Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a three part answer to a question on Teachers’ Day about combating climate change. In one part he said, ‘Climate change has not occurred. People have changed.’ Just before that he had given the example of old people complaining about the winter turning harsher each successive year. It’s just people losing tolerance for cold as they age, he explained. In the third part of his answer, just after he came across as the first climate skeptic Prime Minister of India, Modi said the real problem is people have lost old values, picked up bad habits and therefore harmed environment. He said people are acting against nature and that has upset the balance. We must love nature again, he concluded.
How could Modi, who has authored ‘Convenient action: Gujarat’s Response to Climate Change’ as chief minister of the state in 2011, botch up something so simple?
Well, the book is just as befuddling. It’s an illustrated thick pamphlet of what all the government of Gujarat has done to combat and adapt to climate change. But, it mixes up concepts just as the PM mixed up civic duty of citizens, scientific facts and metaphors in his speech on Teacher’s day. In the book controversial dams are sold at equal footing to solar power, dubious carbon market players are showcased along with green public transport ventures, local pollution problems are mixed up with carbon emissions.
Narendra Modi, in his earlier scripted speeches as Prime Minister, however, sounded anything but a climate skeptic. He has taken a less ambiguous stand than UPA and prioritised 'eliminating poverty’ and his environment minister Prakash Javadekar has repeatedly said that India would play a positive and more pro-active role internationally. His team of negotiators are acting in a consistent manner with the laid down brief on international climate change policies. One, poverty eradication is a national priority. Two, there are climate co-benefits to be derived from taking actions that also provide energy security. Three, India is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Four, the route to an ambitious global agreement can be built only on a substratum of equity among nations.
Internationally, the first test of Narendra Modi’s government will come in Peru when the formal UN climate negotiations are held. His decision, just as that of the Chinese premier’s, to not attend the United Secretary General’s summit, is a good strategic move. No country is required to show its contribution to the 2015 agreement before March 2015. Certainly not the developing countries. And, the UNSG has even previously been accused of trying to hijack the more evenly-balanced formal UN negotiations. The UNSG summit is a good spot to observe and see if developed countries are offering any more action up to 2020 than what they committed in 2010. They were supposed to.
But in the meanwhile, the PM could do well by brushing up on his talking points. Asking children to love the environment is one thing - who doesn’t? Asking them to try and push a thread through a needle in moonlight can be ignored as his unique quirky way of valuing energy efficiency. But even suggesting that climate change is just a perception is plain and simple bad science. While his actions, as yet, don’t suggest he is a skeptic his words too should not.
Not too many people involved in climate change read his book 'Convenient Action’ when he was Gujarat chief minister, but as the Indian PM, even anecdotes he narrates to a captive student audience is bound to be read threadbare by everyone, including the international community. Rightly so. He could do better by shaping civic responsibility of citizens towards nature through a much better sustainable development policy of his government than the one being crafted at the moment. Lead by example.