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Discounting the future

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Author(s): Anil Agarwal
Jun 30, 1998 | From the print edition

There is a firm belief amongst economists that poor people are more worried about their present than their future. In other words, the poor 'discount' their future. This is exactly what is happening in global environmental negotiations which are slowly but steadily setting up a 'global ecological order'. This is a form of globalisation that even has the support of the civil society in the western democratic countries. Consumption and production systems have now reached a level of magnitude that what happens in one country can have a serious impact on another one, even affect the whole world. Therefore, there is an urgent need for all the nations of the world to develop a joint understanding and a joint action plan to protect the world's ecological systems.

Global warming poses precisely such a problem. Burning of fossil fuels is increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere. And this gas has an ability to trap the solar heat and slowly raise the temperature of the world's atmosphere. The resulting 'global warming' could have serious effects on the Earth's ecological system and make human life miserable, especially in the developing world. Nobody really knows what will be the exact effects of global warning. But the weather, it is argued, could tend towards the extremes - greater number of episodes of heavy rainfall and hence, floods; greater number of episodes of extreme dryness and hence droughts; more cyclones and what not.

The world's scientists have not been able to model the monsoon into their global climate models and hence, nobody knows what will be the impact on the monsoon. But just imagine what would happen to India if there was an intensification of the monsoon, or weathering of the monsoon or just a shift of the monsoon towards the Arabian sea or a shift towards the southeastern region of Asia. Any which way you look you find India would be in deep trouble. In any case, what is certain is that global warming will melt the glaciers from the Himalayan ranges to the polar regions leading to a rise in the sea level which in turn would drown a large part of low-lying countries like the Maldives and Bangladesh and parts of Goa and Gujarat in India.

Now in case India had an enormous amount of money - say something like the us - it could build huge dykes to keep the sea out and invest in other adaptation measures in agriculture, human lifestyle and so on. But India does not have that kind of money. The inter-governmental panel on climate change - an international group of scientists sponsored by the United Nations - has already calculated that developing countries will be twice more vulnerable than developed countries, because of their economic conditions, and small island nations will be three times vulnerable. If carbon dioxide concentration was to double, the economic damages and adaptation costs would amount to 1-2 per cent of gross domestic product (gdp) for developed countries and 2-9 per cent for developing countries.

In such a scenario, what would you expect the government of India to do? Undertake serious studies, understand the global politics surrounding global warming, develop clear and sound positions that take the nation's long term economic and ecological interests into account, and build up a national consensus on the actions that need to be taken, domestically and internationally. That is, in fact, what is happening in the industrialised countries which are going to suffer.

In developing countries like India, however, there is an extraordinary silence. Ask Atal Behari Vajpayee himself or any of cabinet ministers have you even heard of global warming, the answer you will get from everyone is 'no'. They have definitely not met as a cabinet to develop strategies. And nor did H D Deve Gowda or I K Gujral before Atal Behari take any heed of the problem. Just why is that so? The only answer I can think of is that the whole nation and its leadership is thinking like the poor and is only got 'poverty' in its head.

Confronted with innumerable problems today, India's leadership cannot think of anything beyond today and is, therefore, like the economist's poor, person who is heavily 'discounting' the future. But a nation's leadership should be concerned about 'poverty'- in fact, deeply concerned about 'poverty' - but its mind and mental frame work cannot be full of 'poverty'. It has to be foresighted like a statesperson.

Why is all this so essential today? Simply because this is when the 'foresighted westerners are getting together to come up with a global solution. And indeed global warming demands a global solution. No nation alone can solve the problem. Given the fact that burning of oil and coal is today so closely related to economic growth, what is the guarantee that the rules, being set to control global warming, will take India's economic interests into account? The answer is obvious, there is no guarantee and yet in the meeting going on in Bonn this fortnight, the Indian presence is low key.

This is happening even when the us leadership is shouting from tree-tops that control of global warning can affect its economy and that it will not do anything unless large developing countries like India and China engage in 'meaningful participation'. Isn't India's silence or non-action amazing in such a situation?

- Anil Agarwal.

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