A recent poll conducted by the Lowy Institute for International Policy and the Australia India Institute suggests that Indians view climate change and its related effects as a bigger threat than potential conflicts with either of its regional rivals, China or Pakistan. Energy shortages and water shortages also beat out worries about other regional powers in South Asia.

The Lowy- AII poll, entitled “India Poll 2013: Facing the Future: Indian views of the world ahead” asked 1,233 Indian adults about their views on a variety of foreign policy issues. Although the poll was conducted prior to India’s recent border dispute with China, the trends nevertheless suggest that many Indians are far more concerned about environmental than they are about their neighbors.

When asked to categorize“possible threats to India’s security” over the next ten years, 83 percent named “environmental issues like climate change” a “big threat” versus 77 percent that said the same for Pakistan and 73 percent for the People’s Republic of China. Even lower on the threat roster: the Maoist (Naxalite) insurgency that former Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram has called India’s “most formidable security challenge” (71 percent); and a terrorist attack with foreign sponsorship, presumably on the model of Laskhar-e-Taiba’s 2008 assault on Mumbai (75 percent).

The high attention paid to the nexus of environmental, energy, and water issues is not surprising.

India’s economy has been one of the success stories in the developing world. But that economy is heavily dependent on natural resources, and the impacts of shortages are readily noticed. One can find many references to a “water crisis” in the Indian press (see here, here, and here, for examples). The search for resources animates much of India’s foreign policy:

  • India has invested billions in transportation improvements in Afghanistan. These improvements are meant to link resource-rich Central Asia to the Indian Ocean.

  • The Singh government had successfully lobbied for permanent observer status in the Arctic Council, which acts a multilateral forum for many nations interested in mineral exploration around the Arctic Circle.

  • Recent talks between India and China focused on reaching an agreement about water usage. India had been concerned about Chinese dams on the Brahmaputra River, which could impede flow of the river south into India.

Polling on climate change among Indians, meanwhile has found a fairly wide-ranging impact on the lives of average Indians: 80 percent of respondents have noticed a change in aggregate rainfall over the last decade (with half saying they had witnessed a decrease), and that more than half of those asked said such changes were having a sizeable impact on their lives.

One should not assume that Indians are sanguine about the state of their relationship with either Pakistan or China. But the poll results may reflect a growing consensus that local disputes may prove more manageable than climate-related challenges. Climate solutions, for one, depend on improvements in governance throughout India, an arena where Indians see widespread corruption and incompetence, as this poll also demonstrates. Additionally, there has been a widespread fear that India may be asked to sacrifice its prospects for economic growth in exchange for action to reduce its impact on the global climate.