Commentary

Hot Air in Bangkok

After five days of contentious discussions in Bangkok, governments from nearly 200 countries last week agreed to an agenda for further talks to forge a new United Nations global warming agreement. One sticking point has been developing nations’ insistence that industrialized countries should take the first steps in reducing emissions and should help finance reductions in developing countries. But this represents a serious misreading of the underlying economic situation.

The theory behind the “developed countries should pay” model was articulated by Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change: “The problem of climate change … is a result of rich countries’ emissions, not the result of poor countries’ emissions. The historic responsibility of this problem lies with industrial nations.”

Yet although greenhouse gas emissions can be blamed on nations based on the location of emission activities, these emissions are the effluvia of civilization and all its activities. In today’s interconnected world, economic activity in one country helps provide livelihoods and incomes for many inhabitants elsewhere, and vice versa. A substantial portion of economic growth in developing countries is attributable to trade, remittances, tourism and direct investment from industrialized countries.

For example, remittances, mainly from the United States, Britain and the oil-rich Gulf states, account for 13% of Bangladesh’s GDP. Absent economic activities that directly or indirectly fuel such contributions to developing countries, U.S. emissions might be lower, but so would jobs and incomes in developing countries like Bangladesh.

These linkages have had hugely positive effects. Greenhouse-gas-fueled economic activity has enabled today’s rich societies to invest in agricultural, medical and public health research that has raised crop yields and lowered hunger in developing countries; to devise effective medical interventions to address old diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, diarrhea and smallpox and new diseases like AIDS; and to provide aid in times of famine or other natural disasters.

Absent such economic activity, human capital would have been lower worldwide. Consider, for instance, the millions of non-Americans who have been cycled through universities in the U.S. who then returned to advance their native countries’ economic and technological development.

Some might argue that one should not take indirect effects of greenhouse-gas-producing activities into consideration: Only direct effects should be considered. But the notion of assigning responsibility or demanding compensation for climate change is itself based on indirect and inadvertent outcomes. Industrialized countries did not emit greenhouse gas emissions just for fun. There are clearly benefits.

So if the U.S. contribution to global warming, for instance, could be estimated, the next step would be to estimate the net harm caused to, say, Bangladesh. This requires estimating both direct and indirect impacts not just of climate change but all greenhouse gas-producing activities on Bangladesh.

This raises some serious questions, including: Had there been no greenhouse gas-producing activities in the U.S., what would have been Bangladesh’s GDP and level of human well-being? How would that affect life expectancy, which is currently 62 years but was only 35 years in 1945? Would Bangladesh’s hunger and malnutrition rates rise? How many Bangladeshis were saved in the 1960s and 1970s because of food aid from industrialized countries? How much of its increase in agricultural productivity is due to higher CO2 levels, or indirectly due to efforts enabled because the U.S. was wealthy enough to support them? If future agricultural productivity declines due to climate change, how do you subtract past and present benefits from future harms?

Clearly, it’s premature to assign “responsibility” to industrialized countries for net damages to developing countries, since we don’t know whether those damages have, in fact, been incurred. Even if one could assign responsibility for climate change, it does not follow that it would be “fairer” if industrialized nations were to expend resources now on ambitious mitigation measures, based partly on the premise that it would reduce future climate change risks for developing nations. The same resources would, in the short- to medium term, provide greater and faster benefits to precisely those nations by reducing existing — and generally larger — climate-sensitive risks and vulnerabilities such as hunger, malaria and the threat of cyclones and other extreme events.

The U.N. climatocrats owe it to the people of the developing world to consider these trade-offs before they charge ahead with their ambitious new agenda.

Indur Goklany is the author of The Improving State of the World, (Cato Institute, 2007), from which this op-ed is excerpted.