Human response to an impending danger is usually quick and decisive. In case of war, armies are put immediately into action, resources commandeered and new laws passed to ensure that the enemy is crushed. The recent COVID-19 pandemic saw extensive cooperation amongst nations, with quick and decisive action taken by countries, companies and people. All hands were on deck to fight the minuscule virus.

In the case of climate too, it is an equally minuscule carbon dioxide molecule that is wreaking havoc and threatening our existence, but our response for reining in this monster has been below par. Why? Climate change is besieged with two problems.

The first is that the carbon dioxide molecule can be generated anywhere but does not necessarily stay there. It travels and mixes in the air and, therefore, its geographical impact gets dissociated from its point of origin. People who are responsible for generating carbon dioxide do not suffer more than people who may not have played any role in its proliferation. The monster can strike anywhere, any time, not necessarily affecting the people who created it. This causes the perpetrators to behave irrationally and continue with their profligate ways. Everyone feels that it is someone else’s problem and that any effort to reduce their carbon footprint alone would not solve the problem. Therefore, no one tries to address the issue. Take the case of stubble burning in northern India to clear fields for winter crops or the burning of forests in Indonesia to clear land for palm oil farming. The pollution and carbon dioxide emitted cause harm not only to them and their neighbours but have an impact far and wide.

This phenomenon is called the tragedy of the commons. Climate is its victim.

Climate change was sparked during the Industrial Revolution when coal was discovered as a source of energy and used to power factories, run ships and trains, and heat homes in Europe. This was abetted by the colonial conquest that led to deforestation and clearing of land for agriculture, settlements and industries, especially in America.

Rich and developed countries that have historically been responsible for most of the carbon dioxide already stocked in the atmosphere have benefitted tremendously from their excesses. Energy, specifically generated through fossil fuels, has been the bedrock of development for rich economies, and it is through the unbridled use of this energy that they have been able to develop and provide a good lifestyle to their people. To their credit, they have now recognised the problem, and many of them are taking steps to curtail further emissions. Some of them have declared carbon austerity and want everyone to join this bandwagon, poorer countries included. The developing countries, many of which are only now beginning to grow, need energy for growth, however, and the cheapest and quickest source available is fossil fuels. So they do not have any incentive to participate in this austerity, especially knowing that the carbon dioxide they emit will travel far and wide, ensuring that there is no specific local impact. When my wrong actions don’t punish me alone but everyone else as well, I am less incentivised to mend my ways. Everyone’s problem is no one’s problem. Therefore, everyone becomes a free rider and the emissions continue to grow.

This is why climate action is limping. There is no direct correlation between the perpetrators and the sufferers. Everyone is encouraged to be a perpetrator. Almost all countries, companies and individuals are continuing to use fossil fuels, and some are still betting on and investing in their growth.

Carbon emissions are not the only ones to be caught in this tragedy of commons. We have a similar situation with overfishing in oceans, air pollution and traffic congestion on city roads.

The other problem with climate is that there is a time lag between action and results. India is enhancing its forest cover to create an additional 2.5-3 billion tons of carbon sink to meet its Paris Agreement commitments. The US is providing incentives to research organisations and companies involved in sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. If we start taking action today to reduce our emissions, the results from these initiatives will show much later. Sometimes, it may even be after people have forgotten whoever took those steps. This is a real problem.

Our countries are run by politicians. They thrive by creating a perception that they are doing a lot for their people. They like to give out benefits for which the costs will be incurred only later. However, when it comes to climate, the order is reversed. The costs for curbing emissions have to be incurred today whereas the benefits in terms of reduced global warming will be seen many years later. In some cases, this will be after the present-day politicians are long gone. There is therefore no incentive for our politicians to waste their time and resources on climate. They would rather focus their time, energy and public funds on things that can make them look good today and help win the next election. That is why, globally, we hear political noise but see little real action on climate.

Unless people are convinced that climate change is real and that it will impact their health and welfare as well as their progeny’s, and convert this conviction into a movement that creates pressure on politicians, the politicians will not act. We need to make it an issue related to voting and elections. Only then will we see politicians do the right things and promulgate the right policies for climate, be it carbon pricing, carbon trading, investments in energy transition, incentives for those who reduce emissions and penalties for those who spew greenhouse gases. Politicians react to public pressure; we must tell them that climate is important to us.

To be fair to our politicians, in our globalised world, it’s not only carbon dioxide molecules that travel everywhere but also the news. This makes life difficult for our politicians. Imagine a developed country where a local governor orders the closure of a thermal power plant because it is burning coal and causing global warming. He is booed by the locals as many of them will lose their jobs. The same day, a governor in a developing country inaugurates a new coalfired thermal power plant – he is cheered by the local people for improving their lives. Both news items are shown on TV and do the rounds on the internet. How do you explain this to the man who has lost his job? He will question the decision of why his political leaders closed the coal plant when new ones are still being built elsewhere. It’s a tough explanation to give for the politician whose people are losing jobs.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement are great and have got the ball rolling to create climate consciousness. They have no doubt galvanised nations into climate action. But much more needs to be done. In future Conference of Parties (COP) meetings, which are annual stock-taking and decision-making events to ensure the success of the Paris Agreement, we need to find ways to address the two core issues above and make sure that while trying to save the planet, we do not deny developing countries the lifestyle that the developed countries have long enjoyed.

While technology will provide us with solutions to curb emissions and help us find alternate sources of energy, these solutions will initially be scarce and expensive. Developed countries may be able to afford them, but the problem of emissions and global warming will not disappear if the developing world continues to build its energy systems on fossil fuels. Developed countries will have to loosen their purse strings and agree to offer both technical and financial assistance to developing countries so that they can abandon fossil fuels and produce energy from renewable sources instead. Similarly, companies would not incur additional costs to introduce manufacturing technologies that reduce their carbon footprint unless they are incentivised or mandated. Consumers too seem unwilling to buy eco-friendly products if they are more expensive. Climate actions therefore have to be amalgamated with economics to bring about change.

As we know, a carbon dioxide molecule saved from getting into the atmosphere in a developing country can potentially help the temperature cool in a developed country as well.

Excerpted with permission from Backstage Climate: The Science and Politics Behind Climate Change, Rajan Mehta, Westland Nonfiction.