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Who is representing the most powerless Indians in Paris?

Written by Dean Spears on December 5th, 2015

Today the Indian Express published my op-ed: Question from a future India.  The question I imagine is from the future Indians who will be so profoundly impacted by the decisions at this week’s climate summit in Paris: who was politically representing them?

The science of climate change is unambiguous.  So is the public economics: carbon emissions have terrible social costs, and these externalities should be reflected in price.  The only question is the politics.

A climate summit like this week’s in Paris emphasizes the international dimension of climate politics.  But, as philosopher Stephen Gardiner has emphasized, this obscures two other dimensions of climate politics.  The first is within countries, such as between the Democratic U.S. presidents and Republican U.S. legislatures which demography tells us we can expect for much of the coming years of crucial climate politics.  Or, between richer metropolitan Indians with air conditioners and airplane flights and poorer Indians with inadequate electricity and high infant mortality.

The second dimension of climate politics that an international summit obscures is perhaps the most important, and is the focus of my op-ed: the relatively few people in the present generation against the (I hope) many, many people of future generations.  They have no political power of any kind.  There is nothing that people who will be born in 2115 can do to reward or punish today’s politically powerful people.  Yet, they are profoundly at our generation’s mercy.  It is difficult to imagine an inequality of power that has ever existed that has been so imbalanced, for so many people, of such importance.  Humanity has characteristically failed quite badly at much less lopsided cases.

One point that I emphasize in my op-ed is that, perhaps as much as for any other 2015 country, it is especially important to future Indians to avert or reduce climate change.  Climate change will hit India hard.

Here are some links behind some of the claims in the literature that I mention in the op-ed:

  • For a worst case scenario, this paper discusses how much of the world (and their maps include much of India) could become very difficult for humans to live in if temperature change is large.
  • The recent World Bank book Shock Waves, available for free as a PDF online, emphasizes the message from the economics literature that, in more moderate climate change scenarios, the poor will suffer considerably.
  • William Nordhaus’ discussion of climate clubs presents a strategy whereby trade policy could be used to incentivize the U.S. to limit emissions.  I am surprised that his figure of U.S. mitigation costs is so low ($11.9 billion), but the general points that a smart political alliance might be able to accomplish something like this — and that India is made better off in every scenario — are important.

The full text of the op-ed is below the link.

Who will represent powerless Indians in Paris?

For the next two weeks, the world will be watching the climate summit in Paris.  Of course, not all Indians will be watching: some of them are too young to know the threats that they face from climate change.  Over 800,000 babies will be born in India during the two weeks of international climate negotiations.

These 800,000 Indians will be much too young to vote for their Prime Minister in three and a half years.  Most of them will live long enough to experience climate change.  But they will never have an opportunity at the polls to reward or punish today’s leaders for their success or failures in averting a climate disaster.

By the end of the conference, these young Indians will be unable to hold their heads up, let alone hold the government accountable for what it does in Paris.  Yet, even these 800,000 are not the most disenfranchised or the most powerless Indians who will suffer the consequences of climate change.  There will be about three million Indians who will someday be grandchildren of these babies born during the climate summit.  Climate scientists tell us that it is in approximately the lifetime of these grandchildren that much of the pain of climate change will begin to register.

Most of these grandchildren will live into the 22nd century, but they will be profoundly impacted by what today’s political leaders do.  Yet, these three million Indians have no democratic control or accountability over what happens to them these next two weeks.  There is nothing they, their parents, or their grandparents can do to reach back in time and reward or punish today’s political leaders.  They will never get to vote about what is happening to them.

These grandchildren and billions more future citizens are the most disenfranchised Indians, the most powerless in Paris.  Yet, the consequences for them are enormous.  In probable bad scenarios, the costs of climate change could be very large in India, not just economically but also for health and mortality.  Scientifically plausible disaster scenarios are terrible: much of South Asia could experience literally lethal temperature increases in which humans could not survive outdoors for more than a few hours; Mumbai could be under water; society may not be able adjust to these changes peacefully.

Burning coal hurts Indians today

Although the worst consequences of climate change will occur in the future, the very same carbon emissions that will hurt future Indians are already taking a large toll on the health of the Indians now being born.  Delhi is now widely recognized as the most polluted city on earth.  A large fraction of the most polluted cities are right here in India.  India is rapidly expanding its consumption of and pollution from coal, which fills the air with harmful smoke.

Burning coal is a uniquely dangerous contributor both to climate change in the future and to disease today.  In ongoing joint research with Aashish Gupta, a demographer at Penn, we find that Indian districts where new coal plants were opened between 2005 and 2012 saw a relative decrease in reported respiratory health.  This makes sense, because burning coal releases large amounts of pollutants into the air that can make everybody sick – perhaps especially vulnerable babies.  Statistically, India can expect over 40,000 of the children born during the Paris talks to die before the 2019 election.  Many of these will die of pneumonia and other respiratory infections.  Reducing coal consumption would be a good place to start to avert climate change and prevent many of these deaths.

Act now, blame later

To be sure, today’s average Indian did not start the problem of carbon emissions.  Most of the historical blame should fall on powerful people who have long known about climate change but have not opposed it: mainly political and business leaders in richer countries.  But India’s carbon footprint is changing quickly.  If current trends continue, India’s annual carbon emissions will exceed those of the United States in just a few years – quite possibly by 2024, before the end of the term of the Prime Minister elected in 2019.  Perhaps the only people truly blameless are the three million grandchildren not to be born for decades to come – tragically, they are likely to suffer much worse consequences than any of us alive today.

Most importantly, now is a time when action is more important than blame.  India is like a pedestrian threatened by richer countries’ dangerous driving: by all means, the pedestrian should blame the irresponsible driver whose negligence almost kills her.  But step out of the way of disaster first, rather than be flattened while vocalizing objection.

It will not be easy to compel self-interested politicians in the U.S. to take action on climate change.  Yet, feasible strategies are available.  Serious leadership from India and other countries may be able to form a coalition that incentivizes the U.S. to do something meaningful, perhaps by using trade penalties, as suggested by economist William Nordhaus in his recent American Economic Association presidential address.   In all 40 scenarios that Nordhaus computed, India would be made economically better off by the formation of an international “climate club” that uses trade policy to enforce emissions reductions – precisely because the expected costs of climate change will be so large for India.

Neither the 40,000 Indian children born during the Paris summit who will die before the 2019 election, nor the 3 million grandchildren of those babies who survive, will ever have any democratic influence over this generation’s leaders.  But they are Indians, too, or will be.  Their suffering matters.  We cannot know how they would vote, but it is reasonable to suspect that they would not ask today’s leaders whether India was originally to blame for the disasters that these future Indians may be forced to endure.  They may ask, instead, what today’s leaders did to stop the disaster.