Today’s poor versus everyone tomorrow

In Now or Never: Why We Need to Act Now to Achieve a Sustainable Future, Tim Flannery raises the question of intergenerational ethics and poverty reduction. He does so with reference to the 90,000 megawatts (MW) of coal-fired electricity generation capacity India is planning to install by 2012 (compared with 478,000 MW installed in China between 2004 and 2010). Flannery writes:

It is futile to tell Indians that they should defer development of power plants until cleaner technologies are available, so that we can spare unborn generations climate change. Why, Indians ask, should they penalize people living today for future, uncertain gains, and do this to help solve a problem that is not of their creation?

I do think there are good answers to those questions. For everyone to refuse to act is to create a suicide pact. Further, what we now know about greenhouse gases obligates us to take action in a way that ignorant previous generations didn’t have applied to them.

Also, if we continue on the world’s present course of unbridled emissions, it will not be abstract future generations that see the first massive consequences. Children born today may live to see the great icesheets of Greenland and Antarctica disintegrating in their lifetimes, alongside enormous other changes that are more challenging to predict.

All that said, Henry Shue makes an excellent point about sustenance versus luxury emissions. Even in an emergency, you sell the jewelry before the blankets. As such, the heavy discretionary emissions of rich places like Canada (things like foreign trips, huge inefficient houses and cars, etc) would be cut before Indian development, in any kind of fair world.

Given the choice between a fairer world that produces disaster, however, and a less fair world that gets the job done, the latter still seems preferable.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

30 thoughts on “Today’s poor versus everyone tomorrow”

  1. If we’re serious about selling the jewelry before the blankets, we don’t need to be talking about gestures like not travelling; we need to be talking about repaying the massive debts rich countries owe to their former colonies. We could start by paying Haiti back the debt it had to pay to separate from France. Oh wait, what did we do when Aristide started asking for that?

    You yourself offered a good example of a de-colonization program adjusted for climate justice – “Pay Back the Joules”. It’s a great idea, and striving for it might be more meaningful than abstinence which may do more to remedy our individual guilt than make an effective difference.

  2. It is very likely that rich countries like Canada will have to help fund the transition to low carbon economies in developing states like China and least developed ones like Chad. That is both a matter of fairness and practicality.

    That being said, simply forgiving debt or transferring cash with no conditions seems likely to do more harm than good from a climatic perspective. The transfers need to be directed toward things like building renewable capacity, improving efficiency (without increasing consumption via rebound effects), and preventing deforestation.

  3. “simply forgiving debt ”

    Are you implying Haiti’s debt to France was legitimate?

  4. “In 1825, under threat of another French invasion and the restoration of slavery, Haitian officials signed the document which was to prove the beginning of the end for any hope of autonomy. The French king agreed to recognise Haiti’s independence only if the new republic paid France an indemnity of 150 million francs and reduced its import and export taxes by half. The ‘debt’ that Haiti recognised was incurred by the slaves when they deprived the French owners not only of land and equipment but of their human ‘property’.

    The impact of the debt repayments – which continued until after World War Two – was devastating. In the words of the Haitian anthropologist Jean Price-Mars, ‘the incompetence and frivolity of its leaders’ had ‘turned a country whose revenues and outflows had been balanced up to then into a nation burdened with debt and trapped in financial obligations that could never be satisfied.’ ‘Imposing an indemnity on the victorious slaves was equivalent to making them pay with money that which they had already paid with their blood,’ the abolitionist Victor Schoelcher argued.”

    Who removed Aristide?
    Paul Farmer reports from Haiti

  5. ” improving efficiency (without increasing consumption via rebound effects)”

    I think it’s offensive to suggest that reparation payments to countries which suffered from colonial occupation should have those funds attached to conditions which specify that the population should not be allowed to “increase consumption”. Not increase its consumption of what – food, shelter and basic medical care? Basic luxuries which don’t amount to a small fraction of what we consider totally necessary?

  6. It will be difficult enough to convince the developed world to abandon its luxuries for environmental security without introducing “de-colonization” debt from almost two hundred years ago. They are seperate issues.

    One suggestion is for the developed countries to stop measuring economic health by GDP. Focussing on GDP in the developed world will necessarily focus on the maintaining or increasing the “luxuries”

  7. Tristan,

    You can argue that debts should be forgiven, or aid be provided, for reasons other than climate change.

    What I am saying is: if there are to be transfers from the rich world to the poor world, in order to help the latter deal with climate change, the transfers should be set up so that they actually produce reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increased adaptive capacity. Giving billions of dollars that just get used for consumption by either the elite of the population at large would not be an effective strategy for mitigating or adapting to climate change.

