You wouldn't know it from the happy spin emanating from the Oval Office, but a Third World revolt in Bonn, Germany, this week almost derailed the Paris climate change negotiations in November. Although peace has been restored for now, it only happened by papering over this fundamental conundrum: The world can either avert climate catastrophe or seek "climate justice," not both.
The revolt was triggered when 130 developing nations including India and China noticed that the draft action plan that is supposed to serve as the blueprint for the Paris negotiations had omitted their most important conditions about the "fairness and financing" of the final deal—in other words, who is going to take responsibility for the warming and who should pay to reduce it? The South African delegation condemned the omission as "apartheid" that would penalize poor countries for the sins of the rich.
It has a point.
The Paris negotiations are supposed to be the mother of all climate negotiations. It was convened to impose binding emission reductions on all countries—not just the West, as was the case with the 1995 Kyoto protocol—to hold global temperature increases to no more than 2 degrees centigrade over pre-industrial levels. To this end, each country has been asked to submit its own good faith reduction plan that includes both how much it will cut emissions and its plan for getting there. Once finalized after a review in Paris, the plans will be legally binding—although how precisely they will be enforced is anyone's guess.
Setting that aside, negotiations will boil down to an essential question: How much should each country cut and therefore whose idea of "climate justice," as Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi has termed it, should prevail?
All issues that require collective action, especially on a global scale, are difficult to resolve because they suffer from the free-rider problem, i.e. some parties seek to benefit from the "common good" without springing for it. But as Oren Cass, a Manhattan Institute analyst, notes, fighting climate change is a particularly vexing problem because the individual cost to each country, especially Third World ones, will be immediate and huge—and the benefits distant and uncertain. The notion that emission cuts can pay for themselves through increased energy efficiency is at best fanciful and, at worst, a lie.
There are no low-carbon energy technologies available today that can sustain the economic growth rates these countries need to lift their people out of abject poverty, let alone offer Western living standards at anything resembling an affordable cost. Over 300 million Indians still live below the poverty line, earning less than $1 per day. India's per capita energy consumption is 15 times less than the United States'. India has to keep boosting its energy use—and therefore carbon emissions—for at least another two decades to eliminate dire poverty, which is why its reduction plan only commits to slashing "emission intensity"—its emission rate as a percentage of its GPD—not emissions themselves.
Even this much, India claims, will require up to a $2.5 trillion investment over the next 15 years in renewable energy sources and adaptation technologies. Even if that figure is exaggerated, clearly this would be a challenge for a country that has yet to offer basic sanitation, transportation, and clean-water infrastructure to all its citizens.
But Western countries have to date pledged to raise only $1 trillion over 10 years ($100 billion annually) to offset the climate change costs of the entire Third World. Upping that commitment while simultaneously absorbing their own emission reduction costs will require Western government to take very radical—and very draconian—steps to pare back the living standards of their own citizens.
Whether Paris is able to keep tensions under control and hammer out something is an open question. Either way, however, if the world ever gets serious about enforcing it, the blame game will intensify. Every side will trot out arguments to show why it bears less moral responsibility to combat climate change than the other.
Western countries, especially America, have been arguing that China and India with their billion-plus people and dirty energy sources are a major part of the problem. Therefore, unless they do their "fair share" to cut—not just slow the rate of—their emissions, no amount of mitigation by the West will make a dent in global temperatures.
However, India and China counter by dragging out the West's historic emissions. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has determined that the planet can handle 2,900 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide before the Earth begins to warm catastrophically. Third World countries insist that justice demands that every country get a quota based on its population. By that arithmetic, America's total quota would add up to 128 Gt (and the entire developed world's 406 Gt). But America used up over twice that amount between 1850-2011. As these countries see it, America (as the rest of the Western world) is in their ecological debt. It needs to put itself on a drastic energy diet—and effectively undo the industrial revolution that has generated untold wealth for it. Especially since India has used only 7 percent of its share. "For the sake of the world's future, American lifestyle can no longer remain non-negotiable," froths India's leading environmentalist, Sunita Narain.
When there is abundant wealth to solve a problem, moral accounting matters less. Whoever has the means will often step forward without caring too much about responsibility or returns. That clearly is not the case with global warming. The stakes are high for everyone so each side will vehemently assert the morality of its position. But the one most likely to prevail is not necessarily the one with superior claims, but superior force. Might, after all, makes right.
Indeed, notes Cass, if climate change will unleash an eco-catastrophe as claimed, then the harsh reality is that it might be more cost-effective for America and the West to impose their will by military force. Trade sanctions against non-complying countries that are being considered in Paris won't cut it for the simple reason that developing countries can band together and impose countervailing sanctions of their own. The upshot will be a full-scale trade war that won't reduce emissions (although the economic attrition that'll result will help).
Global warming warriors warn that inaction will produce political instability and civil war in Africa and elsewhere. But it is also conceivable that a really determined West could use the aegis of some UN-like global agency to create a standing military strike force to bomb or drone countries into compliance. Humanity’s very existence would be at stake, after all. (President Al Gore, anyone?)
The tragedy of current efforts to combat global warming is that in order to avert a tragedy they'll cause one.
This column originally appeared in The Week.