Saturday 5 December 2015

Rich countries are not to blame for global warming but they should still pay more to stop it

An unfortunate side effect of the moralisation of global warming is the blame game. A large number of people seem to think it makes sense to address the enormous problem of global warming by putting various rich countries on trial for their crimes against the atmosphere over the past 200 years. This project is a foolish one, a backwards looking side-show that - perhaps conveniently - distracts political attention from the pragmatic policy debates we need for actually addressing the problem (previously). But even if we were to take it seriously it wouldn't give the answers one might expect.

The historic blame game assumes that the west got as rich as it now is by industrialising, and thereby polluting the atmosphere with CO2 and other greenhouse gases. That would make those rich countries morally responsible for the problem of global warming. The argument is that they got a free lunch (wealth) by taking out a mortgage on the future of the whole planet, a mortgage which they are now responsible for paying off.

But it seems odd to say that industrialisation was only or even primarily to the benefit of the countries that first undertook it. Global warming is a global bad, but industrialisation was a global good - an astonishing world bettering invention that just about every country wants to adopt for itself as the most effective path out of the dreary Malthusian poverty that is the default condition for humanity.

The industrial revolution in Britain from around the 1800s, followed shortly by those in W. Europe and N. America, involved the conversion of the economy from man (and horse) power to coal power. The reason they burned so much coal back then was because the technology was so primitive and inefficient. It is not surprising that the economic growth rate of the first economies to industrialise hovered around 1% per year. Progress was so slow because everything had to be invented for the first time (and also because there weren't many other industrial economies around to trade with, limiting the size of the market). But those same countries were the ones that then developed much more efficient fossil fuel technologies over the course of their industrialisation, and shared them with the rest of the world. The cost of this slow process of technological innovation and diffusion was the historic carbon emissions that are at stake in the blame game.

Contrast that with the present. Japan, S. Korea, China, India, Vietnam and any other even half-assedly governed poor country can grow their economies at breakneck speed by creating an institutional environment friendly to business and allowing international trade. The rest takes care of itself, because their companies can browse through the last 200 years of technical innovation for proven ideas to achieve the same order of productivity as a company in the countries that invented them. They can use this knowledge to leapfrog the slowest and dirtiest period of industrialisation.

In sum, it makes no sense to charge the West with historical crimes against the environment, since the very processes implicated were those which have also given the rest of the world the chance to escape poverty too. Industrialisation is not something that the west should be blamed for, but something they should be thanked for. 

Now there are some environmentalists who perversely believe that industrialisation was a global bad which destroyed some Edenic natural paradise. But by that quasi-theological logic there is still no good reason to blame the first countries to industrialise. Every other country has borrowed liberally from their technologies and thereby made itself complicit in the original sin.

A further illustration of the absurdity of the blame game is provided by European colonialism. Colonialism was pretty obviously a global bad - the infliction of immense suffering and oppression by industrial powers on non-industrial peoples. Yet, from the narrow perspective of accounting for historic carbon emissions, colonialism comes out positively, like world wars and the invention of cigarettes. 

For by that oppression the industrialisation of much of the world was set back for generations to suit the perceived interests of the imperial powers in securing a captive market for their manufactured products and access to artificially cheap natural resources, and their true interest in the pleasure of domination. If not for colonialism, the world might have reached our present critical greenhouse gas levels in the middle of the 20th century if not earlier.

Global warming is an urgent practical problem requiring collective international action. It is not an historical problem of justice, like slavery or colonialism, for which it makes sense to face backwards. 

It is pretty clear what we have to do, and it is also pretty clear that lots of governments are looking for ways to free ride on the costs of the necessary action. The blame game has played a pernicious role by expanding the number of ways of arguing about justice by which negotiators can claim to be a victim deserving of some special treatment. But if everyone claims to be a victim, nothing will be done about the problem. An excessive attention to justice is at the heart of the decades-long failure of the international politics of climate change. 

Global warming is a simple problem with a complicated politics. We should simplify that politics where we can. An obvious step is to focus on the solution rather than the problem itself. We should start by laying out what each country needs to do, for example switching S. Asia and Africa to cleaner technologies before they finish industrialising and are completely locked into coal; an international carbon tax, and so on. And then determine the fairest way to pay for it. This is how we fund national public goods like schools and police forces. The richest citizens pay the most and that is only fair because they can best afford to pay, while still being net beneficiaries of the public goods. Likewise, the richest countries should make the biggest financial contribution to the mitigation of global warming and especially of funding the low carbon industrialisation of the presently poor world. 

That is where we'll almost certainly end up. The question is whether we will get there before it's too late.