Addressing the climate change challenge requires multi-level governance especially at global, national, sub-national and regional levels. At the global level, climate agreements and treaties negotiate terms for countries to curb emissions. While the efficacy of these treaties and agreements in reducing global emissions are contested, they have been important in keeping climate change issues on the global policy agenda (Kinley et al 2021).
Equally important is the national level of governance, where the role of the government includes functions, such as creating national climate frameworks, national laws, policies, setting standards for key climate-related sectors, and providing regional funding and support (Eskander and Frankhauser 2020).
While the nature of climate change mitigation is predominantly global, impacts are primarily felt at a local scale, and adaptation is often primarily local (di Gregorio et al 2019). This makes it imperative for regional and local representation to play a role in the making of climate policies.
India is the largest democracy in the world and one of the countries’ most vulnerable to climate change—ranked 29 out of 191 countries—due to its geographic size, climatic conditions and large population especially of vulnerable groups.
In the world’s largest democracy, the Indian Parliament plays a critical role in shaping Indian policies on climate change. Parliamentary questions (PQs) are a crucial oversight tool available to parliamentarians in all democracies. In a well-functioning democracy, parliamentary oversight can play an important role in climate change policy, ensuring that climate concerns are represented in national agendas.
Over a 20-year period, from 1999 to 2019, we examined whether parliamentarians used PQs to address climate change issues in India.
The questions asked, and the findings are as below:
How often are PQs raised about climate change?
A total of 895 unique PQs related to climate change were raised by 1019 Members of Parliament. This formed only a fraction (∼0.3%) of the total PQs asked in Parliament during the period 1999-2019. The highest number of questions were in years following a political event. For example, 2007 saw the sharpest increase in PQs (from 8 questions in 2006 to 53 in 2007). This was the year that preceded the launch of the National Action Plan on Climate Change. The highest number of questions (104) were asked in 2015—the year that followed the renaming of the ‘Ministry of Environment and Forests’ to the ‘Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change’ with an accordingly expanded portfolio.
Are vulnerable constituency interests being represented in the Parliament?
MPs from climate-vulnerable states should ideally ask more PQs, but we do not see this. Women MPs should ask more PQs, as the impacts of climate change on women are more acute, but do not. Male MPs asked ten times more questions that women MPs. This is also due to the low representation of women in Parliament.
Even though the 20-year of the study period saw a significant rise in extreme weather events, we did not see a correspondingly high rise in the number of PQs. Very few questions – only six - explored issues of socio-economic vulnerability and climate justice. This is a serious gap.
What kinds of questions do parliamentarians ask?
27.6% of questions focused on impacts on climate change, and 23.5% on mitigation (23.5%). Adaptation received the least attention (3.9%), despite the importance of climate adaptation to India. Many questions focused on the issue of understanding impacts of climate change on agriculture, which contributes to 17% of India’s GDP, followed by coastal issues, and health. The remaining aspects of climate impact were less covered.
Where do parliamentarians get their information on climate change from?
Ministers referred to a source for their information on climate change in only 10% i.e. 91 questions of the PQs asked. Studies (58.9%) done were the most cited, followed by newspaper articles (22%), a conference held (11%), institutes as sources (5.6%), and international agreement (1.1%).
Climate impacts, mitigation, and adaptation
Unsurprisingly, PQs of climate impacts largely focused on agriculture as it contributes to about 17% of India’s GDP, with about 47% of India’s workforce engaged in agriculture activities (Gulati et al 2018). India’s agriculture is especially vulnerable to climate change (Dubey and Sharma 2018)—it is not surprising that this is an area of importance for parliamentarians, whose constituencies are largely rural, with 69% of India still living outside cities in areas were agriculture is of major importance.
Coastal areas were another sector of concern likely because three of the seven largest Indian cities—Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata—are located on the coast, and therefore especially vulnerable to sea level rise (Khosla and Bhardwaj 2019). Concerns about fishing livelihoods also exist due to an increase in coastal climate disasters over the years (Sarkar and Borah 2018).
Apart from health impacts of climate change, other impacts such as mental health issues, or water stress, do not appear to figure on parliamentarians’ minds, however—despite their growing importance in the Indian scenario and globally (Mehran et al 2017, Obradovich et al 2018).
PQs on mitigation seemed to be more techno-managerial in focus, seeking to understand energy and agricultural policies, for instance—part of a larger trend that has been noted by other researchers in South Asia (Stock et al 2021).
The lack of focus on adaptation is puzzling especially as it is perhaps one of the most important areas of concern for India in future decades. A similar lack of focus on adaptation has also been demonstrated both in media (Keller et al 2020) and research (Vij et al 2017). Raising the level of parliamentary debate on adaptation is critical and needs to be foregrounded.
- Despite the importance of climate change for India’s future, we find that PQs on climate change represent a very small fraction of all PQs in India over the study period.
- The MPs from the most climate vulnerable states are not asking the highest number of questions on climate change.
- Worryingly, PQs on issues of climate justice, and differential impacts of climate change on vulnerable constituencies such as women, children and the poor are absent.
- The lack of focus on adaptation is also concerning, as this is an important area for India in the coming decades.
With India at increasing risk from climate change, there is an urgent need to raise the discourse on climate change in the Parliament. In this regard, media has a scope to play and an influential role.
The full paper can be accessed here