Climate Change—Winning the Narrative

August 28, 2009

This post originally appeared as a column in India’s Business Standard.Narratives matter. Not just for creating and sustaining nationhood as Isaiah Berlin famously argued. They also matter critically in international negotiations. At the moment, India is not winning the battle of the narrative on climate change. And that's a worry.The situation on climate change is somewhat reminiscent of the intellectual property negotiations (TRIPs) in the Uruguay Round nearly 20 years ago. Then too India and developing countries had a good, or at least very reasonable, economic and moral case. Then too the industrial countries were united in pushing their interests strongly in international negotiations. Then, industrial countries prevailed. It is instructive to understand why and draw the appropriate lessons.One of the early keys to the "success" of the TRIPs effort was the passage of domestic legislation in the United States that provided the US executive the authority to change intellectual property laws in foreign countries, and to impose trade sanctions if they did not comply. Armed with this stick, and leading up to the Uruguay Round negotiations, the United States whittled down opposition to TRIPs bilaterally, one developing country domino at a time. As a result, in the multilateral negotiations in Geneva, few countries remained to support India's position.Getting this domestic legislation passed in the United States was a tribute to the skilful articulation strategy—the framing of the narrative, one might say—of the intellectual property (IP) lobby, which invoked the following narrative. IP was a natural right and countries with weak IP laws were violating this right, facilitating theft and robbery, and were therefore unfair traders. IP was converted to a morality tale about fair trade, deflecting attention from, and cleverly undermining, the sound developing country case: that greater IP protection tended to restrict trade and transfer profits from poor countries to rich pharmaceutical companies, and that many industrial countries themselves had increased their IP protection at much higher levels of income than was being asked of developing countries.Climate change is somewhat (not perfectly) analogous. Take the case of the United States. It has been primarily responsible for spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It has, only recently, seen the light on climate change and the need for action. It is now contemplating, not actually taking, action in the future. Its position is insufficiently informed by its contribution as perpetrator. And it seems inadequately sensitive to the disproportionate impacts on rich and poor countries of its position: To put it dramatically, Americans may have to sacrifice their Hummers for mere gas guzzlers, while the average Indian may have to forego the rudiments of modernity, such as access to electricity, in meeting emissions targets contemplated by the United States.And yet, this is the astonishing part, it has managed to portray countries such as India as foot draggers and recalcitrants. It would be understandable, even if grating, if the United States were to assert its economic and political power and insist that India take on obligations to reduce emissions. But to articulate it as a moral case simply defies credulity.The US position is that of a serial philanderer, who promises in the future to become an episodic philander, and then demands as a moral right that his chaste partner wear a chastity belt. Unfortunately for India, this narrative—in which the philanderer is the good guy while his chaste partner is the bad gal for forswearing the use of the chastity belt—is acquiring broad resonance in the rich world.How can India change this state of affairs? Part of the problem is that India's positions appear as negative rather than constructive and reactive rather than proactive. The negative reactions in the Western media to Minister Jairam Ramesh's blunt rejection that India should take any obligations contrast sharply with the more nuanced reactions to Dr. Manmohan Singh's positive suggestion last year in Heiligendamm that India would commit to the principle that its per capita emissions will never exceed those of industrial countries. Jairam Ramesh's substantive position is not indefensible, but the optics and presentation seem less likely to win over hearts and minds than a proposal like the Prime Minister's.So, here's a suggestion that would combine the spirit of constructive engagement while allowing India to define its own standard of equity on climate change.Lord Nicholas Stern has argued that developing countries such as India should "conditionally commit to commit." Consistent with this principle, India could say at Copenhagen that it will commit to emission targets (not necessarily reductions) in 2020 provided that industrial countries themselves fulfill a set of commitments. As he cheekily puts it, in an inversion of the standard operating procedure of the World Bank and the IMF, developing countries would impose conditionality on the rich countries. This conditionality could take many forms, including making and facilitating financial and technology transfers to developing countries. And the understanding would be that developing countries' emission commitments would be off the table, if rich countries did not meet the conditionality imposed on them.Aaditya Mattoo of the World Bank and I would argue that India might even go one step further. India could say that if industrial countries failed to adhere to their own emission reduction targets, India would take trade-restrictive action against imports from these countries. It could even enact legislation, according to which India could take trade-restrictive action against all countries that exceeded a target level of per capita emissions (say, five tons per capita) by 2025. Such a stick would be a natural complement to the carrot of constructive engagement that India would offer. The stick would also implicitly help set an international standard of equity and fairness on emissions targets that is an alternative to the current one of reductions in absolute emissions advanced by industrial countries.It is possible that the substantive differences between India and partner countries on the core issue of emissions targets will prove unbridgeable. But India should at least avoid losing the battle of the narrative and avoid being portrayed as the bad guy. A starting point is to offer constructive engagement and to define early, clearly, and proactively its terms. The conditional "yes" may reap more rewards than the involuntary "no."


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.