A sampler of the headbutting likely to take place at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris next week: US Secretary of State John Kerry recently told the media that India was a “challenge” to the climate regime taking shape because of its “restrained" attitude to the “new paradigm”. No such thing, shot back India's Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar. India was not a blocking country and would do its fair share, but the developed world needed to vacate “climate space” first.

Already, the conversation on global warming has fallen into predictable oppositions: climate change mitigation versus climate justice, the developed world versus the developing, richer countries of the G20 versus poorer nations of the G77+China. In this round, India has emerged as the prime crusader for climate justice, leading the charge for the developing world. Its actions will set the tone for the other developing countries of the G77, and the Global Solar Alliance mooted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi could create a new sphere of influence when it comes to negotiations.

But as it pushes for a more just process of negotiations and regulatory framework, India must recognise the need to act quite drastically against climate change. It’s not just a first world problem.

Down with history

Kerry and his cohort have been sniffing righteously about an “ambitious” climate deal in Paris and claim India could spoil the party. There is of course this little detail: the international community has not even been able to make good on previous, less-ambitious climate deals and has long backed out of the commitments made in the relatively modest Kyoto Protocol. Since the Paris deal will not be legally binding either, there is no reason as yet to believe it will fare any better than its predecessors.

There is another detail that developed countries seem to have skipped and India has pointed out. An ambitious agenda for climate change, in this case, means abandoning the principles of justice that have shaped deals over the past two decades. The principle of common but differentiated responsibility was evolved in the Rio conference of 1992 and endured through Kyoto 2005. It recognised that most of the environmental degradation witnessed today has been caused by 150 years of industrialisation. The older industrialised nations of the West were more to blame, the common sense ran, and it was for them to clean up their mess. Common but Differentiated Responsibility combined this notion of historical responsibility with a country’s individual capacity to act against climate change. Poorer, developing countries which needed to grow fast to meet their domestic needs could not be expected to prioritise climate change concerns, while richer countries were able to bear the costs of mitigation.

The first United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which came into being in 1994, had just 20 countries committing to emission cuts. These countries, mostly rich, were also to help others in meeting their climate change goals. Things started changing after the Kyoto Protocol, which the US refused to ratify, insisting that global warming could not be controlled unless China, Brazil and India, all big ticket polluters, also agreed to cut emissions.

Rich nations' club

The first draft of the new UNFCCC seems to reverse the principles of the older agreements and has upset Indian negotiators. It throws out the notion of differentiated responsibility and stipulates heavy emission cuts across the board. The projected cuts are likely to affect developing countries disproportionately, costing them about $790 billion a year. Yet the draft does not show a way to bridge these inequities. It does not say how the developed world will fulfil its responsibility to help poorer countries cope with the demands of the new deal, both financially and through sharing clean technologies. Indian negotiators have also claimed that the draft ignores the suggestions made by developing countries, is inimical to domestic interests and projects a consensus when there was none.

It is not just the contents of the draft agreement that are problematic to India, it is also the decision making process. Recently, India stalled an attempt by the G20 to “pre-decide” the contours of the Paris deal in a pact outside the formal negotiation process. All decisions, Indian negotiators insisted, should be taken at Paris, where every participating country has an equal say.

It is difficult, at this juncture, to resist clichés about imperialism and neocolonialism in describing both the draft and the preliminary meetings. They reek of regressive “first world” bullying, of an outdated attitude that assumes it is perfectly fine for a clique of rich countries to take the moral high ground, decide what is best for the international community and formulate a game plan that involves minimum cost to themselves, or at least, to the US.

The Climate Action Tracker, for one, has rated India’s “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution”, or proposed commitments to mitigation, considerably higher than the US’s, just below the European Union and China’s.

Climate change is here

In Paris, therefore, Indian negotiators will have to fight for a more equitable agreement. But the politics of a climate change deal cannot detract from the vital need to have an agreement with teeth.

India will be one of the worst affected by rising global temperatures. Extreme heat already kills hundreds in summer, the smog over North India thickens with every winter and mortalities related to air pollution have soared. Cycles of drought and flood have wreaked havoc in the agricultural lands. In a hotter world, millions living in the floodplains and coastal areas will be displaced.

The Indian establishment has traditionally regarded climate change a secondary concern, to be postponed until more pressing problems of growth and development were met. And in spite of its grandstanding abroad, this government’s domestic record on environment does not evince much confidence – in a rush to ease up regulatory bottlenecks, it has cleared infrastructure projects indiscriminately and in a bid to attract investors, it has diluted environmental safeguards. The draft Environmental Laws (Amendment) Bill 2015 focuses on extracting monetary penalties from polluters instead of making them clean up.

But curbing climate change is not a luxury anymore and unless urgent measures are taken, it could disrupt the government’s favoured development narrative as well. The deal that India pushes for in Paris should be equitable as well as ambitious. There is no reason that climate justice has to stand in the way of climate change mitigation.