August 3, 2009
Global Warming and the Poor
Why India and China don’t care much about climate change.
By BRET STEPHENS
A funny thing happened on the way to saving the world’s poor from the ravages of global warming. The poor told the warming alarmists to get lost.
This spring, the Geneva-based Global Humanitarian Forum, led by former U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan, issued a report warning that “mass starvation, mass migration, and mass sickness” would ensue if the world did not agree to “the most ambitious international agreement ever negotiated” on global warming at a forthcoming conference in Copenhagen.
According to Mr. Annan’s report, climate change-induced disasters now account for 315,000 deaths each year and $125 billion in damages, numbers set to rise to 500,000 deaths and $340 billion in damages by 2030. The numbers are hotly contested by University of Colorado disaster-trends expert Roger Pielke Jr., who calls them a “poster child for how to lie with statistics.”
But never mind about that. The more interesting kiss-off took place in New Delhi late last month, when Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh told visiting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that there was no way India would sign on to any global scheme to cap carbon emissions.
“There is simply no case for the pressure that we, who have among the lowest emissions per capita, face to actually reduce emissions,” Mr. Ramesh told Mrs. Clinton. “And as if this pressure was not enough, we also face the threat of carbon tariffs on our exports to countries such as yours.” The Chinese—the world’s largest emitter of CO—have told the Obama administration essentially the same thing.
Roughly 75% of Indians—some 800 million people—live on $2 a day or less, adjusted for purchasing power parity. In China, it’s about 36%, or about 480 million. That means the two governments alone are responsible for one in every two people living at that income level.
If climate change is the threat Mr. Annan claims it is, India and China ought to be eagerly beating the path to Copenhagen. So why aren’t they? More...
To listen to the climate alarmists, it’s all America’s fault. “What the Chinese are chiefly guilty of is emulating the American economic model,” wrote environmental writer Jacques Leslie last year in the Christian Science Monitor. “The United States passed up the opportunity it had at the beginning of China’s economic transformation to guide it toward sustainability, and the loss is already incalculable.”
Facts tell a different story. When Deng Xiaoping began introducing elements of a market economy in 1980, Chinese life expectancy at birth was 65.3 years. Today it is about 73 years. The numbers are probably a bit inflated, as most numbers are in the People’s Republic, but the trend line is undeniable. In India, life expectancy rose from 52.5 years in 1980 to about 67 years today. If this is the consequence of following the “American economic model” then poor countries need more of it.
But what about all the pollution in India and particularly China? In Mr. Leslie’s telling, CO emissions are part-and-parcel with common pollutants such as particulate matter, toxic waste, and everything else typically associated with a degraded environment. They’re not. The U.S. and China produce equivalent quantities of carbon dioxide. But try naming a U.S. city whose air quality is even remotely as bad as Beijing’s, or an American river as polluted as the Han: You can’t. America, the richer and more industrialized country, is also by far the cleaner one.
People who live in Third-World countries—like Mexico, where I grew up—tend to understand this, even if First-World environmentalists do not. People who live in oppressive Third World countries, like China, also understand that it isn’t just greater wealth that leads to a better environment, but greater freedom, too.
To return to Mr. Leslie, his complaint with China is that it has become too much of a consumer society, again in the American mold. Again he is ridiculous: China has one of the world’s highest personal savings rates—50% versus the U.S.’s 2.7%. The real source of China’s pollution problem is a state-led industrial policy geared toward production, and state-owned enterprises (especially in “dirty” sectors like coal and steel) that strive to meet production quotas, and state-appointed managers who don’t mind cutting corners in matters of safety or environmental responsibility, and typically have the political clout to insulate themselves from any public fallout.
In other words, China’s pollution problems are not a function of laissez-faire policies and rampant consumerism, but of the regime’s excessive lingering control of the economy. A freer China means a cleaner China.
There’s a lesson in this for those who believe that the world’s environmental problems call for a new era of dirigisme. And there ought to be a lesson for those who claim to understand the problems of the poor better than the poor themselves. If global warming really is the catastrophe the alarmists claim, the least they can do for its victims is not to patronize them while impoverishing them in the bargain.