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Smoke and mirrors

Mick Kelly steps aside from his role as editor of Tiempo to make a personal statement on the climate negotiations based on his experience of the global warming debate over the past 25 years.

Few would question the statement that developing countries are amongst the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and sea-level rise. It has become a truism of global warming.

Noting the nature of the physical risk and the lack of resources to support adaptation, the regional assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 1998, concludes that “small islands states are particularly vulnerable to climate change” and that “Africa is the continent most vulnerable to the impacts of projected changes.”

There is no doubt that climate change does present a serious threat to the developing world. Yet the simple statement that the South is particularly vulnerable to global warming does not tell anything like the whole story. And it carries with it a considerable amount of ideological baggage that could do with unpacking as the climate negotiators meet in The Hague.

First of all, the statement is misleading. If one considers trends in vulnerability resulting from the emergence of global warming impacts over coming decades then, all other factors being held equal, the high level of present-day vulnerability to climate hazards in many parts of the developing world means that future climate trends are unlikely to make much difference at all.

Dependence on natural resources is often cited as a factor underlying the vulnerability of the South. Yet this dependence means that, to the contrary, some developing nations have developed a considerable capacity to cope and adapt over the centuries and millennia.

Vietnam is often described as being especially vulnerable to climate change and sea-level rise as much of the population lives in the two low-lying deltas. But this nation has “one of the most well-developed institutional, political and social structures in the world for mitigating water disasters,” according to the UNDP-sponsored Disaster Management Unit in Hanoi.

In fact, it could be argued that the heavy dependence of the industrialized nations on technological and societal systems developed in recent decades and untested against environmental trends means that these nations should be classed amongst those most susceptible to future change.

Sure, resource constraints of one kind or another limit the capacity of developing nations to respond to climate trends. But the key point is that this is true today, affecting the ability to cope with present-day climate stress. Who knows what the situation will be like in decades to come? Are we not being unduly pessimistic about southern prospects, and the effectiveness of current development cooperation, when we cite resource constraints as still a major factor 50 years hence?

Why has this statement regarding the high level of southern vulnerability to global warming become common currency?

I would argue that there are three underlying reasons. First, it conforms with the widespread view of the South as victim, as subject to natural forces that cannot be countered by those living in ‘undeveloped’ countries. Second, it resonates with northern guilt regarding the marginalization and exploitation of the people of the South through centuries of colonization, cultural imperialism and other forms of neo-colonialism. Finally, of course, it provides a stick – the threat of impacts – and a carrot – the offer of assistance – that northern negotiators can use to draw the South into accepting emissions reduction controls.

In brief, it suits the northern agenda.

What is the effect of this view on the South? First, it disempowers, the subtext of any process of victimization. As efforts to cope with present-day hazards, however successful, are presented as inconsequential in the context of the future threat, self-respect is eroded. Second, this view diverts attention and resources away from the more immediate task of dealing with present-day hazards and towards the ill-defined and speculative threat of future impacts.

The shift of focus away from the present onto assistance in dealing with future climate shock comes close to Albert Camus’ assessment that “the future is the only kind of property that the masters willingly concede to the slaves.”

If northern negotiators really want the South to engage fully with the process of curbing the global warming problem, they must pay far greater attention to the precautionary step of assisting the developing nations manage the problem of present-day variability in weather and climate.

How much further would we be in coping with the tragic impact of famine in Africa if an investment of northern time, money and scientific effort equivalent to that already committed to the comparatively nebulous threat of the greenhouse future had gone into dealing with this very real hazard? If career opportunities in the field of applied climatology and seasonal forecasting were equal to those available when hitching a ride on the global warming bandwagon?

With regard to emission control, again we find self-serving ideology underpinning conventional wisdom.

Even the more radical environmentalist organizations have accepted the flexibility mechanisms – emissions trading, joint implementation and the clean development mechanism – and their basis in economic efficiency as a necessary component of the effort to combat climate change, albeit a necessary evil.

Yet the basis of the flexibility mechanisms is not experiential. There is no hard evidence that free market efficiencies will be that effective in limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Market failure, corruption, any other weakness in governance could fatally undermine the process. And what of the trade distortions that may well result?

It hardly makes sense to respond to our inadvertent experiment with the global climate system by tinkering, in an unpredictable fashion, with the global economic system. If the threat is really that serious then we should play safe – rely on tried and trusted mechanisms.

Acceptance of the flexibility mechanisms represents an article of faith, faith in the free market and faith in the process of globalization. It rests on an ideological stance.

© 2000 Lawrence Moore

From a southern perspective, the attractions of the additional investment, income and technology transfer associated with the flexibility mechanisms are clear. But it must also be made clear that this assistance represents a bribe, payment to ensure that the North can continue polluting the atmosphere.

And this may not be a ‘win-win’ game.

Having bought out the natural birthright of the South for beads and trinkets, is the North creating a new southern resource – the carbon permit – this time to be sold for smoke and mirrors?

If carbon becomes, in effect, a commodity traded internationally, what is to counter the processes that have brought about the precipitous decline in other southern commodity prices over recent decades?

As José Martí observed back in 1891, “The people that buys gives the orders. The people that sells, serves.” Will carbon trading become an instrument of foreign policy, favouring some nations and excluding others?

Let the seller beware.

José Martí again, “The people that wants to die sells to one people alone, and the people that wants to save itself, sells to more than one.”

Perhaps the resurgence of Opec, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, should be paralleled by the creation of Ocpec, the Organization of Carbon Permit Exporting Countries – with the same commitment to equity, fair trade and a new economic order as espoused by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, now a major force within Opec.

Why should the nations of the world not decide to combat the threat of global warming on the basis of an explicit ideological commitment to equity between peoples, rather than a selective, oft-blind acceptance of free market principles?

We do have the freedom to choose our future – whatever the cynics may say.

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