December 18, 2009

December 18, 2009 | Commentary on Climate Change

Poor Nations Have Better Things to Worry About

Q: Almost every key question at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen comes down to how should rich and poor countries shoulder responsibility for climate change. What would be a way of reconciling these differences?

As a first-time observer at a UN climate change conference, one thing that stands out here in Copenhagen is just how many delegates come from nations that ought to have far higher priorities than dealing with global warming.

Copenhagen, for example, is not addressing the millions who die each year from deaths that could have been easily prevented with basic sanitation or a mere minimum of medical services. And it is certainly not addressing the fact that 1.6 billion people still lack electricity -- indeed a new climate treaty would likely place electricity even further out of reach for these persons. While the conference focuses on exaggerated claims of harm to developing nations from global warming, the reality is that global warming policy poses the bigger risk. Making energy less affordable and available would hurt the world's poor more than a fractional increase in future temperatures.

The U.S. and other developed nations are not wrong in expecting meaningful participation from China and other fast developing nations whose emissions growth will dominate in the years ahead. If we choose to embark on a costly course to reduce greenhouse gasses, doing so only from developed nations would be all pain and no gain -- the future trajectory of emissions would be little changed. The real question is whether the world, developed and developing, ought to be embarking on something likely to impose far more pain than gain.

Despite their public statements, many representatives of the very poorest nations don't seem genuinely worried about a warming planet. They see the Kyoto process as a chance for increased foreign aid, and who can really blame them for wanting to cash in on the rich world's environmental hypochondria? But foreign aid fashioned to fight global warming would have all the pitfalls of traditional foreign aid, and then some. The money would do little good.

The UN can speculate -- quite wildly in many cases -- about future harm from global warming -- or we can see real harm happening now amongst the world's most desperately poor. Poverty, whether caused by corrupt and repressive regimes or for other reasons, is the real problem. One thing the first world can do is not force its own badly chosen priorities on nations that don't have hundreds of billions of dollars to waste on it and instead focus on the real problem.

Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ben Lieberman Senior Policy Analyst, Energy and Environment
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Related Issues: Climate Change

First Appeared in Washington Post