Jairam Ramesh, India’s voluble environment minister, hit global headlines when he told Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, India had no obligation to cut its greenhouse gas emissions – and that Washington had a “crisis of credibility” on climate change anyway.
Days later, his international reputation for recalcitrance was amplified when he questioned scientific studies warning that Himalayan glaciers were melting faster due to global warming, dubbing these fears a “western media” creation.
But for all his headline-grabbing posturing, Mr Ramesh is no climate change denier. In a country that has long disavowed any obligation to take steps to combat global warming, Mr Ramesh is the first cabinet minister to speak seriously about the threat it poses to India’s fragile environment – and its economy.
Even while talking up the climate change threat at home, Mr Ramesh is expected to be a tough international negotiator, whose fierce intelligence, grasp of technical issues and showmanship could play a decisive role in the December talks at Copenhagen.
That prospect dismays some western negotiators who fear he may play a similar spoiler role to Kamal Nath, the former Indian commerce minister who was seen by many as partly responsible for the breakdown of World Trade Organisation talks last year.
Since taking over the climate portfolio in May, Mr Ramesh has also challenged New Delhi’s climate change orthodoxy – set out by powerful, conservative bureaucrats, primarily from the foreign ministry – to insist India’s own national interest demands urgent action to control greenhouse gas emissions, even as the economy grows.
“What Jairam Ramesh is doing is what a responsible politician should have done 10 years ago, which is to see the future,” said Malini Mehra, founder of the Centre for Social Markets, which advocates stronger action to fight global warming. “He has fundamentally changed the political rhetoric – and this has not been discounted or objected to.”
The shift has provoked consternation among some Indian bureaucrats, sniping anonymously in local newspapers about foreign pressure, but Mr Ramesh has held firm, depicting the moves as part of a domestic policy agenda.
Mr Ramesh has brought a new pragmatism, flexibility and creativity to the talks. In a subtle shift of India’s position, he has suggested in recent days that New Delhi could potentially agree to “implicit” carbon emissions targets by adopting laws at home.
Rejecting efforts to portray New Delhi as the obstacle to a deal to combat global warming, Mr Ramesh argues that India, still at the early stages of its industrialisation process, should not bear any responsibility for cutting the “stock” of existing greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.
But he acknowledges that India must regulate “the flow” of its future emissions. “Just because we draw attention to the hypocrisy of the west doesn’t mean we aren’t conscious of our own responsibilities,” he says.