Sunday, January 17, 2010

Why Carbon Reparations Don't Make Sense

Copenhagen was a disappointment, and there are many places to point fingers. But there are two in particular I want to highlight. First of all, the global chess game being played by the 'Big Five,'and especially the US and China, saw everyone castling to protect themselves, and unable to see the shadow of climate change threatening the board itself. Since the US and China are not amongst those most affected by the changes, it's easy to not see the connections to the global situation. But as conditions manifest themselves further, and the impacts propagate through social and economic systems, the time will come. It's just a shame that our leaders decide it is not now.

Equally to blame, however, are the developing nations that demanded 'carbon reparations.'
The logic goes something like this: You developed your society to an advanced state by emitting carbon that is now impacting all of us. And you are now asking our society forego the automobile, power plants, and factories to cut emissions, and essentially prevent us from reaching an equally advanced state. Consequently, developed nations should be made to pay the developing nations to facilitate progress that has so far eluded them, and that is now being put in jeopardy.

One can't deny the sense of justice about this. But the flaw here is that this is a backward looking rationale. Such a program clearly won't put the resources where they would most effectively reverse climate change. And that is, after all, what we are trying to do. But in fact, they won't mitigate lagging development in the poorer nations either.

In a recent publication called "What Works In Development?" a group of economists try to sort out what works and what doesn't in fostering development in poor nations. The conclusions aren't encouraging. There is no consistent correlation between policy changes and increased growth, no correlation between economic performance from one decade to the next, and, most surprisingly, no correlation between improving government institutions and economic progress. One author, Abhijit Banerjee concluded that, "Perhaps making growth happen is ultimately beyond our control."

It was not the use of fossil fuels alone that allowed some nations to advance while others remained mired in the 19th century or worse. Nations that failed to make progress tended to be subject to cultural cross-currents within themselves that are resistant to progress in some way. It may be a widespread sense of futility (Haiti for example), extensive social mistrust (Afghanistan), or a dominant religious perspective emphasizing helplessness before divine forces (Egypt comes to mind.). One way or another these things cause people to refuse to internalize responsbility or initiative. So nothing changes and development is forever stalled. Development, it turns out, is more than just the sum of fossil fuel use, industrial agriculture, and wireless broadband.

So we need to push the Big Five to put the chessboard aside. But we also need to attack climate change with an eye for effectiveness, and not to satisfy a misplaced sense of justice.

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