The politics of empty words

  • 14/08/2002

The new buzzword in the climate research circles is vulnerability and adaptation. Just like most of the climate discussion the words have become so dense, that their meaning is lost on most, except the most conversant and involved. It is almost as if the effort is to convolute the science and to disfranchise the ordinary in the dialogue.

What then is this discussion all about? Climate change seems to be happening around us. At least, from what I understand of the science, there is enough going around to say that the indications of change are staring us in the face. We cannot say that the current delay in monsoons is because of climate change or something related. We cannot even say that the recent heat wave was because of global warming. But something is definitely afoot. Scientists say global warming is not about absolute change. But about reading into the premonition of extreme and unusual weather events. us journal, Science, this fortnight reported that 85 per cent of the glaciers studied by a group of scientists had lost vast portions of their mass in the last 40 years. They were thinning at the rate of 1.8 metres a year, adding an extra 96 cubic km of water into the oceans. Terrible news for island and coastal communities.

If we are beginning to see the impacts of global warming then I would have thought that we would also focus on the need to mitigate its cause. And as greenhouse gas emissions are about sharing limited atmospheric space, we would be putting increased and strident pressure on the industrialised polluters to free up the ecological space for the developing world to grow. This is the no nonsense hard politics of the climate debate.

But this is not what is being discussed. Instead, the debate has already shifted to how the poor are vulnerable and how scientists can find methods and techniques to help them "adapt" to the new destabilised climate regime, where life on the edge will become even more stressed. Agricultural scientists have found a way into the climate debate, as have many United Nations agencies hungry for a piece of the pie.

What I cannot understand, is what is new about the possible "mitigation' strategies, other than what we know needs to be done, but never do, for poverty alleviation in the rural areas. Climate change will make people living in already stressed, over-exploited ecosystems, even more vulnerable. They are coping today with droughts, floods and desperate poverty, in spite of incredible odds. We don't need to study their coping strategies. We need to implement, urgently, all the programmes for land and water management so that they are able to withstand the vagaries of nature.

The Indian government, which is preparing to host the next conference of parties of the climate convention later this year, has also decided to focus on vulnerability and adaptation. They want to be good hosts and utter "sweet nothings" to the participants. But vulnerability is not merely about science and models. It is about the impact of climate change. It is about victims. And it is about payment for adaptation and compensation costs. Most of all, it is about stressing the need for mitigating the impacts.

Therefore, what I would expect the Indian government to do is to use this conference to situate the debate of vulnerability in the context of the impacts and the urgent need for reducing emissions of the rich. It should also set up a political context to "adaptation" by discussing a framework of entitlements. I would argue that without this framework of rights, adaptation is something like the feel good factor of food aid, without the legally guaranteed right to food.

In the early 1990s, the issue of adaptation was related to compensation to the victims of climate change impact. The Indian government had then raised the concept of the Planet Fund or the Green Fund, as a liability payment of the polluters. Though the fund never came through, it was agreed that the objective of the Framework Convention on Climate Change was to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations to prevent dangerous "anthropogenic interference with the climate system". This reduction in emissions needed to be done fast so that it would allow ecosystems to "adapt" naturally to climate change and food production would not be threatened.

But by the late 1990s, the farce had been played out. In the Kyoto Protocol - the legally binding agreement to cut emissions of the industrialised north - the tables were turned. Now the poor pay the costs for adaptation. Adaptation costs are paid as a portion of the transactions under the Clean Development Mechanism (cdm), in which the North buys emission credits for the South. Therefore, the poor will pay themselves for adapting to problems they did not create. A brilliant and audacious move. It is this that the government must challenge if it wants to discuss adaptation. Not host a cultural event.

I would also hope that if nothing else, the "unusual" and devastating weather this year - from scorching heat waves, to rains that never came - should wake up our politicians, who normally cannot see beyond their noses. They must understand that this is what the future holds. Let's not forget the slogan in Gujarat when deputy prime minister L K Advani was seeking his votes, phele pani, phir Advani (first water, then Advani). This could well become the slogan of the century.

- Sunita Narain

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