WINTER is almost here and in normal times, the woollens should be out. But wait. There is enough heat being generated in Delhi’s environmental circles to keep us warm at least until next month’s meeting on Climate Change in Copenhagen. While Manmohan Singh’s aides finalise India’s agenda for the summit, his environment minister is locked in a very public spat with the doyen among Indian environmentalists. As anyone who has watched him will now, when Jairam Ramesh speaks, he creates a flutter.
Quite recently, at a news conference on environmental issues that he jointly addressed with Hillary Clinton in New Delhi, he made no effort to hide his anger when he thought the US Secretary of State was trying to lecture India on cutting down emission levels. Now, just three weeks ahead of the climate change summit, Jairam has locked horns with R. K. Pachauri, the chairman of the UN sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change( IPCC), the organisation which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace prize with former US Vice President Al Gore. The sparring began after Jairam released a government report that questioned the IPCC’s findings of abnormal shrinking of the Himalayan glaciers. The IPCC warned that at the current rate of shrinkage, the glaciers could disappear altogether by 2035 if not earlier. Jairam rubbished the IPCC’s findings while releasing the government report prepared by a group of Indian geologists. He said there was no conclusive evidence to link global warming with receding of the Himalayan glaciers and said he was “ ready to take on the doomsday scenarios of the Nobel Prize winners”. The controversy has sparked off a war of words between the ministry and environmentalists.
Stung by the Jairam offensive, Pachauri accused the environment ministry of “ arrogance” while the credible Science magazine in its latest issue quotes a senior Fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi saying that the “ Indian government has an ostrich like attitude in the face of impending apocalypse”. To that, the minister’s retort was “ we don’t need to write the epitaph for the glaciers”. Alarmists at home and abroad have warned that the Gangetic river belts which feed much of North India could dry up if the glaciers disappear. But Jairam’s ministry scoffs at such predictions. The truth as usual lies somewhere in between and what you are likely to believe depends on whom you spoke to last. Jairam quotes various R. K. Pachauri studies to say that the rate at which the glaciers have been retreating during the last 30 years is much less than the previous 60 years. On the other hand, Pachauri says Indian findings have not been “ reviewed by peers” and accuses the ministry of practising “ schoolboy science”. Ordinary Indians will find it difficult to understand what the big fuss is all about since it has nothing to with their everyday lives that revolve around rising prices, safety and security, education, medical care etc. My instincts tell me that it is basically a battle between NGOs. Pachauri’s wields enormous clout and has impeccable credibility but Indian officialdom sees him as an internationalist who takes a global view. The IIT- Harvard educated Jairam sees most NGOs as gravy train riders and is determined to show them their place. Jairam is particularly miffed that the IIPC has given short shrift to genuine Indian scientists and wants India — and China with which we entered into an agreement last month on cooperation in the run up to the Copenhagen summit — to make concessions that the West wants.
Jairam wonders why the domestic and international NGOs are mounting collective pressure to enforce emission cuts when the real threat is from the West. Even the US Congress is yet to approve the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. US Secretary of Energy Steven Hun said in Delhi on Friday that “ the US government would have to go through the political process before committing itself to emission cuts”. It’s obvious that the US team will land in Copenhagen without any mandate while Jairam is being forced by powerful non- state and apolitical sections to toe the western line. As Jairam and Pachauri slug it out, it remains to be seen who gets the prime minister’s backing — the outspoken minister or the iconic environmentalist.