  8. It is also worth nothing that what qualifies as a ‘luxury’ is relative.

    Compared to most people in India, having access to a private automobile is an absurd luxury. The kind of things that fall into Shue’s ‘jewelry’ category probably include many everyday things that those in the rich world take for granted.

  9. It seems pretty obvious that if anybody is transferring money to anybody – for the purpose of helping them reduce their greenhouse gas emissions – it is sensible to ask whether the receiving party will use the money in that way.

  10. Tristan,

    You may want to be more careful before you go around accusing people of racism. Among those who aren’t already familiar with your habit of exaggeration, you might cause undue offense.

  11. I didn’t say the people in this discussion are racist, I said the discussion itself is racist. There is a difference between the claim “you are a racist”, and “what you said was racist”. When you live in or work for a colonial, settler, and principally white state, which participated in an invasion of a black state which was arguably precipitated by a call for the repayment of its slave debt, every concerted effort to ignore the imperial past and present which the imperial and racist context of paternalistic demands about transfers, luxury consumption, and carbon emissions, is perpetuating a racist set of assumptions. It doesn’t mean anyone is doing it on purpose.

    Would you put conditions on the recipients of money transfers if the transfer was part of a judicial decision in which the victim was raped, lynched or assaulted? Of course not – that would be clearly paternalistic, sexist and/or racist. But if it is a former slave state asking not for a handout, but for justice, and you can’t see the difference between those two things, then treating colonial debts as if they are charity is wrong for the same reasons.

  12. “Among those who aren’t already familiar with your habit of exaggeration, you might cause undue offense.”

    Maybe you should ask yourself how people on the street in Haiti would feel about the paternalistic way you speak about money transfers to [the assumption here is “essentially, through no fault of our own”, and “colonialism is not a justice issue”] poor countries. Or, you could ask how supporters of the overwhelming majority party would feel about you supporting a state which participated in a coup against their democratically elected government? You know, they might find that a bit offensive. What if China came in here and threw out the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP?

  13. Race really has nothing to do with it.

    If the national government in Brazil or Indonesia or Saudi Arabia was making transfers to municipalities – for the purpose of funding climate change mitigation efforts – it would be perfectly natural and appropriate for those governments to be concerned about how the money would be used, and what effect that would have on emissions.

    The same is true when it comes to transfers from rich governments to poor ones, or from intergovernmental organizations to governments.

  14. I was curious to see what the recent active discussion. I paused when I saw the entry “This discussion has become unacceptably imperialist and racist.” It reminded me of sloganeering I saw at university campuses 35 years ago among those who threw derogatory comments at those who did not agree with the point they were making.

    I did not find the discussion racist or imperlialist. Perhaps it was my entry that was considered racist and imperialist the author of the entry. I did find the suggestion of dealing with climate change by canceling the debt of countries strange. I did not see that they were related. Therefore I chose not to adopt the suggestion at least for the purpose of fighting climate change. There may be other reasons to cancel third world debt. My entry simply reverted to the original topic of the blog entry.

  15. The presumption that we can treat third world debt as a single entity, that we can ignore salient differences between different debts – when some debts lack every semblance of justice – is implicitly racist because it ignores the fact that some of these debts are the product of highly unjust and explicitly racist imperialist activity. The discussion becomes unacceptably racist and imperialist when the issue of the justice of debt is raised and then dismissed on the presumed grounds that we can treat all third world debt as a single entity. When you live in an imperialist state, and we do, neutrality with respect to our foreign policy is not without tacet approval of the real existent neo-colonial pressures.

    The word “imperialist” isn’t “sloganeering”. It’s a technical term that means something very simple – the exercise of power by a state beyond that state’s region of recognized legitimate authority. It is not “imperialist” for Ottawa to make laws that apply to British Columbia. It is, however, “imperialist” for Ottawa to co-sponsor a coup which removes the government in another country.

    The problem here is not that people do not “agree” with the point I am making, but that they refuse to recognize that there is anything to discuss. The invasions of Haiti and the issue of its debt to France are live issues, and cannot be ignored by reasonable people by putting it into the category of “forgiving third world debt”. The use of categories like “third world debt” can easily cover over specificities of the injustice in specific debts, the only justification being “I don’t have time to understand specific situations according to their own relevant issues”. That is simply not a legitimate excuse for highly educated people.

    If there genuinely is a value difference, i.e. I believe racism and imperialism are important moral issues, and others believe they are insignificant compared to climate change, then the statement “this discussion has become unacceptably racist and imperialist” expresses a genuine value difference where I believe climate change doesn’t justify racism and agression, where others might disagree.

