Climate Concert in South Asia

President Obama is keen to lower the temperature between India and Pakistan. Warm handshakes between Indian and Pakistani prime ministers broke the ice at his just-concluded nuclear summit. Pleasantries apart, relations between the countries remain fractious as ever, with resolution to any combustible dispute--Kashmir, Afghanistan, terrorism, nuclear build-up, water resources--nowhere in sight. The two prime ministers are slated to meet again at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Bhutan later this month. Why do they not utilize this opportunity to evolve a concerted strategy on climate change?

South Asia is beset by poverty and runaway population growth but the region has failed to produce collective action against them. SAARC, which includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, has been stillborn since its inception in 1985 due to incessant bickering between big boys India and Pakistan. With the two busy playing cat and mouse with one another, only platitudes emanate from every meeting. Bounded by snowcapped
mountains and the sea, and home to one-quarter of humanity, South Asia is faced with unimaginable horrors--melting glaciers, widespread submersion, mass migration--were climate change to take radical effect. Life-giving monsoons too promise to become truant and play havoc.
Ironical then that global warming, for all its ills, just might be the common cause to unite the region.

But it is a subject that is far removed from people's minds in the region. Even in India, the one country that is active on the world stage, climate is a high-brow discussion confined to the traditional power elite of technocrats and politicians. In the absence of a substantive public debate and faced with a fragmented political opposition, the Indian government appears set to impose its point of view on an uninformed population. That said, at least it is taking the lead. In Pakistan, the powers that be seem to be missing in action altogether. A river water dispute with India has taken center stage with little realization on either side that this poses small danger compared to what might lie ahead.

India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, believes that India cannot become a global player unless it sheds the image of a regional bully and promotes local harmony. The country teamed up with Brazil, China, and South Africa to present the case of the developing world at last year's Copenhagen climate conference. Pakistan and Bangladesh, each with a population comparable to that of Brazil and greater than three times South Africa's, were missing from the mix. India would engender tremendous goodwill for itself by foregoing the temptation to act as South Asia's sole spokesman on climate change and instead collaborating with the other SAARC countries. They on their part would do well not to mire the agenda with other festering sores. A breakthrough here has overflow potential to heal old wounds.

In still-indigent South Asia, conspicuous consumption marks arrival. Owning an SUV or a split air-conditioner is a matter of pride, flaunting them even more so. For the battle against global warming to succeed, lifestyles would have to be altered and ostentation tempered. Common folk do not feel the urgency of the impending catastrophe. Just because the Western world feels strongly about the threat does not mean that South Asia will fall in line. Consumers will at least
partially bear the brunt of remedial measures such as cap-and-trade, taxes on carbon and gasoline, or expensive solar, wind, and electric vehicular systems. Their costs and benefits are dissected in advanced countries. South Asians too will pay their share and must become
aware. Complicating the local situation further is how to juggle going green with growing the economy. South Asian governments must articulate in layman terms how global warming impacts their people, and how it can be alleviated. Here too a shared approach would more effective than each country going it alone because local mores and attitudes have much in common.

Were the intra-regional cooperation to succeed, South Asians could be rightly proud of a singular moment in their history when they unveiled a united face to the world, instead of incessantly airing their dirty laundry. Faced with an existential threat from the Soviet Union, age-old adversaries England, France and Germany came together. Then what is stopping South Asia from staging a climate concert to transform a common destiny?