Wednesday, December 05, 2007

On climate change

Here are excerpts of an excelent article from the always excellent Martin Wolf at the Financial Times, which I take the liberty of publishing here.

I am sure Mr Wolf will not mind this minor copyright infringement when it spreads out further the message he's putting forward.

Why the climate change wolf is so hard to kill off
By Martin Wolf
FT, December 4th, 2007

The point of the story of the boy who cried wolf is that, finally, a wolf did appear. I feel the same way about the intellectual heirs of Thomas Malthus. Malthusians have finally found a wolf called climate change. Many now agree. But it is far away and coming slowly. “If the worst comes to the worst,” mutter the rich to themselves, “we can always let our children cope.”

This is the complacency that the latest Human Development Report from the United Nations Development Programme attacks. It does a good job, too. But does it do a good enough job to turn the Bali climate change conference into a call for effective action? I fear not. This is not because it fails to make a morally sound case. It is rather because humanity will change its behaviour only when convinced that the lifestyle the better off enjoy now – and the rest of the world aspires to – remains in reach.



Can the world do better in future? Yes, but it will find it hard. If we are to understand why, we must confront the fact that the world is far from a single country. This creates three huge problems: collective (in)action; perceived injustice; and indifference.

First, not only does each country want to be a free rider on the efforts of others but none feels wholly responsible for the outcome.

Second, the contributions made by different countries to the problem have been (and remain) enormously different. Collectively, the rich countries account for seven out of every 10 tonnes of CO2 emitted since the start of the industrial era. While China is the biggest emitter in the world, its emissions are still only one-fifth of US levels per head. India’s are one-fifteenth.

Third, as the report spells out in compelling detail, the heaviest cost will be borne by the world’s poor. Among the most frightening consequences are those for rainfall and glaciers: water shortages could become severe across large swaths of the globe. Poor people are far less able to cope with climatic disasters than rich ones. But this, if we were honest, is why the rich are unlikely to make the huge reductions in emissions the report demands. The powerful will continue to act without much consideration for the poor. This, after all, is a world that spends 10 times as much on defence (much of it useless) as on aid to poor countries.


How might this change? The answer is that we must appeal at least as much to people’s self-interest as to their morality.


Two things are needed. The first is convincing evidence that the true risks are larger than many now suppose. Conceivable feedback effects might, for example, generate temperature increases of 20°C. That would be the end of the world as we know it. I cannot imagine a rational person who would not seek to eliminate even the possibility of such outcomes. But if we are to do that, we must also act very soon.

The second requirement is to demonstrate that it is possible for us to thrive with low-carbon emissions. People in the northern hemisphere are not going to choose to be cold now, in order to prevent the world from becoming far too hot in future. China and India are not going to forgo development, either. These are realities that cannot be ignored.


In short, if they are to tolerate radical change in energy use, people must first be frightened and then they must be offered a good way out. The truth, moreover, is that this will happen only if the US also takes the lead. No country will deliver radical cuts if the US does not do so, too. No leaps forward in science and technology will occur if the US is not prepared to commit its resources to those ends. The US can no longer wait for a lead from others. Either it takes the lead now or the cause, in all probability, will be lost. Our children and grandchildren will then find out whether it was a real wolf or not.

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