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Bernard Finel
Senior Fellow, American Security Project

Bernard Finel

Dr. Bernard I. Finel is a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project where he directs research on counter-terrorism, defense policy and climate change. ALL POSTS

Issues come down to morality, economics and politics

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?

The divide between rich and poor countries over climate change ultimately raises three fundamental concerns: morality, economics, and politics. Each also provides a different lens for approaching the issue.

As a matter of morality, the arguments of the poor countries are particularly powerful. The rich countries, of course, are largely responsible for economic activity that results in climate change, and yet it is many of the poor countries that are being asked to pay the price, either in terms of delayed or slowed economic development or in terms of adaptation to severe alternations in the earth's climate. But, that said, there was little malicious about what occurred, so the notion of climate reparation is probably misguided. The rich nations did not set out to damage the environment, and furthermore the poor nations also bear some responsibility as a consequence of population growth and land-use issues. The way forward is a recognition that assigning moral culpability is at best a side issue, and indeed one that threatens to derail the kinds of creative thinking that might yield a political breakthrough.

From an economic perspective, the challenge is the mistake of conceiving of the problem as a zero-sum game, where the rich countries are supposed to accept reduced economic growth while the poor countries are allowed the catch up. The problem here is two-fold. First, if greenhouse gas reductions by the industrialized world are simply off-set by economic growth in the developing world, we will have achieved nothing in terms of mitigating climate change. And it will be impossible to maintain consensus in the industrialized world to meet and exceed targets if global carbon emissions increase regardless. Second, ultimately, it is unlikely that the developing world can actually achieve significant economic growth without robust growth from the industrialized world. The poor, in short, can't escape poverty without the rich acting as an engine for economic growth. The answer is to grow the pie, but to do so in an environmentally friendly manner. We need to develop schemes that accurately price carbon throughout the supply chain, even if some of those approaches resemble tariff measures. The goal isn't to reduce trade, but rather to provide the market with accurate price signals that take into account the climate change consequences of various economic activities.

From a political perspective, then, the goal is to craft effective quid pro quos that reconcile the moral and economic arguments with what is politically possible. There are at least four approaches that might achieve this goal. First, we need to create a mechanism to manage climate relates intellectual property (IP), a method that would allow innovators to profit but would nonetheless allow for rapid and inexpensive distribution of novel technology to the developing world to provide them with a development path than is not carbon intensive. Second, the developed world should fund long-term, low-interest loans and grants for countries investing in green development. This should particularly focus on projects for locally-produced, renewable energy. Third, the guiding principle for the expectations of climate change policies in the developing world ought to be "slower and smaller." We need to acknowledge that they ought to be expected to do less and take longer to implement their commitments. But nevertheless, the "rich" can't accept the proposition that the "poor" will act later. There needs to some simultaneity of commitment, even if the level of commitment is different. Finally, we should be thinking in terms of a global cap-and-trade system, with at least some percentage of the licenses distributed according to population, but some also allocated according existing emissions. The goal would be to equalize the burden as much as possible across nations, and allow them to adapt local policies to international needs.

The principle, ultimately, ought to be to find ways not just to allocate the costs, but to share the benefits of future growth as long as it occurs in a way that is consistent with the health of the planet. A rising tide lifts all boats economically, and by the same token severe global warming will be a disaster for us all. Taken together, the collective benefits of addressing the challenge far outweigh the costs, and the key is finding creative mechanisms to create incentives in support of pursuing these shared benefits.

By Bernard Finel  |  December 15, 2009; 8:35 AM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Yes, I agree that this piece reflects some creative thinking. Unfortunately, the whole thing is a straw doll. The real moral problem here is the willful foisting of an international hoax in order to force some stupid notion of economic justice. Remember that the hacked e-mails (and increasingly new facts) show that the hockey stick graph is dubious at best and an outright lie at worst. The whole environmental hysteria is built on it. Fortunately, at least half of Americans are not falling for it. I'm doing my part to really educate people the best I can.

Posted by: vanhook99 | December 22, 2009 11:59 AM
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Some wonderful creative thinking here. I especially like that phrase "simultaneity of commitment", and the importance of adapting local policies to international needs.
While I agree that the idea of reparations is a no starter, I do feel that the U.S. is currently in a moral dilemma, as our per capita emissions are so much higher than all but a few, small oil-rich nations. I have read that the average American behavior results in 10 to 20 times the amount of emissions as the average Chinese, for instance. It is hardly surprising this causes resentment. It is a kind of gluttony, morally speaking.

Posted by: post-it2 | December 18, 2009 2:37 AM
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