The shaping of a discourse


back to issue

THE current terms of debate on climate change are basically defined by the extremely complex interplay of two narratives, one on development and the other on sustainability, both of which even today are altering and shaping the world we live in on a day to day basis.

The Bretton Woods institutions themselves may be faltering, their world changed, globalized far beyond the wildest imaginations of their architects. Nevertheless, their all too familiar narrative of GDP led ‘development’ and ‘growth’ as resurrected from the ruins of World War II continues to be hegemonic even to this day. Admittedly, within the discourse of development, the complex and non-linear relationship between economic growth on the one hand, and poverty eradication (with its questions of redistributive justice) on the other, remains a highly contested and unsettled space. Yet, the power this narrative holds is all too evident in the gyrations and calisthenics on Wall Street and its numerous clones as they track those sacred numbers with a fervour that is not far from ritualistic. Unsurprisingly, even as the debate on climate change reaches fever pitch, the domineering force of this narrative continues unabated.

However, to recall recent history, by the eighties, as the OECD growth and development trajectory began to peak, a second discourse on ‘sustainability’ emerged as a counterpoint to the dominant theme of development. The Brundtland Report, Our Common Future,1 released in 1987, recognizing that ‘some consume the earth’s resources at a rate that would leave little for future generations’ outlined what eventually, through the nineties, evolved into the full-fledged narrative of climate change.

The Brundtland Report itself described floods, droughts and other disasters facing mankind as entirely man-made threats resulting from deforestation and over-cultivation, and most likely to afflict the ‘impoverished in poor nations’, i.e. in the global South.

‘The links between environmental stress and developmental disaster are most evident in sub-Saharan Africa. Per capita food production, declining since the 1960s, plummeted during the drought of the 1980s, and at the height of the food emergency some 35 million people were exposed to risk. Human overuse of land and prolonged drought threaten to turn the grasslands of Africa’s Sahel region into desert. No other region more tragically suffers the vicious cycle of poverty leading to environmental degradation, which leads in turn to even greater poverty’2 (italics mine).


However, as a narrative, ‘sustainability’ itself was not grounded in totally new knowledge. Rather, it had its origins in the various counter discourses that time and time again had sought to place limits on the narrative of unbridled growth. Following the oil shock of the 1970s, the 1972 publication Limits to Growth,3 alongside E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, remain the most widely read critiques on the unsustainability of the modern economy. Many of these counter discourses (some even pre-dating the Bible) had been repeatedly relegated to the lunatic fringes in the complex hierarchy of power that governs the survival and unfolding of knowledge systems. However, in the Brundtland Report these counter-narratives were sought to be mainstreamed into the dominant development theme through (what was later termed) the discourse on ‘ecological modernization’.

Central to this narrative of ecological modernization was the assumption that environmental productivity can be continually improved by means of new technologies and management practices4 and that free markets were the best route to ensuring sustainable development as economic growth and environmental protection are two sides of the same coin.5 Through the 1980s, the state as an agency in Third World countries became generally discredited as an inefficient (even when not outright corrupt) allocator of resources. The First World donor agencies, international institutions and governments, looking for the ever-pernicious ‘obstacles to development’ in the wake of the debt crisis, zeroed in on the state of the State as the culprit. Not surprisingly, the Bretton Woods institutions also metamorphosed into the principal instruments for hand-holding the process of economic reforms and structural adjustment for the economies of the developing world.


Interestingly, this neo-Malthusian narrative of ecological modernization clearly held the ‘victims’ and their situation responsible for their own suffering as it went about recommending the necessary interventions required to end the ‘vicious circle of poverty and environmental degradation.’ This bears comparison with the way the climate change debate repeatedly highlights the fate that awaits the most vulnerable in order to canvass support for the interventions suggested to combat the looming threat of global warming. It is hardly a coincidence that the ‘victims’ who need to be ‘saved’ again are located in the global South.


The Brundtland Report, even though it categorized climate change as only one of the many such threats, acknowledged its effects in no uncertain terms: ‘The "greenhouse effect", one such threat to life support systems, springs directly from increased resource use. The burning of fossil fuels and the cutting and burning of forests releases carbon dioxide (CO2). The accumulation in the atmosphere of CO2 and certain other gases traps solar radiation near the earth’s surface, causing global warming. This could cause a rise in sea levels over the next 45 years large enough to inundate many low-lying coastal cities and river deltas. It could also drastically upset national and international agricultural production and trade systems’6 (italics mine).

