Getting rid of the hot air

Will climate change policies make the poor poorer?
Donna Laframboise | Dec 14 2015 | comment  



According to the headlines, the Paris climate summit has produced an "historic" agreement that will "save the world." But don't be fooled. Climate negotiations have long been popular with politicians. Balancing budgets and tackling unemployment is hard work. But posing as a saviour of the planet is glamorous. Fly off to exotic locales, chum around with celebrities, and then smile broadly as the media hails your courage and wisdom. What's not to like?

Back here on planet Earth, the climate game has always been 97 percent symbolism. For a quarter of a century, political leaders have made unrealistic promises about emissions cuts, failed to keep those promises, and then agreed to even more stringent cuts.

Four years ago, environmental studies professor Roger Pielke Jr calculated that, in order to meet its 2020 emissions targets, Australia would need to replace its coal-generated electricity supply with 56 nuclear power plants - or open dozens of new solar power facilities every month. Eager to be seen to be fighting climate change, Australia's leaders had embraced a timetable Pielke describes as "fanciful at best".

That's the first problem. The second is that, even if Australia were to build all of these new facilities in record time, the effect on the global climate would be imperceptible. Australia generates a mere 1.3 percent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions. If every last Australian produced no emissions for the remainder of their lives, the overall effect would be too minor to matter.

As political scientist Bjorn Lomborg points out, the big-picture numbers make no sense, either. If every nation somehow meets the targets associated with the newly-agreed Paris document, he says, only one percent of the emissions cuts we've been told must occur by the year 2030 will actually take place. The maths, says Lomborg, "is simple: in an implausibly optimistic best-case scenario, Paris leaves 99% of the problem in place. It's like going on a diet to slim down, but declaring victory after the first salad."

(The agreement says nations will aspire to more ambitious targets as time goes by. But that's like a dieter promising to lose 10 pounds during the first month, and 15 during the second. Good intentions are one thing, follow-through is another.) 

Nations which attempt, in good faith, to live up to their Paris commitments will spend enormous amounts of money replacing cheap, higher-emissions energy sources with expensive, lower-emissions sources. Money to fund this transition will have to come from somewhere, which means billions will be siphoned away from health care, education, counter-terrorism, and refugee assistance - all to meet a target that represents the tiniest fraction of an alleged global solution.

Making energy more expensive causes misery for the poor, even in the richest of nations. In well-to-do Germany, more than a million households had their power cut off over the past three years. Six million have been threatened with disconnection. Electricity prices have almost doubled recently, with Germany's aggressive green energy policies largely to blame.

Across Europe , seniors are spending their twilight years shivering in the cold. Tens of thousands die prematurely each winter. Rising heating costs - as governments mandate the use of more expensive forms of energy -  are a major factor. Last January, the UK Telegraph ran a headline that read: "Mortuaries overflowing as freezing weather causes rise in deaths." Two weeks later, it ran another: "Winter death toll 'to exceed 40,000'". Forget heat waves, as a 2014 UK government report makes clear: "Even with climate change, cold related deaths will continue to represent the biggest weather-related cause of mortality."

Research conducted by uSwitch, a UK consumer organization, suggests that one in four UK households "regularly" (21 percent) or "always" (3 percent) went without heat last winter in an attempt to manage their energy bills. Thirty-seven percent of households said skimping on heat had adversely affected their health or their quality of life. In the words of uSwitch official Ann Robinson, "It's simply unacceptable that people should feel forced to gamble with their health to try and cope with sky-high energy bills."

Overall, humanity's attempt to fight climate change via emissions reduction is a story of abject failure. It isn't just that the goals are unrealistic, that the math is absurd, and that politicians and journalists routinely utter meaningless nonsense. The dirty little secret is that when emissions disappear, so does human well-being.

During the past four decades, a noticeable drop in emissions has occurred only once - during that time of hardship known as the 2009 financial crisis. The New York Times says four million additional Americans fell below the poverty line that year, and median family incomes were five percent lower than a decade earlier. According to the World Bank, "virtually every developing country" was hit hard in 2009. An additional 50,000 African children may have died of malnutrition, and an estimated "64 million more people around the world" are thought to have slipped back into abject poverty.

During the 21 years prior to the 1992 UN climate treaty (1971-1991), emissions rose by 50 percent. During the 21 years afterward (1992-2012), emissions also rose by 50 perent. Despite the extensive UN bureaucracy, the annual climate summits, and the happy talk about renewable energy becoming competitive, we’re treading water.

It's time to change our approach. And, from a certain perspective, the Paris climate agreement represents a new direction. In the words of Richard Tol, an economics professor whose specialty is climate change: "Below all the bluster [the Paris agreement] really is a step forward. Gone is the idea of legally binding targets and timetables."

Tol points out that national parliaments, which are directly answerable to their own electorates, are now free to view climate measures as merely one of many competing national priorities. Countries coping with their own circumstances (whether a devastating tsunami in Japan or fuel poverty in Poland) are no longer saddled with externally-imposed emissions reduction obligations. The Paris agreement requires each nation to file paperwork outlining what climate action it intends to take in light of its unique circumstances. For UN critics worried that unaccountable bureaucrats were attempting to impose a top-down, one-size-fits-all climate policy on the entire globe, that threat appears to have dissipated.

A clear-eyed assessment of the fine print does not support President Barack Obama's grandiose claim that the Paris agreement is what "the world needs to solve the climate crisis." If emissions reduction is the yardstick, the coming decade is unlikely to be more successful than the previous four.

Online commentators are describing the Paris document as "voluntary mush." James Hansen, a climate activist and former NASA scientist, is using terms such as "fraud" and "fake." In his view, it's "just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. "

UK newspaper columnist Christopher Booker similarly concludes that despite the political spin, "there is no way the world as a whole is going to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions." Populous China and India both understand that coal helped build the robust economies of Western nations. Now it's their turn to access the decent standard of living, sanitation facilities, and health care that affordable, industrial-strength energy provides.   

However much we might wish to save the planet, if we support irrational climate policies that harm poor people at home and abroad, we aren't making the world a better place.

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. She is the author of two books about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and blogs at BigPicNews.com  

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