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“The present generation can rightly blame us for a loss of opportunity”: Ambassador Navtej Sarna on missing out addressing the escalating Climate Emergency in the 1990s!

June 1, 2020

June 5th is the World Environment Day. This year’s theme is “Celebrate Biodiversity”. How have we changed, what David Attenborough calls, the ‘complex web of life’? To quote him – 96% mass of mammals on this planet is us and the livestock we have domesticated. Likewise, 70% of all birds is domesticated poultry!

A series of missed opportunities over the last few decades has brought us into this situation. What really did happen or did not or ought to have happened – Ambassador Navtej Sarna helps me navigate through the developments during the past 40 years. A three-pronged approach involving Climate Change, Biodiversity and Desertification, he believes, is best way to address the Climate Crisis. In our conversation, we explore the whole range of diverse issues – the dynamics of climate movements becoming international agenda and their handling by multilateral agencies. Lessons from arms control negotiations and tailoring them to climate realities. The power of and abuse thereof by the fossil fuel companies. The competing and adversarial interests that come in the way of sustainability. Literary narratives or activism, something that catches the world’s attention – like the carbon neutral voyages of Greta Thunberg – ought to be quickly followed by agreements that bind nations. Environmental damage can bring further global disasters like the pandemic, he warns.

In his near four decades of distinguished diplomatic career – Ambassador Sarna has served as India’s envoy to Israel, United Kingdom and the USA. He has had the distinction of being the longest serving Spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry. He headed International Organizations division in the Foreign Office and oversaw work related to India’s Presidency of the UN Security Council, arms control, nuclear negotiations, environment negotiations and peacekeeping operations. He spearheaded India’s entry as Observer to the Arctic Council. Ambassador Sarna is an established author of fiction and non-fiction.

Praveen Gupta: From your time, as a young diplomat, at the UN desk do you recall any missed opportunities in addressing the menace of escalating Climate Emergency?

Navtej Sarna: There was a time when environment was the next big frontier – I am talking of the early nineties. The Cold War was getting over, the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse, the nuclear face-off was no longer an immediate threat. Mankind, it seemed, could turn its attention to other matters. Soon there was enough momentum behind environment to make it a subject attractive to world leaders. This led to the Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. The Summit had a huge hype, the prep meetings were long and protracted, and it resulted in clear definition of three areas of work – Climate Change, Biodiversity and Desertification. Follow up action did take place in the shape of framework conventions and setting up bodies that would take forward this agenda on a multilateral basis.

However clearly somewhere along the way we could not keep the required pace, the focus was lost, there was too much wrangling for political advantage and a loss of the ideal objective – to protect the earth’s environment for the next generation. This was true of the climate change arm and now the present generation can rightly blame us for a loss of opportunity – the fight may have been easier if it had been fought in the nineties.

However clearly somewhere along the way we could not keep the required pace, the focus was lost, there was too much wrangling for political advantage and a loss of the ideal objective – to protect the earth’s environment for the next generation.

PG: Don’t you think the Climate Change agenda today is saddled with excessive bureaucracy which is impeding real action? As an outsider I tend to get flummoxed with the number of agencies involved and the abbreviations!

NS: Unfortunately, this tends to happen in a multilateral setting. Multiplication of agencies, agendas is a natural corollary when interests of so many countries, leave only careers of individuals, have to be balanced. There is a time when something is a movement – fueled by thinkers, activists, NGOs and so on. Then it becomes a part of international bureaucracy and all that comes with it. The effort has to be to keep that international agenda moving and that comes only when individual governements feel strongly enough – either on their own, for their own reasons, or under pressure from domestic lobbies, powerful countries and so on.

There is a time when something is a movement – fueled by thinkers, activists, NGOs and so on. Then it becomes a part of international bureaucracy and all that comes with it.

PG: In your view did the three-pronged approach – Climate Change; Biodiversity and Desertification – a more appropriate format to address the challenges faced by our Planet, rather than ‘clubbing’ it all together?

NS: Yes, I think since we must deal with a multilateral set up, separating these areas probably gives us more flexibility and agility to handle the problems, even though they may all be inter-related.

PG: The EU recently announced a plan for a climate law. Given your work in the space of International Law and the UN (agencies), is there a case for structuring this on the lines of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks/Treaty?

NS: This is an interesting parallel that is now being drawn – a sort of equivalent not so much of the SALT but of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). SALT was a bilateral treaty between the US and the USSR during the cold war. But the NPT was a multilateral treaty, though not global in its reach. India for instance is not part of the NPT, as we considered it a flawed treaty, discriminating between haves and have nots in terms of nuclear weapons.