  16. Conditional payments only work when the recipients would otherwise have spent absolutely nothing on the thing being funded.

    If they would have paid for it anyway, the conditional payment gets shifted into the Presidential Beach House Fund or whatever other spending the government would have undertaken at the margin.

    That is as true of provinces within rich countries as it is of poorer governments.

  17. Climate mitigation is actually a promising area for conditional payments, since it isn’t an activity most governments would fund voluntarily.

  18. Tristan,

    I don’t find your argument convincing.

    The basic situation seems to me to be:

    1. In order to avoid catastrophic or runaway climate change, the entire world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions drastically before 2050 and reach zero net emissions well before 2100.
    2. To achieve that outcome, both rich countries and rapidly developing countries need to move onto a low-carbon pathway.
    3. Doing so has costs.
    4. Rich countries have benefitted for many years from burning fossil fuels. Much of their wealth is the result of such burning.
    5. Rapidly developing countries like India and China have burned less fossil fuel. Also, they have more extreme poverty issues to address.
    6. If rich countries pay part of the cost of the low-carbon transition in rapidly developing countries, they can help to address the ethical issues involved in both intergenerational fairness and poverty reduction within this generation.
    7. They can also reduce the likelihood of catastrophic or runaway climate change.
    8. If rich countries simply give money unconditionally to rapidly developing countries, it is far from assured that the money will be used for climate change mitigation.
    9. Given how disastrous unmitigated climate change could be, stopping it has enormous moral importance.
    10. In order to maximize the odds of achieving that outcome, rich countries can provide money conditionally to poor countries. For instance, they could provide the difference in cost between a rudimentary coal-fired power plant and a concentrating solar power plant, wind farm, nuclear power plant, etc.

    Do you think any of those claims are invalid? How does the fact that other injustices exist in the world reduce the strength of the moral case for addressing this one?

  19. Conditional payments only work when the recipients would otherwise have spent absolutely nothing on the thing being funded.

    It’s a bit more complicated.

    If a recipient country is planning to spend $X on climate change mitigation, then any conditional transfers with less than $X will just shift the pool of recipient country’s money that would have been spent on climate change into funding whatever the government would buy at the margin.

    By analogy, imagine the case of somebody’s teenage daughter who would spend $100 of her own money on clothes each month. If you give her $50 per month that can only be spent on clothes, she will shift $50 from her personal clothing budget into the purchase of whatever she would buy next (it could be more clothes).

    If you transfer more than $X, however, you would end up increasing the total amount the recipient country spent on climate change mitigation.

    This is akin to giving the teenager $200 per month that can only be spent on clothes. She will transfer away all $100 that she would have spent herself, but she will still end up spending twice as much on clothing.

  20. I’m not willing to continue this discussion, for reasons explained above.

  21. Rich countries providing extra funds to poor countries conditional upon use to fight climate change seems an effective way to assure their use for that purpose. This not only helps the donor and the recepient countries but the whole world as climate change is of world wide concern and impact.

    Today we start a new decade. The last decade stood out for the development of a world wide concensus on the importance of climate change. Let’s hope that this decade is marked by an effective combatting of it.

    Perhaps one way to assist in this is for rich countries to be prepared to give more to poor countries specifically to combat climate change. A second is for rich countries, and that means us its citizens to realize that insatiability is not sustainable.

  22. The land that wouldn’t lie

    Peter Hallward

    Published 28 January 2010

    “Independent Haiti was surrounded by slave colonies in the Caribbean and flanked by slave-owning economies in northern, central and southern America. The three great imperial powers of the day — France, Spain and Britain — sent all the troops at their disposal to try to crush the uprising; incredibly, Haitian armies led by Toussaint l’Ouverture and then Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated them one after the other. By late 1803, to the astonishment of contemporary observers, Haitian armies had managed to break the chains of colonial slavery not at their weakest link, but at their strongest.

    This extraordinary victory provoked an extraordinary backlash. The war killed a third of Haiti’s people and left its cities and plantations in ruins. When it was finally over, the imperial powers closed ranks and, appalled by what the French foreign minister called a “horrible spectacle for all white nations”, imposed a blockade designed to isolate and stifle this most troubling “threat of a good example”.

    France re-established the trade and diplomatic relations essential to the new country’s survival only when Haiti agreed, 20 years after winning independence, to pay its old colonial master enormous amounts of “compensation” for the loss of its slaves and colonial property — an amount roughly equal to the annual French budget at the time.

    With its economy shattered by the colonial wars, Haiti could repay this debt only by borrowing, at extortionate rates of interest, vast sums from French banks, which did not receive the last instalment until 1947. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s request that France pay back some of this money, in the run-up to the bicentennial celebration of independence in 2004, encouraged the former colonial power to help overthrow his government that year.”

