Major developing democracies face an interesting predicament these days. They have fought through decades of poverty and political irrelevance and have now landed on the world stage. Sure, a large percentage of their population may still live in shantytowns (India), or they may manufacture billions of inexpensive plastic items for export to America (China), but they have become socioeconomic forces to be reckoned with.
The unfortunate part of this transition from “third world” to “powerhouse” is that it usually happens very unsustainably. Economic development is frequently synonymous with industrial sprawl, natural resource depletion and poor working conditions for the masses. But it also means a lift in GDP, jobs and political clout. Countries like India and China (or Chindia as one of my professors says) are gaining momentum in the global economy, and environmental concerns like climate change have taken somewhat of a backseat. Understandably, I would argue.
For countries like China and India, simple survival is still a concern for a majority of the population. When economic development creates jobs, feeds families, injects capital into the system and empowers governments, why should we expect them to care about climate change?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Todd Stern, President Obama’s new Special Envoy for Climate Change, were in India over the weekend, discussing sustainable development with India’s political leaders. They stressed that there is “no inherent contradiction between poverty eradication and moving toward a low-carbon economy.”
Secretary Clinton expressed her faith in sustainable development: “If we are smart and bold, we can turn the climate crisis into an economic opportunity that creates jobs, generates growth, enhances our competitive edge, and ensures greater prosperity in the 21st century.” It almost sounds like she’s pitching a triple bottom line business model, doesn’t it?
Unsurprisingly, India’s environmental and economic leaders were less than bowled over. They argued that India has a lower per-capita emissions rate than most Western countries. They plainly informed Secretary Clinton that they had no intention of inhibiting economic development for the sake of lowering their emissions. She politely retaliated by saying the per-capita emissions are irrelevant; that absolute emissions are what’s important. And so on and so forth.
What’s ironic is that the United States will not commit to a major reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions unless countries like India and China follow suit. It’s like we’re all standing on the edge of a swimming pool, dunking our toes into the cold water but not wanting to jump in alone. We Americans are the age-old emitters. We practically invented pollution. And now we are sending politicians over to India to promote sustainable development. Isn’t this sort of like a parent saying to their child: “do as I say, not as I do?”
I’m hoping that the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen will shake things up a bit. Maybe we can finally grab hands with Chindia and take the plunge together.