Former Minister of Environment and Forests of India, Jairam Ramesh, recently appeared for a private question and answer session at the Harvard Kennedy School. Ramesh, appointed as a Fisher Family Fellow for the Future of Diplomacy Project, now works as India’s Chief Climate Negotiator. Meeting not with professors or leaders in international climate diplomacy, but rather with students, the world leader arrived on campus for an informal—yet very much informeddiscussion on international climate diplomacy. The session, co-sponsored by the Office for Sustainability and the Kennedy School’s Project on Climate Agreements, offered a professional development opportunity for student leaders of all concentrations, years, and schools within the University. As expected, students came prepared with a variety of questions.

First, with curiosity ablaze, came a question about the framing of environmental issues, such that they receive the appropriate attention for action. Ramesh explained that every country faces economic and environmental stresses, but typically pits these against each other. People view laws for environmental regulation as impedances to economic progress, a metric frequently employed as the measure of a country's success.  Said the Chief Climate Negotiator, “Grow now, pay later—that model is unsustainable. The environment is now extracting a health cost.”

Offering panacea to the poison, Ramesh remarked that problems of climate and environment become politically urgent once they are paired with concerns that more directly speak to the public. Such arguments (including this one, or this one, which link pollution and public health) render environmental degradation uniquely human. What was once a coal-fired power plant leaves its title as simply “polluter” for a more sinister “driver of morbidity.” These points truly served to illustrate the multilevel nature of problems in sustainable policy, setting the private meeting’s tempo, just before students asked questions more specific to India and climate diplomacy.

Problems of climate and environment become politically urgent once they are paired with concerns that more directly speak to the public.

Regarding the relationship between developed countries and developing countries in drafting international climate policy, Ramesh put pressure on the first world, the biggest cumulative emitters of greenhouse gases. The former minister’s words evoked much of the sentiment behind the North-South divide on climate change policy. Though the biggest emitters—primarily northern, western, and wealthy—contribute the most per capita to climate change, developing countries in the Southern Hemisphere are set to suffer the most, with the least resilience.  Expressing frustration with the political structure of the United Nations conferences on climate change, the Climate Negotiator also lamented that each country still receives equal representation, despite extreme variability in population. 

Ramesh conceded, however, that once countries like the United States 'show the rest of the world how to deal with climate change, because [people of the developing world] are the sufferers,' India will soon follow." This statement raised a cornucopia of interesting questions: Though developed nations have contributed the most to climate change in the past, can we treat future emissions in such a linear manner? How do we value future promises, especially when our most populous countries are at the cusp of great economic growth? By extension, how do we value future generations? No matter the questions at hand, the former minister stated that “one country cannot solve the problem unilaterally.” Climate is a global commons, and therefore a global problem, in need of a global solution. 

Climate is a global commons, and therefore a global problem, in need of a global solution.