Self-Interest: Inconvenient Truth of Climate Change

Self-Interest: Inconvenient Truth of Climate Change

Yeatman guest column in the Richmond Times Dispatch
October 28, 2007

Al Gore has called on humans to address climate change "as a species." Inconveniently for Gore, however, Homo sapiens are parsed into nation-states that have always pursued their own, sub-species interests. As there is no evidence the threat of a changing climate is making nations less selfish, expectations of a global response to global warming are unrealistic.

Consider <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />India, the world's fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The Indian government could invest in clean energy, and thereby reduce its carbon footprint to the benefit of all humans.

Instead, it is building the world's longest fence, along its border with Bangladesh, in part to keep out refugees when rising sea levels start swallowing the Bengali coastline. As the world heats up, India is looking out for itself, neighbors and climate be damned.

Then there's Russia, which emits the thirdmost heat-trapping greenhouse gases of any nation on the planet. Scientists say that country stands to benefit considerably from a warmer climate. A temperate Siberia has the potential to become the world's breadbasket, and the melting of Arctic ice would make accessible to Russia huge deposits of oil and gas thought by geologists to be up to 25 percent of known reserves. Climate change might even grant Russia the warm-water port it has sought since czarist times.

For Russia, global warming is an opportunity, not a threat. Commentators speculate that is why the Kremlin dragged its feet on the Kyoto Protocol, a multilateral emissions reductions treaty, even though the protocol calls for significant wealth transfers to Russia.

More recently, at this fall's United Nations conference on climate change, a Russian envoy conspicuously disparaged the Kyoto Protocol, stating that its continuation would be "ineffective." Given that a warmer world is good for Russia, these remarks are unsurprising.

In China, the world's No. 2 emitter of greenhouse gases, fighting climate change takes a back seat to lifting hundreds of millions of peasants out of abject poverty. Because emissions controls impede economic growth, Chinese officials steadfastly refuse to submit to them.

China's priorities are shared throughout the developing world. Even though developing countries produce about half the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere each year, significant emitters such as India, South Africa, Brazil, and Indonesia have made it clear that participation in any scheme to fix the climate would violate their "right to develop."

The developing world's inaction forces the hand of the United States, the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases. America is the world's most powerful country; China is second in the pecking order. Naturally, the United States wants to remain on top. So it has no desire to give the Chinese economy a comparative advantage by unilaterally adopting drastic emissions reductions. Even in green, post-modern Europe, nations are loath to cooperate to cure the climate. Although European countries are legally bound by the Kyoto Protocol -- which requires emissions cuts of 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2012 -- the rate at which the continent belches out greenhouse gases has increased each year.

In light of this failure, the European Union recently gave itself until 2020 to reach its Kyoto goals. There is, however, a catch: The extended emissions reduction target applies not to individual nations, but to the aggregate EU. That means the 27 member states will have to agree how to distribute their responsibilities to the climate among themselves, which is a sure-fire recipe for conflict.

The burden-sharing negotiations will begin in December. "It will be a battle," Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen predicted, "For all member states, this is a question of basic interests." Exactly.

To avert the worst of a warming climate, scientists tell us that we need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions 60 percent by 2050. To reach this goal, many influential statesmen such as Al Gore are calling upon the nations of the world to cooperate in a selfless manner. Since their inception, however, nations have always competed in the spirit of self-help, and there is no indication that the threat of climate catastrophe is changing this dynamic.

In this world, such as it is, there is little hope that nations will work together to stop global warming.