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Muthukumara Mani, an environmental economist at the World Bank, has written a moving account of the efforts underway in Orissa, one of India’s poorest states, to figure out what to do about climate change—not the future threat of climate change, but the impacts hitting poor people in Orissa NOW:

Lashed by heavy monsoon rains and devastating cyclones with unfailing regularity, the state looked for solutions… Orissa’s crop yields are declining, fish stocks falling, and water resources dwindling while forests and coasts are being rapidly degraded…Consultations sought solutions for the coastal areas, tribal regions, mining and industrial areas, urban centers and farming belts. Fishermen, farmers, trade unions, industrial associations, tribal groups and women offered their comments. Not surprisingly, the discussions were often animated and intense…

Mani acknowledges that the resulting draft plan (he provides a link) is not perfect. But he notes that it is home grown, and open to improvement, and he hopes that little Orissa will show India’s richer and larger states, and perhaps the national government, a way forward.

I felt inspired by this, but also sad, and ashamed. How can it be that Orissa, one of the poorest societies on the planet (annual per capita income about $400), finds the political will and the means to begin to work on this problem while my own home state of Virginia (No. 6 in the Union at the 2000 census, with nearly $24,000 per capita) has yet to agree on a meaningful plan?

The story is similar at the national level—India seems to be moving with greater resolve than the United States. As my colleague David Wheeler shows in a recent CGD working paper, Less Smoke, More Mirrors: Where India Really Stands on Solar Power and Other Renewables.

India is seriously considering a goal of 15 percent renewable energy in its power mix by 2020, despite the absence of any meaningful international pressure to cut emissions, no guarantees of compensatory financing, and a continuing American failure to adopt stringent emissions limits. If India moves ahead with this plan, it will promote a massive shift of new power capacity toward renewables within a decade. We estimate the incremental cost of this change from coal-fired to renewable power to be about $50 billion—an enormous sum for a society that must still cope with widespread extreme poverty.

To be sure, both the Orissa effort, and India’s national effort are still in the planning stages. Wishes aren’t yet fishes. Still, as the richest and most powerful society on the planet, the United States can surely do better. Do we really need to look to poor Orissa, and to India, to show us the way?

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