Nature must have understood the toxic potentials of carbon: It spent millions of years secreting it away in the earth. Now, though, its release is destabilizing the habitat in which we all have to live. Reasonable people can dispute how rapidly it will wreck our planet; that it is in fact doing damage is not in dispute. The baffling, troubling thing, at least to me, is what exactly we should do about it. The Copenhagen climate change meeting only added to my bogglement—one that has to do not just with the thought-numbing acronymic prose it churned into the atmosphere.

Smoke alarm: Unchecked emissions from factories undermine India’s emergence as a global power. Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP

Part of me took satisfaction in the fact that Indian opposition to Western proposals helped create an international stalemate. I felt some relief that we Indians—the latecoming, uninvited guests at the modern world’s economic banquet—did not give in to the imprecations of the early, big feasters. Instead, along with China, Brazil and South Africa, we dug in our heels and insisted that responsibility for the cumulative damage to the blue aether should not be equally apportioned between those societies that have made good, and those still working to emerge from a past overshadowed by the West’s imperial zenith. We were able to push back against the developed countries, who remain appallingly slow to acknowledge that their profligacy, not ours, has damaged the planet’s habitat. We maintained our long-honed scepticism about the claims of the West, our determination to scrutinize the common sense of the dominant. And to me, that questioning attitude is one of the finest, most powerful legacies of the men and women who built our road to freedom.

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Part of me, though, was deeply unsettled. For all our independent principles, we still are no closer to addressing the problem of climate change that is threatening all of us, rich and poor, wherever we happen to live. India resisted. It helped disrupt a framework that the status quo powers wished to impose. But it has so far failed to advance an independent, constructive view of how to move forward in tackling the problem. This is distressing not just on a global scale, but in terms of India’s self-interest as well.

A change in climate patterns will have massive effects on our society, where the livelihood of the majority is rooted in the land and dependent on the vagaries of weather. Water is already scarce and maldistributed: It will become scarcer as the Himalayan glaciers continue to dissipate at abnormal rates. Forests and plant cover will decline, along with food production. And as our coastal and delta floodplains are affected by rising seas, the citizens who live there will risk mass-scale displacement, fleeing to our already overpopulated cities.

The US and Europe saw India’s role at Copenhagen as obstructionist: refusing, for parochial reasons, to commit to binding limits on a matter of vital collective importance. India’s stance has led many in the West to puzzle more generally about the new international power that India is gaining, and how India will choose to use it. A frequent question in Western policy circles is: “Will India become a responsible power?" The subtext of this question is perfectly transparent: Now that India is a member of the G20, and has more of a say in international decision making, will it take on more of the “burdens" that go with having power? In other words, can it be relied upon to align its interests to those of the rich, Western nations?

Earth-shattering: (clockwise from top left) An Indonesian boy fishes in a replanted mangrove area in East Java--scientists say ecosystems such as mangroves may play an important role in climate mitigation. Sonny Tumbelaka / AFP; Himalayan glaciers are threatened by global warming. AFP; visitors look at an art installation in Copenhagen. Bob Strong / Reuters; Indian schoolchildren take part in a rally against pollution in New Delhi. Raveendran / AFP; and Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh (left) with Nationalist Congress Party leader Supriya Sule at the inauguration of a state-level climate change conference in Mumbai. Mohan Bane / PTI

As eager as we are to accept the recent invitations into the clubs of the powerful, we’re right to be suspect of such apparently egalitarian offers. They can also be a trap, requiring us to change our identity and subsume our sense of our own interests.

So, even as our economy’s overall footprint expands, India has been adamant that it will not agree to measures that could hinder its future development. Since India’s carbon emissions, measured by individual head, are vastly lower than those in the West, it is reluctant to cap them at a level lower than that of rich economies. To India, the world’s most powerful countries wish to pull up the ladder now that they’ve topped it.

The question India poses to the developed economies of the West is: Are they willing to take practical responsibility for the damage their centuries-old growth path has wrought on the environment? Seen in terms of justice, it’s a hard argument to trump. And the West’s plea of unintentionality—we didn’t know what we were doing, says the leading American climate negotiator—is not a very convincing get-out.

As originally elaborated in law, responsibility applied to past actions only when intentionality had been established. But as new, riskier technologies were adopted, legal responsibility was given a future orientation, and separated from the requirement of intention (the development of such laws in the US, for instance, was prompted by the introduction of steamboats, which in their early years were prone to explode).

