Extreme weather events and international responsibility

Dr. Chamu Kuppuswamy
Expert in public international law and a member of UNESCO Man and Biosphere (MAB) UK Urban Forum, Senior Lecturer at the School of Law and Assistant Director of Research at the School of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities (SSAHRI) at the University of Hertfordshire 


I came to India for a conference and stayed on for a bit as India is home. As I sit here, stuck in South India because of an extreme weather event, nearly all of my wardrobe gone, part of the household’s attempt at contributing to the massive relief effort underway to help people in the disaster struck areas, the thought of more shopping heartens me. I do like shopping for ethnic wear.

Relief, eh?!


I have been following the Paris climate talks and now the Doha Development Round talks through Indian newspapers. The issue of climate justice is very much in the headlines here.

Internally the Chennai flood is a governance issue; externally this is a climate change issue as pointed out by the Union Environment Minister of India in the weekend newspapers here.

“What is happening in Chennai is the result of what has happened for 150 years in the developed world. That is what has caused 0.8 degrees celsius temperature rise. And therefore they must now take action more vigorously”.[1]

While this is partly political posturing by the party in power as they have lost seats in recent state elections, there are otherwise concerns emanating from Paris that the principle of common and differentiated responsibilities is being diluted.

The current practice of asking countries to develop bottom-up commitments to reduce emissions is side-lining the greater responsibilities that have been placed on historic polluters under Article 3 of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCC) which states ‘parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of mankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof’.

Climate Action Network, an influential global network of climate NGOs recommends the consideration of a new, dynamic, principle- an indicator-driven interpretation of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities’.[2]

This new approach to global differentiation is to be adopted on the basis of a mutually agreed equity index based on a number of indicators. Among the recommended indicators are measures of per capita income, measures of per capita emissions, measures of standards of living, measures of historical responsibility, and measures of intranational income inequality. It does seem like climate justice would be side-lined if measures of historical responsibility are subsumed within a larger set of indicators for determining differences in responsibilities. This may be seen as yet another instance where the voice of developing countries is drowned in a cacophony of calls, leading to disenchanted citizenry.

Developing countries are resisting the changes to the principle, but will need to move towards a compromise of sorts if there is to be an agreement to move forward on tackling climate change. The mood though seems to be one of insistence on climate justice. The India pavilion in COP21 ‘seeks to demonstrate the strong belief that the world needs to look beyond climate change and focus on climate justice’. [3]

Already there is disgruntlement in India and other developing countries over the conflation of development aid with funds for mitigation of climate change. In times of austerity for countries in the West, this is but a temptation that won’t be politically costly at home.

For the average Chennaiite, suffering from the aftermath of the unprecedented record busting monsoons, trying to rebuild their lives, neighbourhood and city, this conflation will hit hard. Not only is aid required to rebuild what was lost, but also required to realise the dreams that they were building before the devastation. According to Sujatha Byravan, Principal Research Scientist at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy, Bengaluru, there is an expectation that ‘climate funds are to be new and additional to development aid because they relate to the historical obligation of rich countries for having captured ecological space. India has maintained that funds for climate finance should be new, predictable, scalable, and recognised as the obligations of developed countries.’[4]

Aside from climate finance, clean energy and mitigation are part of the Paris discussions. Chennai should not just aspire to be a smart city, but also aspire to become a green city, like London. Tamilnadu has a population similar to that of the UK, and Chennai is its capital. It might not have the same wealth as the UK, but it surpasses the UK in history and tradition. A tradition that is steeped in resilience based on nature friendly practices, something that can aid Chennai’s transformation into a green city. India showcased its climate friendly culture at COP21, where the Prime Minister Mr. Modi released ‘Parampara’ – a book on India’s climate friendly and sustainable practices. In the long term, developing urban resilience requires a combination of both traditional practices and modern technological practices in a country with a population of 1.2 billion, and a state that is home to the world’s only living classical civilisation, the Tamil country. Chennai’s famous dance and music ‘December season’ may have been disrupted, but embedded in it are all that is beautiful and exquisite in its tradition.

Developing urban resilience is a matter for communities, both local and global. Environmental governance in Chennai should adopt and move beyond good governance if it is to hold a chance of becoming a thriving modern green and smart city. Short termism should not come in the way of managing Chennai after the first phase of disaster management. When tables are dry enough to have meetings to discuss the city’s future, it will be important to include as many stake holders from as diverse groups as possible such as artists, academics, parents and students, to discuss not just town planning, but greening and citizen engagement.

Here’s hoping that, at the end of the Paris talks, the world delivers a legal framework that is fair, equitable and progressive.


[1] http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/prakash-javadekar-says-chennai-rains-are-a-natural-disaster-of-unprecedented-scale/article7949452.ece

[2] http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2013/smsn/ngo/307.pdf

[3] https://twitter.com/PMOIndia/status/671301716667711488

[4] http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/on-the-paris-climate-change-conference-2015/article7937637.ece


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s