Climate change has become the defining issue of our time. It is a quintessential global matter, since its effects respect no national or regional boundaries. Climate change is also a challenge that compels a global and collaborative response. We are all literally in the same boat, cast adrift in increasingly tumultuous seas. Unless we pull the oars together we may not make it to shore.
It is precisely this kind of collaborative response that must be constructed when we all meet at the 15th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen in December. Success at Copenhagen is particularly important for developing countries such as those in Southasia, since it is we who will suffer the most adverse consequences of the changing climate. While delegations of Southasian countries have had good consultation and cooperation among them as part of the larger G-77 and China grouping, we have not yet managed to project the specificity of our own regional situation at the multilateral negotiations currently under way. This is important to do, because Southasia is home to 1.3 billion people – we constitute one-sixth of the world’s humanity.
Decision-makers of the region have a grave responsibility to safeguard the interests of the people of Southasia, to ensure their survival with a reasonable standard of living in any global climate-change regime that may emerge at Copenhagen. Ours must be a collective voice seeking more significant action from those who have been responsible for the accumulated greenhouse-gas emissions in the Earth’s atmosphere. The industrialised countries must take the lead in committing themselves to much deeper cuts in their emissions, and deliver on their legal obligation enshrined in the UNFCCC. These include the obligation to transfer technology and funds to developing countries, to enable the latter to adapt to climate change and to undertake mitigation actions that are beyond their own limited resources. Ours must be a voice seeking not only an ambitious outcome at Copenhagen; it must, first and foremost, be a voice demanding equity and fairness. It is my hope that the awareness of the gravity of what climate change portends for the people of Southasia will lead us to shed our differences and work together on a common platform at the negotiations.
While climate change is a global and cross-cutting challenge, its impact is felt locally and regionally. The specific features of our region – its geographical location, its demographic profile and its level of development – determine how the changing climate will specifically impact on the lives of our citizens. There is no doubt that the effects of climate change will inevitably compound the stresses our region is already facing due to demographic pressure, the strains generated by economic and social change, and continuing poverty. We therefore need to evolve a Southasian perspective on climate change, taking into account the particularities that characterise the region.
Southasia has succeeded in establishing its identity as a credible and relevant regional entity, though the SAARC organisation does not yet have an impressive record of joint action on shared challenges. SAARC has evolved into a consultative forum rather than a vehicle for collaborative action. However, the list of regionwide, cross-cutting challenges that confront the region’s societies is growing longer by the day. These include the pervasive poverty of large sections of its people, and the scourge of crossborder terrorism, human trafficking, pandemics and environmental degradation, to name just a few. These continuing challenges are now being exacerbated by the impact of global climate change.
We fail to fully comprehend how ecologically inter-connected our countries are. There is often talk of the economic complementarity that we share, and the cultural affinity and historical legacy which unite us. SAARC leaders often dwell upon our common destiny for the future. However, Southasia is also an ecologically interconnected system. At a time when there are disturbing trends evident in the global climate and regional weather patterns, Southasia faces an enormous and compelling challenge in safeguarding our region’s ecological sustainability.
It is true that all the people of Southasia share a civilisational reverence for nature, and are intuitively aware of the need to respect the environment’s capacity for regeneration. Southasia is also fortunate to be extraordinarily rich in biodiversity, falling within two of the eight biogeographical realms – the Palaearctic and the Indo-Malayan. The region covers 19 of the 235 global eco-regions, a science-based global ranking of the planet’s most outstanding terrestrial, fresh water and marine habitats. Three of the 25 most significant biodiversity hotspots of the world happen to be located in Southasia. Forests make up nearly 17 percent of our region’s land area, constituting an extensive and valuable carbon sink for the globe as a whole. These are invaluable assets, which constitute a shared treasure for the people of Southasia; but they lie astride most political boundaries. They cannot be preserved and cannot flourish unless we recognise the inescapable and compelling urgency of establishing a collaborative life-sustaining network across the region.
It is sometimes argued that India, as a large developing country with a rising trajectory of greenhouse-gas emissions, has interests that are different from its Southasian neighbours. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite its billion-plus population, India accounts for only four percent of total global emissions. On a per capita basis, the country’s emissions are only 1.2 tonnes. Compare this with the US, which accounts for 20 percent of total global emissions and 21 tonnes on a per capita basis. Is it not obvious, therefore, that it is in our common interest as developing countries to demand that developed countries undertake significant cuts in their emissions before they turn their sights on India? Again people argue that India’s interests are different from island countries such as the Maldives and Sri Lanka, or countries with low-lying coastal plains like Bangladesh, which will be deeply and perhaps catastrophically affected by sea-level rise caused by global warming. It is not fully appreciated that India, too, has extensive island territories in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, with significant population. India’s coastal plains support a population several times larger than those in our neighbouring countries. Therefore, we understand the challenges facing our smaller neighbours most acutely, even if we are larger in size.