It is worth noting that within the knowledge system, the potential effects of human activities on the carbon cycle and the consequent implications for climate change were first noticed and studied by the Swedish chemist, S. Arrhenius, way back in 1896.7 He realized that CO2 in the atmosphere, a by-product of burning fossil fuels, was an important greenhouse gas. He had even calculated that a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere would lead to a temperature rise of 4-5°c – disturbingly close to the current estimates derived from complex climate models run on today’s super-computers. The greenhouse effect continued to figure in textbooks (if only to be refuted as a problem) even as the establishment scientific view remained that earth systems followed automatic self-regulating mechanisms. Dissenting scientists like E.O. Hulbert (1931) and G.S. Callendar (1938) though continued to persist with the idea that atmospheric CO2 was linked to rise in temperatures over time.


By 1956, aided by digital computers, Gilbert N. Plass had computed that at the then rates of emission, human activity would raise the average global temperature ‘at the rate of 1.1 degree C per century.’8 In 1957 Revelle and Suess studied the absorption of CO2 in the oceans and confirmed the thesis. They noted that greenhouse effect warming ‘may become significant during future decades if industrial fuel combustion continues to rise exponentially.’ They also wrote that, ‘Human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.’9

However, even as the OECD continued to industrialize and modernize with abandon (with the most profligate and abundant use of both natural resources and fossil fuels), money for scientific research into this problem was not very easy to come by.10 Hart and Victor point out that, ‘The fact that trace gases other than CO2, such as methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) also absorb and reradiate infrared wavelengths went unexamined, even though spectral analysis techniques that would have permitted this finding were well-known.’ 11

The discourse on development has in essence been about shaping, managing and controlling the lives of others. Along with its accompanying narrative of modernization, the development discourse was used to effectively isolate, separate and treat vast swathes of people living in the ‘underdeveloped’ world, labelled the global ‘South’ as the significant ‘other’. With the discourse on sustainability cast in neo-Malthusian terms, they also became the ones responsible for degradation of their environment because of rather than despite being trapped in the ‘vicious cycle of poverty’.


Climate change, drawing upon these two discourses, once again casts them as the unfortunate ‘victims’ in imminent danger of having their lands submerged, crops ravaged by droughts and floods, and populations diminished by tropical diseases. Note that just as the concept of ‘development’ itself was repeatedly depoliticized, even as all its associated practices become inevitable instruments of power at the international level, the scientific accoutrements to the discourse on climate change too essentially seek to do the same, i.e. depoliticize the discourse around the instruments governing the flow of power, finance and technology.

The Brundtland Report did touch upon the issue that, ‘With the increase in population and the rise in incomes, per capita consumption of energy and materials will go up in the developing countries, as it has to if essential needs are to be met. Greater attention to resource efficiency can moderate the increase, but on balance, environmental problems linked to resource use will intensify in global terms.’ Nevertheless, it continued to harp upon the ‘integration of environment and development’ as the only way forward.

Paul Ekins, meanwhile shows that while the Brundtland Report explicitly relates themes of development to environmental deterioration and excessive resource use, what it advocates, however, as a single over-arching solution to the problem is ‘sustainable development’ which, predictably enough, implies the following: further economic growth, freer market access, lower interest rates, greater technology transfer, larger capital flows, and so on.12 This is nothing but orthodox developmentalism which at the very least is rather ambiguously related to the context in which the phrase ‘sustainable development’ has been bandied around in the report.


In its essence the climate change discourse is suffused with the carryover of this very neo-Malthusian narrative of ‘population growth’ and ‘ecological disaster’ that has been so much part of the contemporary philosophy of the World Bank and associated international institutions for the last three quarters of a century. The task of managing anthropogenic climate change then becomes essentially an authoritarian one involving the ‘controlled and orderly manipulation of change.’ Just as in the post World War II period the project of ‘development’ and its attendant discourse became the modus operandi of integrating and ‘internationalizing’ the postcolonial economies into the global arena, at the turn of the century the project of climate change seeks to retain the extant world order of technological dominance.13

In any discourse the key to the problematization of the issue centres around the intervention(s) that can be promoted as the solution to the problem. The critical issues then, once consensus can be generated on the interventions needed, are, who proposes the solution and the finance and technology to make it possible, and who decides on the verification system (the inspector raj) set up to monitor compliance of the grand project of climate control that is sought to be put in place. This has become clear now that the IPCC report as well as the negotiations process has moved beyond analysis into the realm of political messaging that goes on to recommend and promote the required ‘interventions’.