Climate change seems to me a matter in which the claims of reparative justice are relevant. Benefiting from the consequences of an act or process is sufficient to suggest that one has some responsibility for it, whether or not the result was deliberately intended. As the Roman law maxim has it: Where there is profit, there is responsibility (Ubi emolumentum ibi onus). The problem lies in turning that valid principle into a practical remedy.

What price, exactly, should developed countries now pay for their past carbon insouciance? In the absence of any agreed formula, the conversation descends into haggling. The legitimacy of the principle at stake becomes clouded.

As niti, our position makes perfect sense; as nyaya, it does not.

Today, India asks the developed countries to take responsibility for the environmental effects of their past levels of energy use. Yet equally, the imperative of responsibility now requires taking account of future consequences of present actions. And while it is difficult to figure out how exactly to fulfil our obligation to the interests of future generations of Indians, a fixation with current equity as a matter of national honour doesn’t get us very far.

At Copenhagen, the other BASIC countries joined India in successfully affirming this principle of equity. But how much do we lose as a planet when such a great swathe of the world’s population says we’ll take our own measures, at our own pace, to reduce our carbon gases? It’s a near-frivolous response to a matter this serious.

Reflective, not reflexive

Next month, negotiations will resume, culminating in a deadline meeting in Mexico at the end of this year. As we embark on these new rounds, I find myself frustrated, above all, by the self-righteousness of the parties engaged in debating the options. Smugness is a sentiment that seems wildly out of place given the general uncertainties over how to tackle the problem, as a matter of science and of politics.

In India these last months, the tendency has been to oversimplify the matter: reducing it to a battle between defenders of “nationalist" interests and those brazenly willing to “sell out" to the West. Thus when the Prime Minister and his environment minister show themselves ready to examine some of our ingrained reflexes on the subject, their political opponents whistle old tunes. The CPM considers any effort to reconsider our negotiating position as “strategically aligning India with the US on climate policy and breaking ranks with the entire bloc of developing countries". The BJP leader says that any shift on the per capita principle is a “betrayal of the poor". Both Left and Right invoke a “national consensus", and such battlelines between populists and internationalists are being replicated within the Congress party itself. We are in danger of rehearsing the nuclear debate all over again—this time with higher stakes.

For a start, it is nonsense to imagine that there is anything like a national consensus about how we should address climate change. Experts, activists and government officials hold a range of positions, and anyone who has actually mulled on the issue understands that it’s a moving target, in need of constant refocusing. The only thing consistent about tackling climate change is the political and social tensions it evokes.

I’d like to think India can proceed with more nuance and wisdom, not just on the nuances of climate change, but on addressing the fierce global tensions it has provoked. Right now, two countries are key to breaking the global warming impasse: the US and China. That gives India an opportunity, still to be taken, to propose a bargaining calculus: a strategy that connects the claims of equity with the requirement to adopt effective measures—and which might be persuasive to both the US and China.

Why might India be able to play such a bridging role? Precisely because it is coming to see its own interests as located in a space between the two. India shares with China and the other developing economies a commitment to the principle of differentiated responsibilities for environmental damage. At the same time, China’s growing emissions pose a major threat to India’s future: Within the next decade they are projected to be approaching two-and-a-half times that of the US. This means that India has a real incentive also to work with the US and others to exert pressure on China—to set real targets that others can hold it to.

In short, it’s a perfect chance to demonstrate, on a crucial issue, what I think is India’s most prudent future formulation of responsible power: as seeking to bridge major divides. Instead of being a resister, in the Gandhian tradition, it can be more imaginative than it was at Copenhagen in developing arguments that balance the imperatives of justice and efficacy. We could start, for instance, by setting real target limits for future carbon emissions—particularly those generated by our very energy-inefficient production processes—to be met over the next 25 years: And we should make our progress towards these limits internationally transparent. Getting there will mean insisting on research and technology—with both government and the private sector being willing to shoulder some of the cost burdens; but we must also convince the rich countries that they have to invest capital and know-how in our efforts.

The world’s best scientists can’t as yet tell us for sure whether it’s global warming that will cause Mumbai’s next disastrous flood. But feeling good simply about the ability to block those trying to establish some common goals, as we are wont to do now, strikes me as a different sort of disaster.

Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India and is currently working on a new book, The Great Power Game: India in the New World. Write to him at