Let us consider what is at stake in certain key areas.
1. The Monsoons and Food Security
The monsoons have conditioned the lives of our people over millennia.
Much of our culture and literature is permeated with reference to the romance of the monsoon rains; but less appreciated is how important they are for the livelihood and food security of hundreds of millions of our citizens. Most of Southasia’s agriculture remains dependent upon the rain gods. Any significant variation in monsoon patterns beyond those that are mainly cyclical in nature would have major and possibly catastrophic consequences. There is not one Southasian country that would be unaffected by a transformation of the monsoons.
There is now enough evidence that the monsoons are being affected by climate change. There is a greater frequency of extreme climatic events, such as prolonged drought on the one hand and high intensity rainfall on the other. The degree of unpredictability has increased. Yet most climate models are unable to cope with these changing patterns, since they are based on trends that were manifest in a period of more regular and constant monsoon phenomena. We urgently need to undertake a joint study of the evolving patterns of the monsoons under the impact of climate change, the likely effect on economic and social conditions in our countries, and what measures we need to evolve in order to adapt to these changes. Doing such studies on a national, bilateral or even trilateral basis would be insufficient, and would yield only partial results. The monsoons pervade the entire region and need to be studied in a comprehensive manner.
2. Southasia’s Biodiversity
As pointed out earlier, Southasia is extraordinarily rich in biodiversity. But this does not mean that we need to work together only to preserve the region’s wildlife or its forest reserves. We need to appreciate that this rich biodiversity is as integral to our region’s productivity and economic wellbeing as are the monsoons. It supports the regenerative capacity of the region’s natural resources, and help to maintain the delicate ecological balance without which much of the region could turn into an arid wasteland. This rich biodiversity also constitutes an invaluable gene bank, which lies at the very heart of ecological sustainability.
It is against this background that Southasian countries need to overcome political barriers, and together formulate a regionwide plan to preserve the rich Subcontinental biodiversity. This may require setting up forest corridors and protected crossborder biodiversity zones, thereby protecting endemic species of flora and fauna. It is also necessary to undertake a regionwide inventory of biodiversity resources and create a SAARC gene bank. The wealth represented by the thousands of species of medicinal plants and herbs is presently being looted because of lack of information and shared knowledge. Not only do we need to seek collaboration to prevent this loot, equally we must work to ensure that the rich flora of Southasia is not disturbed by the alteration in climate.
3. The Mountains and Oceans
The extraordinary geographical diversity of Southasia is, of course, a marvel. The region contains some of the world’s highest mountains. We are also surrounded by the vast expanse of deep oceans. The livelihood of hundreds of millions is dependent upon the health of the glaciers that descend from the mountain peaks along the Himalayan rimland. The great river systems of the northern plains draw their sustenance from the glaciers, often described as the world’s ‘third pole’. The glaciers and standing ice of the Himalaya literally constitute the water reservoir for much of Southasia, and today they are in stubborn retreat. It is hard to imagine what would happen if the melting of the perennial snows and the degradation of the fragile ecology of this great mountain chain were to continue unchecked. The very survival of millions of our citizens would be at stake.
One wonders whether the enormity of this challenge is fully understood in our individual capitals. We need to develop a better understanding of the behaviour of the glaciers. We need to discuss whether there are ways in which the continuing retreat could be arrested. Meanwhile, we must work to adapt to changes that may be inevitable. It is perhaps time to start looking at the whole issue of ‘water security’ from a truly regional perspective.
The oceans that embrace the Subcontinent, and the associated islands and island chains, play a critical role in sustaining island, coastal and inland communities. They impact on weather patterns, which influence life, in all its variety, throughout our region. It is now accepted that climate change threatens all our communities – across countries – that draw their sustenance from the oceans. However, we still do not fully understand how the transforming climate will impact ocean currents and sea levels, as well as the rich marine flora and fauna that populate the seas around us. It is time that we brought our national intellectual resources together to enhance our understanding of Southasia’s shared ocean space, and the impact of climate change on our coastal and island communities.
This, then, constitutes the minimum agenda for SAARC if we wish to address the challenge of climate change proactively and collaboratively. It is heartening to note that the forthcoming SAARC Summit, next year in Thimphu, will have climate change as its theme. This will provide an opportunity to our leaders to transform SAARC, for the first time, into a forum of action, instead of a platform limited to consultations. For the sake of our collective future, we need to shed the hesitations of the past, and take bold and visionary steps. This is the compelling requirement of our time.
~ Shyam Saran is former foreign secretary of India, and presently Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy for climate change.