Even if crop yields drop and the dams dehydrate, even if climate change inflicts its very worst on us, it is highly unlikely that many people here in Australia will die from its effects. Likewise, if we seek to prevent climate change, capping emissions, trading permits, and raising the price of energy, we will feel the pinch on our wallets, perhaps we will have less to spend on luxuries, and for some making ends meet will become harder. But again, no one will starve, no one will die.
The refusal by India to commit to a slash in emissions is being presented by the Opposition Leader as a valid reason for perpetuating our inertia. The problem is that, India, despite the impression it broadcasts through the IPL, Bollywood, the Ambani family, and the wealthy Diaspora around the world, remains extremely poor.
Of every 1,000 children born, 76 die before they reach five-years-old (the figure is six per 1,000 in Australia). Nearly all Indian toddlers are anaemic and about half are malnourished. These statistics are a modest improvement on the situation a decade ago. But clearly, most Indians can only dream of a standard of living routinely found in Australia.
Even if we release only a small proportion of the world’s total carbon emissions, we excrete almost 30 times more CO2 per person than India does. Our highways are clogged by single occupant cars, theirs by bicycles, scooters and (overcrowded) buses.
We continue to build coal fired power stations, while even in Bangalore, the flagship of Indian modernity, it’s Earth Hour at least twice a day, as (hydroelectric) electricity supplies fail to keep pace with demand and load shedding plunges the city into darkness night after night. The state government there recently announced six- to eight-hour power cuts daily for the city, and even longer cuts for rural areas.
As the nation struggles to develop, children study for exams by candlelight or under streetlamps. In contrast, our government’s concern is how to find ways for each school student to have a computer.
Certainly, India will suffer as the climate changes. Indian children (and adults) will die as warming devastates agriculture, dries rivers flowing from the Himalayan glaciers, enhances spread of infection-carrying mosquitoes, and pushes back the tide of gradual economic growth which has recently spread from the cities to the villages.
But Indian children are dying now - and so their government’s first responsibility, rightly, should be to find ways to control poverty, and their second, to find ways to insulate their population from the forthcoming problems. Both of these will require economic growth.
Unlike Australia, where delayed economic growth may cause increased reliance on social security for some, and drops in discretionary spending for most; delayed economic growth in India will cause death. It’s as simple as that.
The first paragraph of India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change, released at the end of June, squarely blames the current situation on “high consumption lifestyles in developed countries”.
It’s hard to argue.
The Plan confirms that India will seek a more sustainable path to development than we have chosen, but also affirms rapid economic growth and alleviation of poverty as the primary objective. The Indian Prime Minister defiantly added that his county’s per capita emissions would never exceed those of developed countries. How can we expect a nation where most households don’t have access to a clean toilet, or even own a table, to prioritise a policy with potentially negative impact on growth, while extremely wealthy countries such as ours sit and wait and talk?
Many Indians are livid that emissions reduction should be inflicted on them just as their economy has begun to grow. They would regard the Brendan Nelson’s plan as selfish, short sighted and offensive.
Clearly, if India ever reaches our level of per capita carbon emissions, the world will be in serious trouble. But if we expect India to take a stand on controlling climate change, the existing culprits, ourselves included, must be seen to be acting responsibly.
Instead of belligerently citing India as a motive for our own inaction, we can experiment, invent, share and guide. We have the breathing room and the economic reserve to lead, rather than follow.