India, Climate Blocker or Canny Underdog?

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PARIS, NOV 29 -- Environmental activists stand among pairs of shoes symbolically placed on the Place de la Republique, after the cancellation of a planned climate march following shootings in the French capital, ahead of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21), in Paris, France, November 29, 2015. REUTERS/UNI PHOTO-19R

During the recent climate change talks in Paris, India emerged as a champion of developing countries as it demanded that rich nations take the lead in cutting emissions.
By Darryl D’Monte.


A major media event took place over the weekend before the Paris UN summit on climate change began. French authorities, conscious of the security for top leaders arriving on November 29, clamped down on demonstrations that were to be held in the capital and around Le Bourget, the conference venue.

As media coverage, there were pictures of a small but belligerent number of protesters clashing with the police in the center of Paris, near the site of a major terrorist attack a couple of weeks earlier. These contrasted with the sight of hundreds of shoes assembled on a street as a reminder of those who would have marched had authorities permitted them to do.

PROTEST MARCHES
Nevertheless, as media images of protests around the world showed, the message of Paris travelled far and wide. No fewer than some 5,70,000 people took to the streets. Ironically, the biggest was in Sydney, with some 60,000 people. Australia is not known for its green policies and belongs to the umbrella group, headed by the US.

The opening day was a media melee. More than the 3,000 media persons who had registered turned up and there was pandemonium in the media center. The biggest ruckus was caused by scores of TV crews, all doing piece to cameras in a babel of languages, at decibel levels sufficient to prevent any print or radio journalist from
concentrating.

By coincidence, I was sitting near a favorite site for Indian news TV channels, some of whom summoned their nearby correspondents. There was Sanjay Suri from London for NDTV, while Times Now had someone over and so did a number of language channels. Ajay Mathur, head of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency who is leading the Indian delegation, was composed as he patiently waited for a full half-an-hour for his turn on a TV discussion in Delhi through Skype.

At the inauguration by Narendra Modi at the hi-tech Indian pavilion that morning, with laser messages projected on water falling on the frontage, a huge pack of TV crew was shepherded to one side, but the PM didn’t condescend to speak to them. They valiantly tried to get a sound byte, but that was not to be.

The very next day, the TV crews vanished and I wondered how much news channels paid to bring them over only for a day or two. There were meant to be ten times as many delegates as journalists, but the number of the latter waxed and waned with breaking news.

INDIA AS LEADER
Christian Hunt of the Climate Action Network—which has an office in Delhi covering South Asia —has a useful service monitoring the daily media. Early on, he led with India as the point country in the summit. “The country’s stance has become the central fascination for journalists following the ins and outs of the talks,” he said. “India is, in short, a great story—although whether it’s the story of a climate blocker, slowing progress at the talks, or a canny underdog, seeking justice for less developed countries—the media jury is still out.”

Lisa Freidman of ClimateWire wrote: “For India, it all comes down to money. The world’s fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter [after China, US and EU] plays perhaps the most pivotal role of all 196 countries at U.N. climate change negotiations here… [it] has made climate justice its rallying cry and opposes many of the key issues that climate change activists believe are needed for a strong agreement.”

PARIS, DEC 1 (UNI):- Prime Minister Narendra Modi(C) with the President of United States of America (USA) Barack Obama, the President of France. Francois Hollande, Bill Gates, the President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff and other dignitaries, at the Innovation Summit in COP 21, in Paris, France on Monday. UNI PHOTO-7U
Prime Minister Narendra Modi(C) with the President of United States of America (USA) Barack Obama, the President of France. Francois Hollande, Bill Gates, the President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff and other dignitaries, at the Innovation Summit in COP 21, in Paris, France.

One of the most perceptive summit-watchers is John Vidal of The Guardian, who wrote: “India has emerged as a pivotal player… championing developing country demands that the rich take the lead in cutting emissions and providing more money for poor countries. But desperate for a strong deal to protect it from the ravages of climate change, it is also backing the US-led principle that all countries should act.”

The Guardian also picked up a major controversy which was broken by Nitin Sethi of the Business Standard a few days ago. It reported how “the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, comprising rich countries) said that developed countries had mobilised $57 billion of climate aid in 2013-14. But a paper published last week by the Indian ministry of economic affairs said … in a foreword that the OECD had ‘overstated progress’.” More pertinently, it accused the OECD of grossly exaggerating its case to bolster its claim of meeting its target to provide $100 billion by 2020 for developing countries to combat climate change. The ministry’s report was not official but indicates India’s new-found confidence in taking on big climate players on the world stage.

