Media, a key negotiator at climate change summit

Media, a key negotiator at climate change summit

Even within India, political differences within and outside the government prevail. And the media has not only reflected this opinion diversity but contributed to reinforcing this in some measure.

As an international negotiating strategy, it is sometimes beneficial to project that the government is not a free agent. Whether this was one of the reasons for Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh to send around Diwali a letter to the prime minister suggesting that India drastically rethink its long-held stand on carbon emissions by the United States and other developed countries and also cut its own contributions to climate change.

Promptly the letter was in the media, causing uncomfortable fireworks. Adding more fuel to the debate, Ramesh has disputed the theory of Himalayan glaciers receding and commending China’s declaration, offering to voluntarily lower its emissions. While the prime minister initially stated that there was no change in India’s position on the core issues, after his recent visit to US, there is a perceptible change, particularly
on the need to cut emissions, without binding obligations.

Why both the government and media have been reactive and did not take the leadership role will remain a mystery. Initially, TV news channels had a field day with environment experts, activists and opposition leaders slamming the government for siding with the developed world vis-à-vis the developing countries. The influential Centre for Science and Environment slammed this as unacceptable and immature.

Critics argued that India should hold firm its position to get guaranteed commitments from industrialised countries to supply clean technologies and funds to poor ones, as a precondition. It was feared that the minister’s letter was in response to intense pressure from the US and other industrialised countries.

Climate change negotiations are highly complicated. Unlike many multilateral agreements in the past, the outcome of these negotiations would impact global and individual country economies and people’s lives very significantly. Further, the negotiations are happening at a very inopportune moment. The world is still reeling under an unprecedented economic crisis which has caused global loss of livelihoods and governments revenues, weakening government capacity to deal with this crisis.

If the climate change pact is perceived to impose costs on nations and peoples, it certainly could affect political fortunes of governments around the world. Therefore, opinions on the costs and benefits of adapting to climate change are more polarised than in normal times. Diplomatic obfuscation becomes inevitable to gain time for adjustment. And latest reports suggest that the Copenhagen summit may be a semi-final in negotiations, with major emitters declaring intent for future action.

The Copenhagen pact is being built on four basic and parallel channels. Who should mitigate and how much? How climate-friendly technologies should be diffused to the poor world needing them urgently. How the (cost) burden of adapting to inevitable climate change should be shared?

The contention

Until recently, India and other emerging countries have tried to ensure that the talks on all four fronts are carried out simultaneously. The rich countries prefer to first bind emerging economies (China, India and Brazil) to emission reduction targets within a time frame (15-30 per cent by 2020) and then talk of transferring technology and funds. But the developing, which blame the developed countries for past pollutions, assert that per capita carbon emission by them is far below those in the developed world. Who will blink first at Copenhagen?

India has acquired some ‘notoriety’ as a deal breaker in international negotiations from the time of GATT (1986-1992 leading to WTO). This year India changed its commerce minister because the previous one was perceived to be grandstanding and was not accommodative. The prime minister’s special envoy on climate change negotiations and his colleagues are again considered to be hardliners.

Even while the prime minister and his environment minister were perhaps attempting to overcome such labelling, China, which had agreed to forge a common stand, perhaps, surprised India by announcing voluntarily emission reductions. Again India was reactive in announcing voluntary emission cuts.

Both these developments signal a response to climate change in the White House where the global warming rhetoric from President Obama is very different from the hardline of his predecessor. The environment minister’s argument that it is in national interest to work on reducing India’s own carbon emissions is unexceptionable.

However, the sore point is that normally such delicate diplomatic matters are discussed behind government doors, and not through an official letter open to media leak. Pre-summit sound-bites and official media messages freeze expectations and cause political divide threatening national consensus. If India did indeed want some leeway in negotiations, the government has to consult other parties and stakeholders. Ramesh’s letter and the PM’s statement from Washington has disturbed and alerted the media and other stakeholders. The media especially would now scrutinise every gesture and whisper of Indian government at Copenhagen and elsewhere suspiciously to find out whether national interests are being compromised and could become the platform for politically partisan crossfire.

(The author is former information adviser to the Prime Minister)

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