Why climate change is not on India's radar

I am going to India, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Measured by purchasing power parity (how much it takes to buy a uniform set of goods), India’s economy is now the world’s third largest. Isn’t now the time for India to take part in the battle against climate change?

It’s midnight, as Cathay Pacific 695 descends into Delhi. Through the haze its passengers see a brightly lit freeway. Even at this late hour, a constant flow of traffic. The visibility is a distinct improvement over January, when some nights, almost nothing can be seen. I take a taxi from the airport to Hari Nagar, an Ambassador – a uniquely Indian car – its body unchanged from a 1956 Morris Oxford III. Sitting on a flat sofa backseat, I smell fumes from the engine leaking into the interior, a slightly open window lets in Delhi’s smoky air. Indoors after forty five minutes, I wash my face; dark water drips from it, my nostrils are black with soot.

The next morning, I am on the Shatabdi Express from New Delhi to Chandigarh. Indian Railways, even during a budgetary crisis, lavishes service on its first class customers. Six newspapers are on each seat pair: three English dailies, reporting in the language of the elite; three in Hindi, the preferred language of the masses. Hindi newspapers ignore the environment. Their pages focus on politics, corruption, income inequality and sport. Based on a study by the Energy and Resources Institute and Unicef, the Times of India reports how a quarter of children living along Delhi’s Yamuna river have more than 10 micrograms of lead in their blood (widely considered as the threshold for public intervention). Lead levels in children exposed to the polluted north Delhi riverbank are eight times higher than those upstream. The Financial Express reports on bans recommended on mining and quarrying in Goa’s ecologically sensitive areas, and near Kaziranga national park, home of India’s one-horn Rhino. India’s richer elite are marginally concerned with the environment; the poorer, Hindi-speaking majority are not.

Just a few weeks ago, Yale University’s Environmental Performance Indicators (EPI) for 2012 rated India as having the world’s worst air. Overall, India’s pollution ranked 125 out of 132 countries. Responding to the report, a Department of environment scientist said: “it is a non-issue, we have other pressing problems like poverty.” His comments reflect India’s mood. The poor crave food to survive, India’s growing middle class crave the material trappings of economic growth.

As the western world got richer its environment improved. The first reductions were in smog (the concentration of fine particulates in air). A visible, constant reminder to how dirty our air is, smog causes emphysema, bronchitis, asthma and lung cancer. Fine particulates are still actively targeted by most developed countries. As its development continued, the western world turned its attention to harmful, but less visible pollutants such as lead. Causing nervous system and kidney damage, lead is particularly damaging to children. Even levels below 10 micrograms impair their cognitive development. Climate change is a more abstract concept. It affects our physical environment, seriously impacts our ecology, causing floods or droughts, but no immediate impact on human health. Even within the developed world, strong action on climate change is lacking.

One day into my trip I realize it is unrealistic to expect India to meaningfully address climate change. The country is blanketed in polluted air, and flooded in polluted water. Even in the face of severe health impacts the government presents ineffectual action on local pollutants. Expecting India’s government to incur costs for reducing greenhouse gases is to fool ourselves. We must wait for a will to tackle local pollutants, before action on climate change will occur.

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