We Can Work It Out

08/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

Chennai, India -- After a week in India, both listening to the climate dialogue going on here and looking back at the political maelstrom surrounding Congressional action on climate change at home, I'm inclined to suggest that we've been having the wrong conversation. We've been arguing about who has the "obligation" to stop doing bad things to the climate. The Indians have been saying, correctly, "You have been the ones wrecking it to date." And we've responded, also correctly: "But if you start being as irresponsible as we have, we'll all be cooked." But this conversation strongly suggests that what we're talking about is sacrifice, not opportunity. And the language of international negotiations, such as those facing us in Copenhagen in December, is deeply imbued with the idea of conflicting interests. So whenever two sides start getting closer together, their domestic opponents start screaming "compromise" or "concession."

The biggest problem with framing the debate in terms of allocating sacrifice or costs is that it has delay built into it -- and delay is precisely what we can't afford. After all, when two parties in a business relationship discover that there's suddenly a lot of money that must be paid, they typically call their lawyers -- and we all know how fast that works.

But the other conversation we could be having is about how we can start doing lots of good things for the planet -- things like building more wind turbines, improving insulation in more buildings, lowering the cost of solar cells by taking their deployment to scale, launching the electric-vehicle revolution, restoring more degraded grasslands, and saving more tropical forest. And these are things we can only, effectively, do together. So we might actually stop bad things faster if we start by focusing most of our energy on doing good things -- because when two sides to a deal realize that there is a lot of profit to be made, the negotiations have a very different tenor and pace.

And the sense of being pushed around by the guilty party is clearly slowing down progress here. Even Rajendra Pachauri, the Indian scientist who as head of the IPPC shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore, is being quoted here as saying India cannot be "pressurized" into climate commitments.

But Pachauri also went on to say:

Several things we are doing, I believe are wrong. We are not investing in public transport; we do not have regulations on our buildings. We are constructing the same shopping malls that you have in North America. Those are mistakes, we should not do. If we do, we are depriving our own people of the fruits of development.

If you have one shopping mall that uses 20 mw of power, you are depriving hundreds and thousands of people of getting basic electricity. We have to realize that. We must accept the fact that we can't afford, we should not even look for the lifestyles that we have in the developed world, because the developed world would also have to change. They can't continue on this path of exorbitant and excessive consumption of goods and services.

So although Pachauri spends most of his time talking about what India is doing and should do, his bottom line is about not being coerced. This is the language of loss, not of opportunity.

And the landscape here shows that India is on the edge -- but not yet over it -- of seizing the opportunity. The country has created an energy efficiency "star-rating program" that the Bureau of Energy Efficiency reported last year saved almost 1 percent of India's energy consumption. It has also launched a major world competitor in the LED lighting space, Lucifer lights, and the level of acceptance that inefficient incandescent bulbs are a thing of the past is far higher here than in the U.S.

But at the same time, there are barriers. As Sunita Narain of the Center for Science and Environment points out, the energy-efficiency technologies that are already making impressive gains here have a high upfront capital cost, and private markets won't provide that capital on their own. At a dinner in Bangalore with Indian business leaders and scientists, it was clear that their perception is that the U.S. and Europe are not serious about jointly developing, owning, and deploying the technologies that will power the clean-energy, low-carbon-emission future -- and that instead we are trying to keep them on the margins of the new game, just as they were kept on the margins of the first industrial revolution by colonialism.

And while India has shown the capacity to develop and enact strong environmental laws and regulations, here (as in the U.S.) insider politics and corruption often get in the way. Mining companies, for example, on the border between Andhra Pradesh state and Karnataka, have been able to quash efforts to investigate illegal mining and deforestation -- and these companies have close connections to Andhra Pradesh's chief minister.

Once again, both India and the U.S. could point fingers at each other for failing to enforce their environmental laws. But my gut tells me that if we got serious about doing good things -- together -- then we'd have a true collaboration instead of negotiating about who's to blame. And we'd make more progress. That doesn't mean we don't need binding commitments and have aspirational goals -- but those commitments and goals can be expressed either in terms of who will do less harm how fast or in terms of how we can partner to do the most good even faster. I think that what determines the success of the negotiations in Copenhagen will be not the targets and timetables that we bring to Denmark but the degree of collaboration we're willing to offer.