If I were an environmental activist, I would be despairing right around now about ever getting meaningful action on global warming. Over the last eight years, eco-warriors had managed to convince themselves that the main obstacle to their grand designs to recalibrate the Earth's thermostat was a stupid and callow U.S. president unwilling to lead the rest of the world.
But with Barack Obama in office they no longer have that problem. In fact, they have a charismatic and savvy spokesman who combines a deep commitment to their cause with considerable powers of persuasion. Yet his call to action at last week's G-8 summit in Italy yielded little more than polite applause, and that only when he issued a mea culpa. "I know that in the past, the United States has sometimes fallen short of meeting our responsibilities," he said amid cheers. "So let me be clear: Those days are over."
What did this brave self-flagellation yield? To be sure, he got the attendees to collectively declare that they would never ever let the Earth's temperature rise two degrees centigrade from pre-industrial levels. This is supposedly a prelude to the real horse-trading over emissions cuts that will begin in a Copenhagen, Denmark, meeting this December.
But the depressing thing for climate warriors was that Obama could not get developing countries, without whose cooperation there is simply no way to avert climate change, to accept—even just in theory—the idea of binding emissions cuts. India's prime minister took the occasion to position his country as a major victim of a problem not of its making. "What we are witnessing today is the consequence [of] over two centuries of industrial activity and high-consumption lifestyles in the developed world," he lectured. "They have to bear this historical responsibility." And even before the summit began, China declared the West had "no right" to ask it to limit its economic growth.
Rather than engage with the issues, eco-pundits are grasping for all kinds of fanciful pseudo-scientific theories to explain why Obama's sweet-talking ways are leaving the rest of the world cold. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, for instance, recently blamed the lack of progress on the faulty circuitry evolution has wired into the human brain. According to Kristof, evolution has programmed us to be alert to immediate threats, such as snakes, or enemies with clubs, but not for vastly greater but less imminent dangers that require forethought. If this sounds like a warmed-over, 21st-century version of the Calvinistic crooked-timber view of human nature, that's because it is.
Not to be outdone, Kristof's Nobel Prize-winning colleague at the Times, Paul Krugman, pulled out the folk story about the frog and the boiling pot in his latest column to explain our collective torpor over climate change. Just as the proverbial frog wasn't able to feel the gradually rising temperature before he boiled to death, so too, in Krugman's telling, human beings are not equipped to comprehend the dangers of an overheating planet before they fry to death.
But this psychologizing only exposes the inability of climate activists to take seriously the rational case for inaction. In fact, there is a perfectly good reason developing countries are unwilling to act on climate change: What they are being asked to do is more awful than climate change's implications–even if one accepts all the alarmist predictions.
Consider what would be necessary to slash global greenhouse-gas emissions just 50% below 2000 levels by 2050—a far less aggressive goal than what the enviros say is necessary to avert climate catastrophe. According to U.S. Chamber of Commerce calculations, even if the West reduced its emissions by 80% below 2000 levels, developing countries would still have to return their emissions to 2000 levels to meet the 50% target. However, Indians currently consume roughly 15 times less energy per capita than Americans—and Chinese consume seven times less. Asking them, along with the rest of the developing world, to go back to 2000 emission levels with a 2050 population would mean putting them on a very drastic energy diet.
The human toll of this is unfathomable: It would require these countries to abandon plans to ever conquer poverty, of course. But beyond that it would require a major scaling back of living standards under which their middle classes—for whom three square meals, cars and air-conditioning are only now beginning to come within reach—would have to go back to subsistence living, and the hundreds of millions who are at subsistence would have to accept starvation.
In short, the choice for developing countries is between mass death due to the consequences of an overheated planet sometime in the distant future, and mass suicide due to imposed instant starvation right now. Is it any surprise that they are reluctant to jump on the global-warming bandwagon?
The Waxman-Markey climate change bill that just passed the U.S. House of Representatives wants to force developing countries to accept this fate by resorting to the old and tired method of protectionism. Should this monstrosity become law, starting in 2020 the United States will impose carbon tariffs on goods from any country that does not accept binding reductions. But this is a path to mutually assured economic destruction—not to combating climate change.
For starters, by 2020, when these tariffs go into effect, India and China—with GDPs projected to grow anywhere from 6% to 10% annually—will have much bigger economies with huge domestic markets that they are increasingly opening to each other. Thus they might well be better off forgoing access to the U.S. market than accepting crippling restrictions on their growth.
Also, by then they will have more economic clout on the world stage to enforce their own ideas of who ought to take moral responsibility for climate change. The West's case for restricting Indian and Chinese exports rests on the claim that these countries' total emissions will exceed those from the West within the next few decades. (China's emissions are already at par with those of the U.S., the biggest emitter).
But these countries have, and will continue to have, far lower emissions on a per-capita basis, given that China's are now around one-fifth those of the United States and India's one-twentieth. Thus they would have an equally valid case for imposing countervailing restrictions on American exports based on per-capita emissions. The West might well be the bigger loser in this economic warfare if it is barred from accessing new, growing markets.
Obama obviously understands this—which is why he has condemned the House's turn down the protectionist path. So what should climate warriors do? Right now the only certain way to save lives is by calling off this misguided war on climate change. If and when climate change promises to claim more casualties than poverty and starvation, the world will begin heeding their calls. If, however, these climate-change casualties don't materialize, there would have been no need to act in the first place. Either way, the world has far more immediate and scarier problems than climate change to address right now.
Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a columnist for Forbes. This article originally appeared at Forbes.