It was early morning. I was listening to US President Barack Obama's 2015 State of the Union address in my farm up in the hills in India when I was distracted by a raucous verbal spat. A farmer's wife was exchanging rough and wild words with other women who had come from down in the valley to collect the cow-dung droppings scattered along the slopes.
The bone of contention was that the cows belonged to my neighbour's wife and hence other women, so went the argument, had no right over the her cow's droppings. My neighbour's wife makes dry cakes from that dung to burn them for cooking for her entire family and also to sell them in the market at Rs.5 per cake (about 8 cents). If women from down the hill 'steal' her cow-dung, she loses her valuable income and also source of her energy.
Disc type dried cakes of cow dung along with firewood are burnt in cook stoves mainly by the poor population in over 100 million Indian households for their daily cooking and general heating. India is the world's largest consumer of such biomass for energy purposes, nearly equivalent of 200 million tonnes of coal.
That local clamour by women mirrored the larger conflicts related to ownership of natural resources. It also symbolized division between haves and have-nots. It also pointed at the struggle of poor in hunting for the biomass - an essential commodity for Indians like what gasoline and fossil fuel are for Americans.
President Obama was ardently defiant about economic recovery that America is witnessing. "The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong" was his triumphal declaration. He scattered the evidence- "a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production".
He quite impressively referred to the story of Rebecca of Minneapolis who worked hard to earn for her family for last few years and now slowly coming out of crisis, signaling economic recovery in US which the president referred to in the beginning of his address. But the story for Rebecca is not really over, the president asserted. She still does not have enough money to take vacation and buy new car.
My neighbour's wife, having driven away other women was however content that the crisis created by the aggressor-women had passed and energy source for her family is secured.
She is obviously not aware that burning firewood and biomass is inefficient generation of energy. She did not care that burning of cow-dung cakes also releases high levels of smoke and micro particulate matter called 'black carbon' that form smogs adding to global warming. Indeed, when the cow dung cake is burnt it not only emits carbon dioxide, the largest contributor to global warming, but also adds to indoor air pollution that kills, as per WHO, 300,000 to 400,000 Indians - mainly women and children annually - apart from deaths from outdoor air-pollution. Burning of biomass and firewood in India will not stop, unless electricity or clean burning fuel and combustion technologies become reliably available and widely adopted in rural and urban India.
President Obama surprisingly turned his address to the risks of enjoying the rising economic tides in isolation. He continued "we cannot separate our work at home from challenges beyond our shores". In any case, he eloquently spoke of building a more effective global effort to invest in smart development and eradicate extreme poverty and address the super-challenge of climate change.
His references to 2014 as the planet's warmest year on record, and that 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century, are clearly the reminders that our activities are decidedly changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we'll face a climate tragedy including unprecedented extreme weather events, mass migrations away from rising sea levels and spread of unknown diseases due to rise in temperatures and floods due to melting of glaciers.
The first ever State of the Union Address by Obama was after the world unsuccessfully attempted in 2009 to transform United Nations Copenhagen meeting into convenient opportunity to act on climate change. Since then the economy of the US has improved, so also India's, but the threat of climate change looms larger than ever.
In terms of emissions of Green House Gases (GHGs) and economy, India and the US are significantly different. The US had less than 5 percent of the world's population, but accounted for 17 percent of the global carbon dioxide emissions in 2010. India, with nearly 18 percent of global population, accounted for 5 percent of the emissions.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently stated that the two most crucial challenges facing humanity are terrorism and climate change. Obama considers climate change as challenge greater than any other challenge humanity has faced so far.
Both Modi and Obama could change the global climate of inaction witnessed so far. Their joint statement in September last year provided glimpse of their extraordinary strategy of taking action on short-lived GHGs like Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) - refrigerant gases used in air conditioning and other appliances- and also avail the economic benefits like enhancing energy efficiency.
Reducing black carbon by efficient burning of biomass in improved 'chulhas' used by millions of Indians would not only help reducing emission of black carbon and hence mitigating climate change but also improving the health of poor Indians because of reduced air pollution and smogs.
Action on the short-lived GHGs like HFCs, black carbon, methane and tropospheric ozone could bring immediate relief from global warming and, as per UN assessment, it can push back the adverse impacts of climate change by 11 years and could effectively supplement the action to reduce carbon dioxide.
When President Obama lands in New Delhi on the morning of Jan 25, hopefully there will not be smogs and landing will not be delayed. Cooperation and joint initiatives by two states led by Obama and Modi could change the State of two Unions and improve the quality of life of Rebecca in the US and poor families in India.
(Rajendra Shende is chairman of TERRE Policy Centre. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)