Climate changes foreign policy

Some new items have entered the agenda

As the media coverage surrounding the IPCC’s second summary report suggests, the effects of climate change will be global, but not all countries will be equally affected. India will face water shortages, increased outbreaks of infectious diseases, loss of agricultural lands and health risks from heat waves. Like every other country, India will have to develop comprehensive policies both prevent and prepare for the hotter future. [See this article]

There are, in addition, implications for foreign policy. Over the next few decades, according to the scientific consensus articulated in the IPCC reports, global warming will cause the Himalayan glaciers to melt and sea-levels around the Indian Ocean to rise. The first will cause a flooding of the Himalayan rivers—the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra among them—as the glaciers melt, followed by their drying up and becoming seasonal rivers (once the glaciers disappear). The second might wipe out the Maldives from the map, and submerge large parts of Bangladesh under water.

For the last several years, there has been a degree of apprehension over China’s behaviour with respect to a bursting lake on the Pareechu. There are likely to be more such issues in future. China being the upper riparian is likely to have a lesser incentive to communicate and coordinate the river system management with India. How much states will co-operate on addressing climate change will depend to a large extent on its preventability. But the existence of a decades-old border dispute, the political question of Tibet and the generally secretive nature of the Chinese government will make cooperation much more complicated. And Pakistan—being the lower riparian in the Indus river system—could begin to cite climate change as an additional factor in its routine objections to hydro-electric/irrigation projects in Jammu & Kashmir.

The last time millions of Bangladeshi refugees began pouring into the country, India went to war. Even modest projections put the number of Bangladeshis displaced due to rising sea levels in the range of 17-20 million. A large number of them are likely to head for the higher ground in India. The impact of the migration will be dire not just in the North East, but in several Indian cities, throwing them into turmoil. It’s an alarming scenario, but unfortunately, among the most likely. It is also one that calls for India to lead an international effort to literally change the landscape in Bangladesh.

There are no signs to indicate that the planning horizon of India’s foreign policy establishment stretches to more than a few years ahead. The good work of R K Pachauri and his committee should galvanise them into action.

12 thoughts on “Climate changes foreign policy”

  1. Gurmeet,

    Heard of expected value? You don’t have to be a believer in the IPCC reports to sit up and take notice of the long-term threat climate change could pose to national security. Indeed, ignoring it, not least because those apparently intellectual faculties of rational people stop working when it comes to environment, is recklessness.

  2. Look at your language- “long term threat’, ‘could’.Completely different from the over the top hysteria surrounding the IPCC report, where there are shrieking demands of doing something drastic,and now!
    Giving in to those demands have security implications (your main concern)you haven’t even begun to touch upon.Allow me to quote-

    “The reductions required are so big that they cannot be achieved within a consumer capitalist society. Huge and extremely radical changes to systems and culture are necessary …

    The scientists are telling us that if we are to stop the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere from reaching twice the pre-industrial level, we must cut global carbon emissions and thus fossil fuel use by 60 per cent in the short term, and more later. If we cut it 60 per cent and shared the remaining energy among 9 billion people, each Australian would have to get by on less than 5 per cent of the fossil fuel now used …

    We cannot achieve a sustainable and just society unless we face up to a huge and radical transition to what some identify as the simpler way. This is a society based on non-affluent but adequate living standards, high levels of self-sufficiency, in small-scale localised economies and co-operative and participatory communities. It would have to be an economy that is not driven by market forces and profit, with no growth and, most difficult of all, little concern with competition, individualism and acquisitiveness. ”

    Such ‘solutions’ to climate change will change the security scenario world wide and, I believe, for the worse.

    ‘Expected value’? Please explain in this context of this topic.

  3. For your perusal..

    While Global warming is a definite trend (i.e. theres no doubt that it is happening) I am not sure whether it can entirely be attributed to human activities.. There were far greater swings in our planets Environment in times when there were no humans to belch greenhouse gases. Even so, it may be a good idea for people like us who consume a lot to consume a little less.. It builds up character and is good for the spirit 🙂

  4. Gurmeet,

    I’m at pains to explain to you, in this post as well as the previous ones, that this is not a debate about the IPCC report or even climate change itself. You might even be right. Or you might be wrong. We can’t say for certain. From a national security perspective, the question is what if one or the other is right?

    That’s when expected value comes in: even if the probability of a bad outcome is tiny, the expected value (which is probability multiplied by the gain/loss) can still be very high when quantum of loss is exceedingly large.

    When you assess a threat, you use expected value, not only probabilities or the quantum of the loss alone.

  5. Nitin,

    What about cost ? Because to me it seems that we will be spending a hell lot of money to control climate. Now to me it is not a problem but what about others on whom this money would have been spent?

    Since we are talking about expected value here, If

    p = probability that climate change will occur due to human activity, assuming it will be bad for humans, and it can be controlled *
    X = The amount needed to control climate change
    Y = The loss due to climate change
    Z = The benefit if X would have employed for some alternate development activity.


    Expected value = p*(Y-X) – (1-p)*(Z-X)

    so our action should be dependant on values of p,X,Y and Z. This means, if we advocate action (or even inaction), then yes scientific analysis and reports are very much part of the debate.

  6. Addendum

    Is climate change occuring ? Surely.
    Is it anthropogenic ? Most probably
    Is it harmful? May be, needs rigorous scientific research, to this date, I doubt there are any climate models which can predict the climate with any significant amount of accuracy.
    Can this be controlled ? Again needs scientific research.

  7. Gaurav,

    Good analysis. But I’m arguing a different point. Expected value of the threat is the probability that it will occur, times the quantum of the loss; plus the probability that it won’t times the quantum of the gain.

    You could, for example, replace ‘climate change’ with say ‘nuclear attack’ and work out the expected value of the threat from nukes. etc.

    The upshot is that we should not dismiss climate change merely because the probability of its happening is seen to be small. The expected value is significant.

  8. Have you guys heard of Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, and a statistician environmentalists love to hate because he makes a lie of most their doomsday scenarios in that book (500 species dying every week type of nonsense that is on TV sometimes)?

    In any case, he actually invited eight economists to rate climate change as a challenge to the globe and asked them to spend a hypothetical $50 billion on global problems, in 2005 (I think). Climate change was somewhere at the bottom of the list for these economists, with poverty, malaria, and the usual problems that the world face at the top of the list to spend the $50 billion on. The price tag for Europe’s affords to control C (one of most wonderful element in the universe) in air apparently to reduce climate change (that steady state of the past 150 yrs has to be maintained) is $1 trillion!

    Talk about expected value and priorities. If only the global poor lobby (ignoring the self-indulgent rock stars, of course) is as powerful as global environmental lobby.

  9. Nitin,

    “The upshot is that we should not dismiss climate change merely because the probability of its happening is seen to be small.”

    Agreed, but reality is opposite, people have made enviromentalism a cult.Global warming is the secular version of Pralay.

    “The expected value is significant.”

    Show me the Numbers 🙂 (With apologies to Tom Cruise)

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