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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Martin Wolf: We Need Fear without Loathing

Martin Wolf says that if the U.S. does not take the lead on climate change immediately and forcefully, "the cause, in all probability, will be lost":

Why the climate change wolf is so hard to kill off, by Martin Wolf, Commentary, Financial Times: The point of the story of the boy who cried wolf is that, finally, a wolf did appear. ... 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.”...[H]umanity 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.

This cynical view of human behaviour is fully consistent with what has happened so far. For it is as if the Kyoto treaty had never been. ... The one point in favour of George W. Bush’s US or John Howard’s Australia is that they were not hypocritical. For the signal feature of most of the commitments made so far has been the failure to meet them (see chart). The vaunted European emissions trading system has been more a way of transferring quota rent to a few big emitters than an effective means of emissions control. ...

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. ...

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. Yes, we have a moral obligation to consider both the poor and future generations. Yes, the fact that the changes in the composition of the atmosphere are, to all intents and purposes, irreversible makes early and effective action essential. But acceptance of these points will not be sufficient to obtain meaningful action...

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.

The UNDP report argues that the low-carbon future it wants could be achieved at a cost of 1.6 per cent of global output between now and 2030. Such round numbers look attractively modest. But the question people will still ask themselves is what this might mean for their own standards of living. Advocates of change will have to persuade people that living in a low-carbon economy does not mean giving up everything they enjoy. ...

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. ... 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.

    Posted by on Tuesday, December 4, 2007 at 04:05 PM in Economics, Environment, Policy | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (38)


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