A Climate agreement would necessarily have to be multilateral and to have any real meaning it should cover the whole world. Most important it should not be discriminatory and what that means would be very different in arms control issues and climate issues. Also, arms control is a more exact science, dealing with specific weapons, specific thresholds and a very detailed verification system. This may not always be possible in Climate treaties – these begin with being aspirational, and then add on national contributions and so on. Though there is a science to climate, verification aspects may be far too wide and far too intrusive. Also, arms control issues deal ultimately with governments. They are usually not the concern of ordinary people nor do they usually impact day to day life. Quite the contrary in climate issues. So yes, there can be lessons from arms control negotiations, but they would have to be tailored to climate realities.

So yes, there can be lessons from arms control negotiations, but they would have to be tailored to climate realities.

PG: The fossil fuel companies seem to be behaving like the East India Company – trying to push opium under the guise of free trade. Any thoughts?

NS: That is an interesting connection you draw. Fossil fuel companies have been among the most powerful companies in the world because they control a very valuable and limited resource. More so when this resource is not evenly distributed around the world. So, they have exerted power, sometimes more power than some nations. Fossil fuel companies have been among the most powerful companies in the world.

Fossil fuel companies have been among the most powerful companies in the worldFossil fuel companies have been among the most powerful companies in the world.

The East India company too showed a deeply avaricious nature. It played politics, controlled armies, fought wars, and gathered immense wealth which then helped build huge influence back home. Trade was at the heart of it, but so much more then followed as a consequence of this trade, because this trade was no longer between equals. It stopped being trade, it became loot. And soon the flag followed the trade and continued the loot. Perhaps the power of these companies can only be challenged when the power of the resource they control is challenged.

PG: What is your vision for ensuring – urgency, collaboration, and timely action to restore sustainability in today’s fragmented world? Given its vulnerabilities, any specific thoughts on the Asia Pac?

NS: I believe the issue of sustainability is as complex as it is fundamental. If it was that simple, it would have been done by now. There are competing and adversarial interests – of industry, of technology, of fossil fuel lobbies, of the imperatives of development and these have to be balanced by a rising awareness of sustainability, accentuated by the current crisis. Ultimately there is no one vision – or silver bullet – that will take us where we want to be. So, we have to take whatever comes – multilateral bench marking, national action by States, people-driven action, activism and so on.

I believe the issue of sustainability is as complex as it is fundamentalUltimately there is no one vision – or silver bulletSo, we have to take whatever comes – multilateral bench marking, national action by States, people-driven action, activism and so on.

I think the Asia Pacific is a hugely important region for the world and this will only be more evident in the decades to come. It is home to populous countries like India and China, it is the area which will be the center-point of global trade, global energy transit, small island vulnerable states, and the power play between China and the US. A focus on sustainability, given the potential of the Blue economy for states such as Seychelles or Mauritius or even the Pacific islands is absolutely essential. Many of these countries cannot do this by themselves so multilateral action, or imaginative bilateral or regional frameworks assume great importance.

PG: Silent Spring – by Rachel Carsen – inspired the creation of EPA in the US. Unfortunately, a very critical institution is being dismantled just when it is most required. What can recreate something similar – environmental activism, literature?

NS: Literary narratives can provide a philosophy for activism, but the world has to be ready for them. Else they sound like science fiction. Again, something catches the world’s attention – like the carbon neutral voyages of Greta Thunberg – and that then must be quickly followed by agreements that bind nations. These narratives be they a book, a film, an individual act of courage can at best be catalysts. We live in a world where policies are made by states, albeit under influence from society, and that is where the ultimate direction of change comes in on a national and thence, a global level.

Again, something catches the world’s attention – like the carbon neutral voyages of Greta Thunberg – and that then must be quickly followed by agreements that bind nationsWe live in a world where policies are made by states, albeit under influence from society, and that is where the ultimate direction of change comes in.

PG: The coronavirus outbreak may exacerbate nationalism and stall climate change action. Do you believe any such concerns are unfounded? 

NS: I think such concerns are valid. Covid 19 has the world in disarray. Health systems, economies, social engagement, work practices and so on have to come to terms of with the new reality – of hundreds of thousands dead, economies in sharp contraction, unemployment, travel disruption, anti-globalization trends and so on. It is only natural that countries are going to have to look inwards and handle the crisis situations on their hands first. This is the time to reactivate the climate narratives so that policy makers see them on their radars.

Environmental damage can bring further global disasters like the pandemic. Loss of biodiversity, loss of forest cover, rising sea levels and so on all have their potential for immense damage.

Environmental damage can bring further global disasters like the pandemic. Loss of biodiversity, loss of forest cover, rising sea levels and so on all have their potential for immense damage. These concerns need to be handled at the national as well at the multinational levels. At present it seems that a hard effort will have to be made to achieve this.

PG: I really appreciate all these wonderful insights!

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