In Delhi, doing as we do, not as we say

In the five years I worked as a reporter in India, I sat through many uncomfortable silences during interviews about Pakistani terrorists, the pervasive caste system and Indian Muslims — sensitive issues that, on the face of it, seem more controversial than carbon parts per million.

But these subjects rarely stirred up as much ire as India's stance on climate change. The topic has become a matter of national pride, a symbol of sovereignty and growing global clout. If you want to make an Indian government official really angry, bring up carbon emissions.

This fall, when I mentioned to the Indian government's chief economic policymaker that the United States considers India "intransigent" on climate change, the poised, Oxford-educated Montek Singh Ahluwalia looked slightly stunned for a moment. Pursing his lips, he seemed to struggle to suppress anger. "If I were using a cool description, those are either gross misperceptions or deliberate distortions," he said in clipped British English. "The Indian approach on this has been, 'Let's first decide a fair pollution entitlement for different countries.' "

India's position — the hard-line negotiator standing up for the moral rights of the developing world — is a familiar one. India is the world's fourth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, but for months now, it has come across as an obstinate child, leading the developing world in insisting that industrialized countries bear the brunt of the responsibility for global warming and have no right to dictate reductions to poor countries.

The international climate conference in Copenhagen next month won't be the showdown it was originally billed as, but the United States and other nations are certainly not going to let up in their insistence that India and China accept hard emissions targets.

In a country where almost half a million children die each year from water-borne diarrhea, providing access to basic services such as clean drinking water is more pressing than cutting emissions. And to do so requires energy. "You cannot say that because there is climate change the developing world shouldn't grow," was the outraged response when I asked Chandra Bhushan of the Center for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based research group, to explain why it is unfair to ask India to cut its emissions.

In every conversation I had about climate change in India, the lines were clearly drawn: Americans, who emit 20 times more than the average Indian, are greedy over- consumers refusing to make lifestyle changes that would allow the rest of the world to grow. There was no dissent among the ranks. In a country with a healthy tradition of civic engagement and anti-government protests, I was surprised that no environmentalists were urging India to accept international limits. But high-minded nationalism has a proud history there, too; when officials use phrases such as "climate injustice" and "Gandhian moral authority" to describe India's position, it rings a bell.

Most U.S. officials consider it unhelpful and misleading to assign blame according to the past hundreds of years of emissions, since we did not know then what we know now. But in India, environmentalists often bring up the greenhouse gases the West emitted not only during its decades of industrialization but also in fighting wars. And they aren't referring just to Iraq and Afghanistan — the world's carbon waste in 1941 was mentioned in my interviews more than once.

Essentially, the United States wants India to commit to reducing its emissions, and India wants to be able to do so at a pace of its own choosing. But the two countries actually have a remarkably similar position: The international community isn't going to tell us what to do. This doesn't bode well for action on global climate change — not next month or in the future, now that world leaders have agreed that there will be no binding agreement at Copenhagen.

Kennedy's book about women and globalization in India will be published in January 2011. E-mail her at