Group of Seven nations have pledged millions of dollars in aid to fight fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest to show they are serious about fighting climate change. Instead, the situation starkly shows how unserious their climate change policy is.
No one disputes that the rainforest’s survival is crucial to fighting climate change. Its massive size sucks carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, mitigating the rise in greenhouse gas levels. If the rainforest gets smaller, the greenhouse gas level in the air gets larger.
But the rainforest is something else, too: It represents massive amounts of land that many Brazilians see as their ticket out of poverty. That’s why the forests are burning at such high rates; Brazilians are burning trees to clear land for farming and resource exploitation. For these people, if the rainforest gets smaller, their chance at a more comfortable life gets larger.
We find this dilemma across the globe. Developed countries cut down their forests and exploited their resources long ago. That fortunate billion or so, mostly white, people live comfortable lives. The rest of the planet’s 7 billion people want to live like them — and that means doing what they did to get rich.
The vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions today come from undeveloped countries trying to catch up. China alone emits more greenhouse gasses in one year than the United States and Europe combined. Add in India and the rest of the world’s poor, and the pattern becomes clear. As they get richer, the climate gets poorer.
A serious climate change policy would address this head-on. Undeveloped countries won’t willingly forgo their chance to end the misery of poverty. They will either earn their way out through industrialization and trade, or they will go on climate welfare, living off huge and growing transfer payments from the rich world.
The aid offered to fight the Amazon fires is a pittance compared with what would be required to persuade Brazilians to not develop large portions of the region. But that amount will never be forthcoming as no democratically elected government could win reelection if it agreed to send its citizens’ wealth to another country’s people. Foreign aid is already one of the most unpopular parts of most nations’ budgets. Imagine multiplying that by 10 or 50.
The only current alternative to climate bailouts is a global trade war that makes President Trump’s battle with China look like a playground fight. Climate change activists have a fancy name for this: carbon border fee adjustment. But that masks what it is tariffs levied on goods from other countries that use more greenhouse gas emissions in their creation than do similar goods produced in the developed home country. Nations that use coal to generate electricity rather than natural gas or renewables, for example, would get walloped with high tariffs, devastating their economies.
Developing countries have neither the wealth nor the expertise to switch en masse to more carbon-efficient energy. Vietnam, for example, is frequently touted as an alternative to China for manufacturers looking to avoid Trump’s tariffs. But that country is highly dependent upon coal for its electricity and is building ties to coal-rich Australia to shift its economy away from dependence on Chinese-produced coal. Why would it meekly go along with potentially devastating carbon tariffs?
Current discussions on climate policy largely dance around this massive problem. Country after country in the developed world is adopting goals to reduce their nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 70 percent. But without addressing the way global trade exports greenhouse gas emissions from the developed world to the undeveloped world, these ambitious goals will do little to stop the planet’s warming. India’s greenhouse gas emissions grew by an estimated 6 percent in 2018, for example. If that impoverished and gigantic nation continued that growth rate, its emissions would double in 12 years, rising to a level greater than the entire European Union.
There is a way out of this dilemma: technology. If the developed world were serious about fighting climate change, it would pour money into research to develop new technologies such as batteries that could store solar energy on a huge scale. It could then finance rapid diffusion of those technologies to the undeveloped world so they could get richer and greener at the same time. But that approach requires money and a more interventionist approach to the economy. Even the E.U. hasn’t summoned the willpower to tax its citizens enough to make this happen.
The fires in Brazil put a finger on the crucial challenge in fighting climate change. The world must find a way to lower greenhouse gas emissions while raising global living standards. Anything short of that is simply fiddling while the Amazon, and the planet, burns.