Arun Agrawal is the Samuel Trask Dana Professor of Governance and Sustainability, at the University of Michigan, USA. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the renowned journal World Development, and is considered an authority on environmental governance as well as social dimensions of climate change. He has published two books and dozens of peer-reviewed journal articles, including several in Science, Nature, and PNAS. Arun is also the Coordinator of IFRI, the international research network on people and forests, and a founding member of ICARUS, the global initiative on social science research on adaptation to climate change.
Arun Agrawal was recently at Indian School of Business (ISB) and conversed with Milind G Sohoni, Associate Professor of Operations Management and Senior Associate Dean, Faculty Alignment and Registrar Office at ISB. He spoke at length on the impact of climate change, responses to different kinds of climatic phenomenon, role of the nations in minimising the damage and so on. Excerpts from the conversation:
Milind Sohoni: Welcome to ISB, and I am glad you could take some time out of your busy schedule to talk to ISBInsight. The first question I had for you is to get a better understanding of what you mean by climate change. Is there a common understanding among experts in this area as to what climate change is?
Arun Agrawal: I am very happy to be at ISB and to be talking with you. You are very right that when it comes to defining climate change there are many different ways in which people both understand and try to explain or describe what climate change is. Perhaps, two things are important to note about what we call climate change. One is that even though we are saying that climate change is going on in every day experience, it replicates many things that we have already experienced in the past, whether it is high temperatures, precipitation, or drought. Two, climate change can also be viewed as an increased range of variability in temperature, precipitation, or other climate phenomenon, that explains both, the possibility that we are in future going to experience more drought or more incidents of high levels of intense rainfall. But for a lay person it is very hard to know whether a particular event, that they are experiencing, should be attributed to climate change. So overall, I would say that climate change is a set of phenomena many of which we have already experienced and some of which are going to be beyond our past experience of climatic variability.
A lay person who reads newspaper articles and popular press will conclude that climate change is the result of all the economic development activity by the developed nations. Maybe inadvertently, but the impression is that it is they who need to be blamed for climate change. There is also a significant effort to convince developing countries to take action, but it is imperative that the developed nations need to help out. They need to take on this responsibility either through technology transfer or education or aid, and help the developing nations because otherwise it is not in the interest of the developing nations to do something. So as an expert do you think this kind of an argument makes sense?
I think there is a lot of truth to the argument that you just outlined. One can say that the emissions resulting from economic development efforts in the west are primarily to be blamed, they are leading to substantial change in the way climatic phenomena unfold. That is true. And in some moral or ethical sense, those who have created the problem also have the responsibility to address it. Having said that, it makes very little sense in hard, real politic terms to expect the richer world to do anything about climate change that would then reduce the problems for poor tropical countries. Why? The answer is very straightforward. The worst effects of climate change, unfortunately and ironically, are going to be felt by people living in the tropics, and people who are in poor countries. At least initially there may be some small positive effects of climate change in the developed world, which gives them a longer cushion of time in which to act, to reduce the effects of climate change. So we, who are living in poor countries may say “Hey, you created the problem, it is your responsibility to address it.” But that ethical sentiment has no basis for any real obligation, any real compulsion on the part of rich countries to act so that their actions benefit the poor countries. And there are three reasons for that. First, if you think of action on climate change, one set of actions is about reducing emissions and about new technologies that can move the world away from higher levels of emissions, reducing thereby the impetus in the climate system towards change. At this point renewable energy is mega business – there is a lot of money in that sector. So, why should rich countries, that are developing these technologies, share them with poor countries for free? There is no real reason for them to do so.
For a lay person it is very hard to know whether a particular event, that they are experiencing, should be attributed to climate change. So overall, I would say that climate change is a set of phenomena many of which we have already experienced and some of which are going to be beyond our past experience of climatic variability.