ORDER REVERSED
Many journalists were caught unawares by the fact that the French reversed the normal order at summits and called the world’s leaders on the very first day. Nothing much usually happens at the beginning, but this time, there was maximum media attention, with the leaders’ every word and gesture picked up. Several journos had packed their bags for the action in the second week and missed this beginning, including Modi’s triumphant launch of his International Solar Alliance.

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“For India, it all comes down to money… has made climate justice its rallying cry and opposes many of the key issues that climate change activists believe are needed for a strong agreement.” – Lisa Freidman of ClimateWire

Starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, I have covered a number of climate and development summits, including Rio+5 in 1997 and +20 in 2012, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010 (both on climate). One takes a day to get one’s bearings because venues are usually away from the city center and all meeting rooms look alike, so one has to have a good sense of direction.

Things were especially difficult in Rio. I was covering it for The Times Of India. A group of 10 Indians had been funded through the good offices of Anil Agarwal of the Centre for Science & Environment (CSE). However, the Brazilian government had just opened a new conference center some 40 km from the city. One had to commute there for official meetings and also cover NGOs at a venue in Rio. There were complications, in those days before PCs, in getting stories sent through teleprinters by Brazilians whose English was minimal, with a deadline ten hours ahead of the proceedings.

Rio’s taxi drivers sped down the curving roads at breakneck speed, with a sheer cliff on one side and the ocean hundreds of meters below. I died a hundred times on those trips. But there were many compensations, not least the vast quantities of caipirinha, the addictive lemon cocktail made from cane juice, not to mention bikini-clad women who wandered unselfconsciously along the beach fronts.

SPEAKING UP
The global politics was as heady as the cocktails—a far cry from the sanitized deliberations today. India had taken on the mantle of speaking for the G-77 developing countries; China was nowhere on the horizon and, in any case, has always been motivated by self-interest.

FACE OF THE CONTINGENT: Ajay Mathur, head of Bureau of Energy Efficiency, led the Indian delegation in Paris.
FACE OF THE CONTINGENT: Ajay Mathur, head of Bureau of Energy Efficiency, led the Indian delegation in Paris.

To add insult to injury, Kamal Nath as environment minister then was a self-assured, belligerent spokesperson for India and others of its ilk. He was aided and abetted by Agarwal, whose CSE was part of the official delegation. As journalist colleagues of Agarwal, we all had instant access to Kamal Nath and India’s position.

FOR CLIMATE JUSTICE: Kamal Nath took a strong stand for developing nations at the Rio summit.
FOR CLIMATE JUSTICE: Kamal Nath took a strong stand for developing nations at the Rio summit.

Kamal Nath was a thorn in the side of the US delegation and spared no opportunity to needle Uncle Sam. India made much of President George Bush Sr’s refusal to sign the newly drafted biodiversity treaty. Asked by an NYT reporter what all the fuss was about, he answered that it was all about Bushes and Quayles (his challenged Vice-President)! This referred, unerringly, to (wild) flora and fauna which the treaty protected. That made it to the front page of the NYT.

Sanjay Suri of NDTV (LEFT),Anil Agarwal of CSE (RIGHT).
Sanjay Suri of NDTV (LEFT),Anil Agarwal of CSE (RIGHT).

Several former Indian newspersons are now part of national and international NGOs’ advocacy groups. Damandeep Singh is director of CDP India in Delhi, which works with corporates on climate. He was once the secretary of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India, which this writer still chairs and will file for Business World from Paris.

Aarti Khosla, now India Program Lead-Global Strategic Communications Council in Delhi, told me: “I have been following the UN climate meetings since the infamous Copenhagen. Being a communications expert, I had to go through a learning curve—to understand the way the negotiations work, to separate the grain from the chaff and be able to synthesize corridor information into political intelligence.

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“Being a journalist and understanding the media space gives an edge—it allows one to retain the sense of the ‘outside’ world, knowledge that public opinion matters, and engage more credibly with both camps—experts and journalists. Having credibility in such a space is very important—which should be an ongoing process for all of us.”

Shailendra Yashwant graduated from being a photojournalist for several years to joining the small initial Greenpeace team. “I ran some successful campaigns, first in India and later in Southeast Asia,” he said. He is now advisor to Climate Action Network on communication and advocacy. Is journalism’s loss environment’s gain?