What is evident at close range are the processes at work that have historically determined on whom rests the burden of activating consciousness and critical awareness of the situation and environment, and who are to become the subjects of the discourse. Simultaneously, these processes also delineate the identity of those who will become the objects, the ones to be acted upon, i.e. the ‘others’ in the discourse. This happens as a part of a process that both lays down and limits the alternatives which will henceforth be available for exercise of freedom of action within the space defined by the discourse.

All these narratives (Development, Sustainability, Climate Change) are about crisis and therefore about the need for ‘intervention’ and ‘management’; and as such they are all couched in the depoliticized, neutral and technocratic terms of the discourses. They also display a certain insularity when it comes to justifying certain chosen types of intervention or rubbishing alternative ‘scientific’ truth claims.14 The need is to delineate and restrict the discursive space within which the truth claims pursued in these varying assessments have been made in order to justify some of several possible interventions and control mechanisms.


Construed in its simplest form this complex matrix of various irreconcilable ends inherent in the debate on climate change gets articultaed in the narrative in the following terms: global action and policies on preventing climate change must be consistent with economic growth and free market principles. Carbon trading naturally fits perfectly into the emphasis on market mechanisms. It also carries with it the huge potential to avoid really hard and difficult domestic policies to reduce GHG emissions which would inflict extremely unpopular lifestyle changes in developed countries. ‘The notion of a stringent multilateral agreement with negotiated emission targets and timelines is increasingly challenged by decentralized, market-oriented and partnership-based narratives calling for more flexible, cost effective and participatory means to manage anthropogenic climate change.’15

However, the basic contradictions within an approach that seeks to ‘manage’ and ‘control’ the global commons through the purchase of carbon emission reductions from countries where these reductions can be carried out at a far lower economic cost are all too readily ignored and glossed over. For all its inherent problems, the ‘cap and trade’ protocol has today become part of a consensual agreement on ‘ways’ of tackling the problem posed by GHG emissions.16 These ‘mechanisms have opened up innovative markets for new branches of business and engaged a range of private actors including carbon traders, carbon finance specialists, carbon auditors and verifiers in climate governance.’17 The ‘solutions’ being negotiated remain confined within the realm of orthodox developmentalism: further economic growth (albeit green and low carbon), freer market access, greater technology transfer, larger capital flows and so on.


Unmindful of the extremely complex relationship between these narratives, and oblivious of the contradictory layers of meaning that have got subsumed in the process, the focus of international negotiations shifts repeatedly to the vast opportunities for arbitrage, leverage, and trading involving the transfer of resources, both tangible and intangible and therefore the transfer of wealth. Tangible resources have been the traditional sticking points since times immemorial. Now intangible resources such as intellectual property and carbon space, progressively acquire greater importance and meaning in what are many times outright trade and control negotiations that masquerade as negotiations on saving the planet.


Without doubt a more balanced approach would be to take the approach of entitlements that individuals or nations have, and how they have come to derive these entitlements. Unfortunately, any discussion on entitlements tends to get mired in the uncomfortable quicksand of historical responsibility with embarrassing questions on burden sharing. Therefore, as we travel beyond Copenhagen, we witness the rather unseemly spectacle of nations trying to paint each other into corners. No doubt these efforts to score brownie points arise both from the matrix of fears as well as opportunities on the road ahead.

A scramble for the limited carbon space available is bound to impose its own costs, whether direct or indirect, on one and all. Whether these costs come in the form of direct taxes or accrue as they have for the last several years in the form of high energy prices, the developing world is bound to suffer the most as incremental growth comes at a far higher cost.

If the West insists on posing the rapid development of the emerging world as unsustainable and the biggest emerging threat to the environment, there is bound to be suspicion in the developing world that these negotiations are less about climate change and more a means to control the looming global economic and power shift facing the world. Simultaneously, multiple aid and trade opportunities bring with them the temptation to acquiesce by creating parallel North-South divisions within each emerging economy itself. Examples of such acquiescence can be seen in policy preferences promising improved smokeless cooking stoves to rural households over extending the reach of modern cooking fuels like LPG to village areas.