The second set of responses or technologies that can help address climate change are in the realm of adaptation to climate change. Now, adaptation is very local. The kinds of innovations that you might expect to reduce the impact of climate change for people in poor countries, such as new crops which are drought resistant or heat resistant, they are really going to be local. Why should the rich countries spend resources to create technologies for poor countries but not themselves? And third is this issue of who is going to feel the effects of climate change first, which I was mentioning earlier. If it is people in poor countries who are going to feel the worst effects of climate change earlier, again there is very little real impetus for the developed world and for the rich countries to favor the creation of technologies or to do things that would benefit the poor world first.
I think decision-makers in poor countries need to realise that they can say whatever they want about the ethical responsibility of the rich world to help the poor world. But when it comes down to it, the cost to be incurred in the creation of new technologies to reduce emissions can benefit the rich world as well, so they are unlikely to share these for free. The technologies for adapting to climate change are locally specific, which countries would rather want to benefit their populations first. And if the time period over which you need to act has a longer duration in the rich world compared to what it is in the poor world, again, decision-makers in poor countries will need to act first. Therefore, the idea that poor countries should be helped by richer countries may sound great in principle but in real politic terms there is no real basis for us to expect the rich world to help and to meet its obligation for reducing the emissions that are leading to climate change. I think the poor countries need to act on their own, and need to act without expectation of benefits coming from the rich world, for devising solutions to problems that are affecting their societies now.
If you think of action on climate change, one set of actions is about reducing emissions and about new technologies that can move the world away from higher levels of emissions, reducing thereby the impetus in the climate system towards change. At this point renewable energy is mega business – there is a lot of money in that sector.
This raises a kind of a dilemma. Most of the impact is irreversible and the changes we are observing today are probably because of actions that were undertaken a few decades ago. And the damage that we would do today would probably be felt a few decades hence. Now, as a developing nation, you have short term goals, you have urgent priorities that you have to take care of. Particularly in a country like India, for example, there are so many competing objectives that the government would have to focus on that the impact of climate change doesn’t seem immediate. In that case, how would one convince developing nations like ours and may be even poorer economies elsewhere in the world to not focus so much on asking the West for help but starting to think about this problem as their own and to start working on it in order to address the challenges of the future?
You are absolutely right. I think for any decision-maker, the areas in which they want to act are ones that are confronting them at that point in time. But you also put your finger on the crux of the problem. Climate change is unlike most large-scale problems that face decision-makers. This is essentially about different kinds of inertia that are present in the climate system, in the institutional arrangements, in the infrastructure that gets created at a given point in time. What I mean is that it takes roughly 20 to 30 years for the climate system to respond to existing levels of emissions. We will feel the effects of emissions that we have present today only 20 to 30 years from now. If we don’t do anything today we are committed to facing really terrible effects of the emissions that we have already created. But that is not the only kind of inertia that is present when it comes to climate change. The infrastructure that we have built for producing energy has a relatively long time span. If we create coal-fired power plants for energy production, the emissions from those will continue for 20 to 30 years because we don’t create infrastructure and then get rid of it the next day. To reduce emissions 30 years from now, we have to create infrastructure today that is sensitive to the need to reduce emissions in the future. The third kind of inertia that you can point to is peoples’ behaviours and institutions. The institutions that are present and the ways of acting that are present don’t change overnight. Human beings take a long time to change their ways of thinking and to change their behaviour. So again, if we don’t start acting on climate change now we are dooming ourselves to feeling the effects of our actions 20 to 30 years from now.
These are three major reasons; the problem of inertia in the climate system, the problem of inertia in the infrastructure, and the problem of inertia in decision-making in institutions which requires solutions to be implemented beginning now, for us to benefit from them 20 to 30 years from now. Even though, as a decision maker, you are facing a lot of different problems that need attention, if you don’t pay attention to what is going to happen 20 years from now you are going to continue to do things which cannot be solved by the next generation of decision makers for another 20 to 30 years.
I understand that this is not a particular developed nation’s burden. We as an emerging economy are contributing to this and we need to own to that responsibility and work towards it. But take a society like ours which is economically divided. There are the rich, and then there are the marginalised sections of society. And in a country like ours that population is also quite significant. While, of course, it is our joint responsibility to address the issue in its entirety, are there sections of society that are affected more than the others? If so, what are they doing in order to respond to these kinds of impacts of the climate change?
