The elephant that never forgets

The media in India's energetic civil society is central to providing a forum for debate and discussion. Simon Billett discusses what this means for the country’s environmental policies and attitudes.

As climate change has risen up government and (some) corporate agendas, it has also percolated down into the view of the public. Indeed, public debate about climate change is remarkably intense for a global environmental issue, as these problems are commonly seen as taking place “somewhere else”. Now, as the next round of negotiations gears up to the UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, the role of the public is seen as key, not only to pushing governments to act, but also to drive grassroots action at the doorstep level.

Yet the role of the public in climate debates is clearly not ubiquitous, especially in Asia. More often than not, the western media talk of “China and India” as if they were one and the same, using them as the beacons of the developing and emerging economies’ position in debates about international emissions cuts. However, this presupposed pairing is far from a homogeneous entity, not least on the issue of public participation in the environment. In China’s one-party state the role of a voting public and civil society is starkly different from India’s vibrant-at-best and stalemated-at-worst democratic system, which gives the public, and particularly public opinion, a key role in shaping environmental policy and attitudes. While the dragon’s road to Copenhagen is predictable only so far as the government will reveal, to assess the elephant’s climate policy path we must begin to pay attention to this increasingly important factor in international climate politics: public understanding and debate.

India has an energetic civil society in which the media plays a key role in providing a forum for debate and discussion. The print media—by far the most prolific in a country where access to electronic media is exclusive—is largely private, owned by single families or corporations. These publishing houses have large control over the flow of information and on setting the tone of public debates, not least on climate change. A survey by the Global Nielsen Survey in 2007 suggested that 70% of literate Indians use the press as their primary source of information on climate change. The press debate and coverage influence public understanding and perception, and those reading the press influence the government through voting and wider public pressure campaigns, such as the 1,000-strong New Delhi Climate Rally in December 2007.

Over the last six years the Indian press has given increasing attention to climate change, a turnaround after a long period since the 1980s during which the issue was largely dismissed in the country. Historically, the Indian government and press had followed the line captured by Indira Gandhi’s statement in 1972 that “the environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty”. Indian delegations at summits have continually argued that, in the words of one official, “had the emissions of the developed world been that of the developing world, the world would not face the threat of climate change”. 

Since 2002, however, the Indian press has begun to pay increasing attention to climate politics, with coverage increasing by 280% between 2002 and 2005. Unlike in the United States or some European countries, the coverage of climate change as a scientific phenomenon has been unanimously unquestioning. Rapid and dangerous climatic change is reported in impressive scientific detail, often quoting specific reports from academic journals to inform readers about the plight ahead. There is a close focus on the environmental threats from climate change, particularly that which may occur in India specifically: 75%    of the articles on climate change between 2002 and mid-2007 suggested that India was “under threat” from climate change. Moreover, the press focus on these threats was centred on the impacts to Indian people themselves, rather than impacts on industry or absolute growth. Two-thirds of the 75% of articles were concerned with either monsoonal change, Himalayan glacial retreat or falling crop yields. There appears to be a suggestion among the newspapers that climate change will bring catastrophic environmental change to India and that the people on the ground will suffer.

This climate of fear over global warming fuels public representations of climate politics. In this context of threats and potential humanitarian disaster, discussion over what should be done about climate change is largely focused around who is responsible for it. The answer, according to the press, is found in the past. Of press articles between 2002 and June 2007, 76.3% argued that the developed world was responsible for climate change, and by extension, as defined by the press, for the threats to India. A typical article in the Times of India argued that citizens in the “north are primarily responsible… through excessive resource consumption… intended to support their lifestyles”. When it comes to climate policy the Indian press have a clear argument: climate change is not caused by but threatens India. Accordingly, the discussion over possible action on climate change was focused on two options: either the “north” acts to mitigate global climate change, or the “north” pays for mitigation efforts globally. Like Wheeler, Ummel and Kraft’s Another Inconvenient Truth, published in June on chinadialogue,the press argue that “developing countries cannot allow their economies to suffer on account of a problem caused by the [north]”.

The story is similar for adaptation. Almost all of the 29% of articles that suggested that the environmental threat warrants essential adaptation in India argued that that it should be bankrolled by the developed world through financial transfer mechanisms. In addition to their scepticism over international action, the press were highly critical of the lack of any major adaptation fund prior to the UN climate talks in Bali. They argued that the lack of adaptation action was evidence of how all alliances with the north only favour what is beneficial to it—in this case, mitigation rather than adaptation. 

Indeed, much of the press’ discussion of climate change is conducted in starkly postcolonial terms: “north and south”, “developed and developing”, “us and them”. Like many national mass media outlets, the Indian press give a national tint to climate discussions. Toward the United States’ climate position, for example, the press are overwhelmingly (82%) negative, arguing that developed states are blocking action on climate change, and, in turn, are further damaging India through a lack of action to mitigate the threats outlined by the press. Toward other developing and emerging economies, in contrast, discussion is wholly empathetic (100%). A kind of southern solidarity is created, with the climate “pit[ting] India, China and Pakistan against the developed world”. This postcolonial rhetoric reincarnates climate change as a kind of “carbon colonialism”, to use the phrase of the prominent New Delhi NGO Centre for Science and Environment. International issues like climate change are still seen very much in north-south terms, akin to those outlined by president Nehru in post-independence India. An elephant never forgets, it seems.

When we think of the Chinese response or the Indian response, then, we are thinking not only about different states but also about different concepts of society: autonomous government and dynamic civil society. And this is significant. The Indian response is that of a complex social system and public forum in which nationalistic emotions over climate change are deep-set. Climate change is seen as an extension of former north-south exploitation and, as one journalist put it, of the “north not cleaning up its mess”.  

As we enter the run-up to the talks in Poznan, Poland, in December, and then to the Copenhagen negotiations, China and India will be asked again to put aside their resentment towards the west on international climate policy. While the Chinese government may be able to negotiate and deal, India does not forget easily and holds the country in a historically-focused position. What remains to be seen is whether the elephant will ever forget—or if it should.


Simon Billett is a Masters student at the University of Oxford. This article is based around forthcoming research conducted in India in 2007. For further information please contact [email protected]