With Copenhagen, China as well as India have taken the lead by declaring massive cuts in their emissions intensity. What remains to be seen is the manner in which these will actually be operationalized through hard policy decisions. However, recalling the experience of the Annex I countries, it must not be forgotten that eventually it is a combination of emergent economic, political and institutional factors which are purely national and local in nature, rather than rational problem solving that lies at the heart of any policy action. Germany, one of the few countries to meet the UNFCCC 2000 stabilization targets, derived its much-vaunted reductions primarily through the inescapable restructuring of the former East German economy with its (fortuitously) high levels of inefficiency in both generation and manufacturing.


For the developing countries, finance, technology transfer and the elusive ‘carbon quotient’ required for development lie at the heart of effective mitigation. In India, 800 million people live below income levels of $2 a day. For lifting over 80% of the population to an acceptable level of development, India may need an additional 3000 billion units of electricity each year by 2032, i.e. over four times the current levels. Can countries like India, even as they voluntarily pursue low carbon pathways, sign away their responsibilities toward 80% of the population? How can global justice be placed at the core of the climate negotiations and how can transparent and effective resource transfer be accomplished so that they accelerate efforts against poverty? Global climate change responses need to be mainstreamed into pathways having universally lower emissions and higher mitigative and adaptive capacities across the globe.


Countries like India spend over 2.6% of their GDP on adapting to environmental impacts which do not lie in the remote future but hit them every year as drought, scarcity of drinking water, access to health, forests and sanitation. If the dominant argument of man having influenced environment by his development excesses is to be accepted, then the cost of adaptation that the global South has to incur cannot be left to its account alone.

These questions, however, are relegated to the periphery of the debates that take place within a discourse which is essentially about the exercise of power and control. We need to understand how a universalizing discourse of climate change can be used as an instrument of power, discipline and control. By making it possible to put into place national and international institutions, inspectors, commissioners, observers and non-government organizations that would have been inconceivable even a decade ago, the discourse ends up using the scientific knowledge on climate change as an instrument of subordination. As such, it becomes an attempt to put into place new forms of surveillance, enquiry and observation upon particular ‘subjugated’ cultures, many of them erstwhile colonies. What makes the current dynamics interesting is that unlike the heyday of the Bretton Woods world with its clearly defined power relationships, there is today a perceptible shift in the global centre of gravity. It is this which makes the ongoing tortuous negotiations and their outcome fascinating to follow.



1. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, UN Documents, 1987,

2. Ibid.

3. Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, The Limits to Growth, Universe Books, New York, 1972.

4. R. Eckersley, Green State: Rethinking Democracy and Sovereignty, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2004.

5. S. Bernstein, The Compromise of Liberal Environmentalism, Columbia University Press, New York, 2001.

6. Brundtland, op cit., fn 1.

7. For a fuller account of the history of the effect of CO2 on temperatures see

8. G.N. Plass, ‘The Influence of the 15 Band on the Atmospheric Infra-Red Cooling Rate’, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society 82, 1956b, 310-29.

9. Roger Revelle and Hans E. Suess, ‘Carbon Dioxide Exchange Between Atmosphere and Ocean and the Question of an Increase of Atmospheric CO2 During the Past Decades’, Tellus 9, 1957, 18-27.


11. P. 655. For a case study on the role of scientific elites in mediating between science and politics in the study of research into the greenhouse effect in the U.S., see David M. Hart and David G. Victor, ‘Scientific Elites and the Making of U.S. Policy for Climate Change Research, 1957-74’, Social Studies of Science 23(4), November 1993, pp. 643-680.

12. Paul Ekins, A New World Order: Grassroots Movements for Global Change, Routledge, London, 1992, pp. 30-34.

13. Doug J. Porter, ‘Scenes From Childhood: The Homesickness of Development Discourses’, in Jonathan Crush (ed.), The Power of Development, Routledge, London, 1995, pp. 63-86.

14. For example, R.K. Pachauri rubbished the Raina report on melting of Himalayan glaciers as ‘voodoo science’, see The Times of India, ‘Pachauri rubbishes govt backed report on the melting of glaciers’, 15 November 2009.

15. Karin Backstrand and Eva Lovbrand, ‘Climate Governance Beyond 2012: Competing Discourses of Green Governmentality, Ecological Modernization and Civic Environmentalism’, in Mary E. Pettenger (ed.), The Social Construction of Climate Change, MPG Books, Cornwall, 2007.

16. HFC-23 destruction is the largest single credit earner in the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, accounting for 67 per cent of the credits generated in 2005 and 34 per cent of those generated in 2006 (World Bank, 2007: 27).

17. Karin Backstrand and Eva Lovbrand, op cit.