I think climate change is probably going to have some effect on most sections of society. But as is true for most negative kinds of changes, the relative effects of these changes are borne more by people who are more vulnerable and people who are poorer. What that also means is that just as poor countries cannot rely on the rich world to solve their problem, poor people living in these countries cannot or should not necessarily rely only on the government or only on rich people, the elite and decision-makers, within their countries to solve their problems. There are two aspects to it. One is that because people are already experiencing climate change, because what climate change signifies has been experienced by them for a long period of time, they have also devised strategies, they have devised ways of responding which they undertake regardless of what the government is doing. For effective decisions to respond to climate change, it is critical that we understand what poor people have been doing, what small holder farmers have been doing, what people living in marginal areas have been doing and incorporate the lessons of their coping strategies and of their adaptation actions in the policies that are being devised. If policies don’t take into account how people are already responding to climate change, there is a very real risk that their policy actions will be out of sync with what people are already doing. There is the possibility of synergistic interaction between what poor people are already doing to respond to climate change and what government decision-makers can implement to support those actions.
It takes roughly 20 to 30 years for the climate system to respond to existing levels of emissions. We will feel the effects of emissions that we have present today only 20 to 30 years from now. If we don’t do anything today we are committed to facing really terrible effects of the emissions that we have already created.
But only expecting poor people and marginal groups to cope with the worst effects of climate change is also not a reasonable expectation. Given the increased range of what is likely to happen in the future people will also need the support of external actors or government agencies to be able to move beyond what they have been doing so far. Without that support from outside, it is very possible that actions taken in response to the worst effects of climate change will be much more costly. Acting pre-emptively to support people is much better than trying to help them after they have suffered the effects of climate change. An additional point I would make is that we need to understand better how the nature of different kinds of responses may also have negative effects on social and political stability. So for example, I would like to know the extent to which districts in India, where there is violence or where there is social unrest as part of the daily fabric of life, is linked to experienced negative effects of climate change? This is not to say that where there is climate change you get more violence, or you get more social unrest. But that link is something that government offi cials, politicians and decision-makers need to keep in mind as part of why it is essential for them to act to ameliorate the most negative impacts of climate change on those who are the least well equipped to cope with these events.
For effective decisions to respond to climate change, it is critical that we understand what poor people have been doing, what small holder farmers have been doing, what people living in marginal areas have been doing and incorporate the lessons of their coping strategies and of their adaptation actions in the policies that are being devised.
That is a very interesting observation! You are saying that the government needs to learn from the people and has to be much more proactive in order to reach out and make sure that the impact of climate change is ameliorated. In a country like India do you have some examples that one could look at where such things have happened or are proactively happening?
I think that there is a lot to learn from places in India and other poor countries where people and society are already experiencing climate change impacts. One could learn from looking at specific responses that people are undertaking to different kinds of climatic phenomenon. If we go into semiarid areas of India and see how people are coping with the effects of low rainfall or drought you will see people already implementing changes that have a tremendous significance for policy. In some places, people are switching from producing cash crops to relying more on food crops. In other places, they may already have shifted to planting fodder crops. In some places, they may be shifting towards goat rearing or towards chicken or poultry. In other places they may be migrating more to get away from the worst effects of climate change. They may be working together as communities to cope with the effects of climate change. I think it is critical for us to understand when and which kinds of responses have the greatest possibility of improving the welfare of those suffering from climate change. And I think that the science about that kind of knowledge is sorely missing from existing efforts of devising policy. When policies are devised based on the conversations at international fora without paying attention to what people are doing in their daily lives. That is when I think is the greatest risk for policies to go wrong. I think we need homegrown solutions, we need solutions that are sensitive to the current conditions, but with an eye to the future for us to be successful in coping with the effects of climate change. And we need to do this as a country that can provide lessons for the rest of the world.