the Chinese take something on. So we are, frankly, headed nowhere.”
Mr. Ramesh also sees “glaring deficiencies in the architecture of climate-change agreements,” starting with the “lack of any graduation.” As countries move up the “per-capita income ladder,” he explains, they should “take on progressively higher levels of legally binding commitments.” Randomly chosen emission targets become “a game of competitive one-upmanship.” “Ten percent we will cut?” he asks, his voice rising. “Fifteen percent? It’s not a lottery, you know.”
What seems to rankle Mr. Ramesh the most about these kinds of demands is the idea that India should sign itself on to the rich world’s environmental fads at the expense of its own poor people. Many Indians have long understood that the kind of climate interventions pushed by the likes of Mr. Gore—binding emissions targets, carbon taxes, cap-and-trade schemes and so on—all amount to giving up on cheap energy sources in exchange for sharply higher costs and economically unproven technologies. In India, that means consigning legions of the poor, many of whom don’t even yet have access to electricity or gas, to perpetual life in the slums.
Other poor countries agree. China, South Africa, Brazil and India “bonded very well together at Copenhagen,” Mr. Ramesh reports. “We are united in our desire not to have a binding agreement thrust upon us which will constrict our developmental options.”
It’s also far from clear that climate change is India’s principal environmental concern. “To say that [climate change] is the defining issue, no, there are bread-and-butter environmental issues,” he says. “There are pollution-control issues which are affecting the public health. You know, in many parts of India people are dying because of excess of pesticides in the water, or arsenic in water. That’s more important and more urgent than climate change.”
So what is the way forward? For all of his delightful bluntness, Mr. Ramesh the politician is himself often given to qualifying his statements and hedging his bets. He speaks of a need for an “international agreement” on climate change with “common but differentiated” responsibilities among nations, and just this week he announced India would back the Copenhagen Accord and its nonbinding emissions targets.
But he also acknowledges what the Danish “skeptical environmentalist” Bjorn Lomborg has described as a “third way” forward: Acknowledging that climate change is real, but pursuing an approach that would make cost-benefit assessments of all environmental challenges in order to do the most good for the greatest number of people. In Mr. Lomborg’s analyses, climate change almost invariably comes in last behind real environmental needs like improving nutrition, providing access to clean water, or fighting scourges like AIDS and malaria.
“I don’t think you should dismiss Lomborg the way climate evangelicals have dismissed him,” Mr. Ramesh says. “He makes reasonable points. The spirit of science is the spirit of inquiry, of questioning.”
That it should be left to a politician from a developing country to make that point—while his counterparts in the West push for Rube Goldberg solutions to a “crisis” that may not even exist—goes far toward explaining the state of the climate debate today.
Ms. Kissel is the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Asia.