A powerful but unpredictable force is rising in the battle over the future of the climate. It’s the type of powerful force that’s felt when 1.2 billion people clamor for more electricity—many of them trying to light, heat, and refrigerate their ways out of poverty; others throwing rupees at excessive air conditioning and other newfound luxuries. And it’s the type of unpredictable force that’s felt when the government of those 1.2 billion is in election mode, clamoring for votes by brazenly blocking progress at international climate talks.
Hundreds of millions of Indians live in poverty, wielding a tiny per-person carbon footprint when compared with residents of the West and coming out on top of environmental sustainability surveys. But the country is home to so many people that steady economic growth is turning it into a climate-changing powerhouse. It has developed a gluttonous appetite for coal, one of the most climate-changing fuels and the source of nearly two-thirds of the country’s power. India recently overtook Russia to become the world’s third-biggest greenhouse gas polluter, behind China and the United States. (If you count the European Union as a single carbon-belching bloc, then India comes in fourth).