If the world’s poorest and least-developed countries discovered a magic fountain of money that gave them $100 billion a year, how could they best use it?
They might feed their hungry people. They might promote good health by making clean water and childhood vaccinations universally available. They might improve education by building more and better schools, or they might improve education even more simply by ensuring that every school-age child actually attended class. They might improve roads, harbors, bridges and electrical grids to lay a foundation for a more prosperous future. They might clean up pollution to get toxins out of local ecosystems.
Or perhaps the world’s poorest countries should instead spend their $100 billion a year in addressing the long-term effects of global climate change, though the exact scope and effects of such change are arguable, and the exact practical steps that any poor country can take to respond are hard to identify and even harder to evaluate.
This last option makes no sense at all to me, given all the other things that the world’s poorest people need right now to alleviate their present misery and provide better opportunities for their children. But the last option is the one that emerged this month from the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa.
This is hardly a surprise. The problem with single-issue conferences is that, by definition, they treat the issue on their agenda as though it is the only, or at least the most pressing, issue of the day. Recommendations that come out of such conferences tend to lack perspective and context, and would often misallocate scarce resources if implemented. It is less the fault of conference participants and more the nature of the beast.
At the Durban conference, delegates from 200 nations around the world agreed to a new deal on global climate change, as ordinary people around the world largely ignored them. The agreement has three main elements. First, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which would have expired at the end of next year, will be extended until 2017. The protocol imposed carbon caps on developed nations, but placed no such requirements on emerging powers, such as India and China; it was also never ratified by the United States. Second, the agreement reached in Durban promises a new accord, to come into effect in 2020, which will bring India, China and the United States into the fold, and will treat developing nations and older economic powers similarly. Finally, the delegates called for the creation of a $100-billion-a-year Green Climate Fund to help developing nations with their efforts. The fund is scheduled to begin its payouts in 2020.
The promise of a new long-term accord to succeed Kyoto, and the details of the $100 billion fund, were deliberately left hazy to avoid a deadlock in Durban. The agreement says Kyoto’s replacement will be a “new protocol, another legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force.” But, as U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres acknowledged, “what that means has yet to be decided.” And while the delegates agreed to the creation of the fund, “the precise sources of the money have yet to be determined,” The New York Times politely noted.
In other words, everyone is just hoping that the money will appear simply because they now have a piece of paper that says it should. “The reality is that there is no more agreement on the future of the climate talks than there was when negotiators first convened two weeks ago,” Michael A. Levi, a climate change and energy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, told The Times.
My guess is that the Durban agreement has very little chance of coming into effect. China and the United States are no more likely to enter into a global agreement on carbon emissions now than they were after Kyoto, and I don’t think there is any group of wealthy nations that is going to commit itself to pay $100 billion a year to poorer countries for any reason, let alone for a problem as secondary, in the list of real health and welfare issues in those places, as global warming.
The Obama administration has used plenty of climate-change rhetoric to advance its own agenda of favoring renewable energy sources and opposing fossil fuels, so one would expect the Durban process to receive support in Washington. But President Obama has not invested much political capital in the climate change issue during his first term, opting instead to promote renewable energy largely as a source of future jobs for Americans. Cash transfers to poor, faraway countries are harder to sell as a domestic jobs program. Obama might pursue climate issues more aggressively during a second term, but his prospects for getting that chance are shaky at best, and he would still face stiff opposition in Congress.
China, meanwhile, is not even honest with its own citizens about its pollution problems. Many Chinese rely on the U.S. embassy for accurate information about air quality in Beijing. The chances that China will actually abide by any externally imposed regulations, then, are pretty much zilch.
These are the sorts of points that get someone like me labeled a defeatist, or worse, a “denier,” by those who sympathize with what has become a global climate lobby. I think they miss the point – which is what happens when a single issue becomes, for a person or a group, the only issue that matters.
For a sick father or a hungry kid, the rate of sea level change during the next five decades is not exactly the most pressing issue in the world. For a mother whose children cannot attend a decent school, the prospect of a marginally cooler planet is 2050 is not worth the sacrifice of resources today, because today is the only childhood her kids will ever have. Poor countries that do not improve their management and their infrastructure condemn themselves to remain poor.
I was recently struck by an op-ed piece in a Bangladeshi paper in which the writer, a former Ambassador and Chairman for the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies, noted with apparent pride that Bangladesh had managed to establish a $300 million Climate Change Trust Fund from “its own meager resources.” But while the Bangladeshi government gathered that $300 million to combat a nebulous problem with minimal short- and medium-term consequences, millions of Bangladeshis still faced grinding poverty along the Bay of Bengal, where tropical cyclones routinely kill thousands at a time. Unless the fund allocates resources to move those people to higher ground and to provide them with sustainable employment, it will be money misspent.
Climate change deserves a place on the world’s agenda. It certainly is happening, and it is unrealistic to think mankind’s impact on the chemical composition of the atmosphere is not part of the story. But too many people place too much faith in our ability to predict future impacts. (Such predictions are based on models that layer assumption over assumption, and almost certainly underweight or overlook factors that are not yet understood). In the resulting hyperbole about things that supposedly will happen down the road, the most pressing non-climate issues of today get short shrift, as they did in Durban.
As I said, it’s the nature of the beast. But the good news is that outside the halls of climate change conferences, the competing priorities of real life tend to take over. If we take time to think about what we are doing, we will make better decisions than those that came out of Durban.