As Deadly Floods Hit India, Kerry Calls on New Delhi to Address Climate Change

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Anindito Mukherjee / REUTERS

A boy sits on a ladder next to his flooded house with the rising water level of river Yamuna after heavy monsoon rains in New Delhi June 19, 2013.

It was a fitting time to talk about the weather. With some 700 dead in the massive floods that have hit the northeastern state of Uttarakhand, new torrents of rain and landslides put rescue efforts on hold on Monday. At least 10,000 people are reported to still be stranded in some of the worst monsoon flooding in years in the region, an unfolding disaster that provided a dramatic backdrop for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry‘s two-day visit to India this week in which he called on the nation to be a more active partner in helping the U.S. battling climate change.

After expressing his condolences to the flood victims, Kerry said in a speech in New Delhi on Sunday night that the U.S. had donated $150,000 to the flood relief effort — “not the highest sum in the world,” he admitted, but “a beginning.” He went on to warn India not to dismiss the deadly intensity of the floods as a one-off tragedy. “Perhaps Mother Nature in her own way is telling us to heed some warnings,” Kerry said before a packed auditorium. “Today the science of climate change is screaming at us for action.”

(PHOTOS: Rains spark floods, landslides in northern India.)

How to handle global climate change mitigation has been a sore point between the nations in the past. India, one of the fastest-growing greenhouse emitters, has argued for years that developing economies should not be held to the same standards of reducing emissions as developed countries, and that the imperative to develop and reduce poverty should trump India’s committing to emissions targets. India’s emissions per capita is a fraction of that of the U.S. India and other nations have backed down from refusing all targets, they have continued to emphasize that the global strategy for addressing climate change be based on equitable growth. “I fully sympathize with the notion that India’s paramount commitment to development and eradicating poverty is essential,” Kerry said. “But we have to recognize that a collective failure to meet our collective climate challenge would inhibit all countries’ dreams of growth and development.”

This is not Kerry’s first rodeo in India. In 2008, Kerry worked the Senate to get support for then President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s nuclear deal, which opened India’s civil nuclear facilities up to IAEA inspections and, in turn, paved the way for greater civil nuclear cooperation between the two countries. The agreement came at a time when tighter U.S.-India ties made a lot of sense to both parties in the shadow of China’s ascension on the world stage. In 2009, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began the India-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, an important if slightly wonky recognition of the common interests the two countries share. During his visit, Kerry continued these talks with the Prime Minister and with India’s current Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid.

Ahead of the visit, observers in both countries expressed concerns that the bilateral relationship has grown stagnant or hung up on disagreements over trade issues. In an article published by India Ink on Monday, Khurshid wrote that the same friction that has arisen between India and the U.S. over the climate change issue — that the same rules do not necessarily apply to countries at such different stages of economic development — applies to other areas too, alluding, perhaps, to tensions over an Indian court ruling allowing India’s pharmaceutical industry to make a generic copy of a drug patented abroad. He writes:

The challenge before us is to reconcile competing self-interests and combine them into enlightened mutual interest…We both have constraints of democracy, which are exacerbated by the different levels of development and corresponding demands of our respective economies, societies and people. For instance, India at the moment is relatively low on carbon emissions. But those will increase as we address the developmental needs of our people, unless adequately provided to adapt to low-emission technology that is obviously costly. Developing countries like India expect that the United States and other developed countries will agree to binding targets to cut emissions, having had the advantage of several centuries of development. This competing logic applies to many sectors. The solutions lie in our mutual convergence at a middle ground.

Kerry, at least when it comes to climate change, indicated that the two nations may not have the luxury of time to find that middle ground. While he said that the U.S. respects India’s prioritization of reducing poverty, he also did not give India much of a break, pointing out that the number of Indians without electricity is roughly equal to the population of the United States. Aggressively combating climate change and reducing energy poverty, he said, are interconnected. And as one of the most vulnerable countries to changing weather patterns, as the disaster in Uttarakhand has put on stark display, Kerry warned that India has a lot to lose for not taking swift action. “The worst consequences of the climate crisis,” he said, “will confront people who are the least able to be able to cope with them.”