Don’t expect the poor to sacrifice for climate change

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that without drastic action by 2030, world temperatures would rise by over 1.5 degrees, melting icecaps, hitting crops, and deepening poverty. It said the world must massively reduce carbon use, through fuel taxes and allied measures.

Yet the world media has largely ignored the current climate summit in Madrid (called CoP25). Nobody expects it to prod countries into big fuel taxes or costly carbon trading permits.

Ironically, the conference was to be in Chile, but the venue had to be shifted to Madrid when riots paralysed Chile after it raised public transit fares by just 3.75%. Earlier, riots paralysed France after fuel price hikes of less than 5%. In Iran, over 1,000 people were killed in riots after a big petrol price hike. Massive protests make it politically impossible to raise fuel taxes enough to meet emission targets. One solution is to make fuel taxes revenue-neutral: higher carbon taxes are not kept by governments but returned to citizens as a universal cash refund or cut in other taxes.

Why has this not happened? First, opposition parties swear to reverse big fuel taxes, so citizens simply do not accept the urgency of IPCC targets. Second, even efficient administrations (which are rare) face administrative and financial hurdles in collecting and redistributing carbon taxes. Third, citizens in many countries (including India) do not trust governments to honestly return higher fuel taxes without leakages and bribes. Indeed, most governments lack administrative capacity, and millions of citizens lack bank accounts.

Poorer people often know little about climate change or are sceptical of experts. When this is true of the US, why expect any better in poor countries that trust politicians and experts even less? Besides, even if India meets its emission targets, this will be useless unless all other countries meet theirs, which is not happening. The biggest carbon emitter, the USA, has opted out of the Paris Agreement. So, why should Indians make useless sacrifices?

Riots show that many people want to check global warming but want somebody else to pay for it. Astonishingly, even modest price increases of just 3-5% in fuel prices spark massive agitations. This makes it politically impossible to double or triple prices to meet emission targets.

Ordinary folks already have a thousand grievances. The world economy is no longer booming, and many feel insecure and left behind. Fuel taxes that might be bearable in boom times can be intolerable in difficult days. In many countries, poorer people already spend a lot on transport, and see fuel taxes as unfair, as the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. Hence even small price increases provoke backlashes.

Officials and activists won’t admit it, but I see no chance that the IPCC limit of 1.5 degrees or the Paris emission targets will be met by any but a handful of countries. Green parties are rising, and green activists are staging protests and grabbing headlines in many countries. But those resisting fuel taxes are staging far greater protests and grabbing bigger headlines. Politicians pay lip service to urgent climate action but funk high sacrifices.

So, is catastrophe inevitable? My gut instinct says no. First, IPCC models have shaky assumptions. The actual rise in global temperature since 1992 has been one-third to two-thirds of what IPCC models predicted, says science writer Matt Ridley. So, any catastrophe may be distant, even non-existent. The human mind is the world’s greatest resource. If asked to find technical solutions, it will. In the Middle Ages, all machines and transport equipment were made of wood, so environmentalists feared forests would disappear and cause catastrophes. But the discovery of coal-driven energy ended that problem. When it seemed the world might run out of coal, oil and natural gas came up. Now we have wind and solar energy. With R&D focusing strongly on energy, expect more breakthroughs, such as cheap energy storage.

Second, adaptation will solve many problems. Holland has used sea dykes to farm areas below sea level for a century, and many others will do the same to combat rising sea levels. Scientists will develop crops suited for higher and more extreme temperatures. Dying corals will be replaced by varieties resistant to high temperatures. The world is getting richer every day and will be able to afford adaptation strategies.

If all else fails, firing sulphates into the skies will reflect back sunlight and check warming. The Wall Street Journal cites studies showing that for just $ 2 billion a year, enough sulphates could be fired to check the entire carbon excess.

The protesters are right. The problem can be solved or eased without massive sacrifices.

What do you think?