    “The slaves who won the war against the French were determined, above all, to avoid any return to a plantation economy or its industrial equivalent. Over the course of the 19th century, large parts of Latin America, as well as much of Europe and Europe’s colonies, were ravaged by the systematic expropriation of peasant farms, and of collectively or indigenously owned land and resources. In Haiti, however, there was significant resistance to such trends, nourished by exceptionally resilient forms of communal solidarity and popular culture — for instance, a reliance on collective work (konbits), widely shared religious affiliations and a rich tradition of oral history. This resistance in turn solicited powerful countermeasures, including, from 1915 until 1934, the first and most damaging of an apparently unstoppable series of US military occupations.

    The Americans abolished an irritating clause in Haiti’s constitution that had barred foreigners from owning Haitian property, took over the national bank, reorganised the economy to ensure more regular payments of foreign debt, imposed forced labour on the peasantry, and expropriated swaths of land for the benefit of new plantations, such as those operated by the US-owned Haitian American Sugar Company. As many as 50,000 peasants were dispossessed in northern Haiti alone.

    Most importantly, the Americans transformed Haiti’s army into an instrument capable of overcoming popular opposition to these developments. By 1918, peasant resistance gave rise to a full-scale insurgency, led by Charlemagne Péralte; US troops responded with what one worried commander described as the “practically indiscriminate killing of natives”, “the most startling thing of its kind that has ever taken place in the Marine Corps”.”

    “By the mid-1960s, nearly 80 per cent of Haiti’s professionals and intellectuals had fled to safety abroad, and most of them never returned. Estimates of the total number of people killed under Duvalier vary between 30,000 and 50,000. “Never has terror had so bare and ignoble an object,” reflected Graham Greene (whose 1966 novel, The Comedians, is set in Duvalier’s Haiti). The CIA was impressed with the result, noting that by the 1970s “most Haitians [were] so completely downtrodden as to be politically inert”.”

    “Haiti was the first country in Latin America to dare choose a liberation theologian as its president (twice), and this is a crucial but often neglected aspect of its recent history. The Catholic Church had long been a solid pillar of the status quo, and its partial conversion in the 1970s into a well-organised vehicle for the “self-emancipation of the oppressed” reverberated throughout the region.

    Pentagon officials were quick to realise, as one American military figure put it, that “the most serious threat to US interests was not secular Marxist-Leninism or organised labour, but liberation theology”. Pope Jean-Paul II and his successor, Joseph Ratzinger, reached the same conclusion as their American counterparts on the religious right. Thirty years ago, in Haiti, there was only a tiny handful of small evangelical churches preaching political resignation and passive reliance on God’s grace; today there are more than 500 of them.”

    “When Aristide was first elected, it was still possible to solve the problem in the usual way, by slamming the door shut. In September 1991, another US-backed military coup cut short Haiti’s “transition to democracy”. When the US eventually allowed a hamstrung Aristide to return in late 1994, he still managed to transform Haitian politics overnight, by abolishing the army that had deposed him.

    A central priority for the businessmen and sweatshop owners whose interests were previously protected by the army has, understandably, been to restore or replace it. The need to do so became still more acute when Aristide was re-elected in 2000 with an even bigger share of the vote, backed up for the first time by a political organisation, Fanmi Lavalas, which won roughly 90 per cent of the seats in parliament.

    The subsequent ten years of struggle in Haiti are best understood in terms of this basic alternative: Lavalas or the army. As the conflicts of the past decade confirm, there is no better way for political elites to deflect awkward questions than by redefining them in terms of crime, security and stability — terms, in other words, that allow soldiers rather than people to resolve them.

    Ruthless application of this strategy after the Lavalas election victory in 2000 led to the internationally sponsored coup of early 2004, just in time to squash any celebration of the bicentenary of Haitian independence. Since they could no longer rely on Haiti’s own army, in order to overthrow a duly elected government for the second time, US troops were obliged to lever Aristide out of Port-au-Prince themselves. In mid-2004, a large United Nations “stabilisation” force took over the job of pacifying a resentful population from soldiers sent by the US, France and Canada, and by the end of 2006 another several thousand of Aristide’s supporters were dead.”

  23. The very poorest states – places like Haiti – are not places that need to dramatically change their development path, unless they are to endanger the world.

    India and China are too big to be allowed to become rich through a carbon intensive path. If they did that, they would play a big part in helping the rich states cook the world.

  24. But places like Haiti, Chad, or North Korea should focus on other domestic problems, before climate changw mitigation.

    Of course, moving beyond fossil fuels would protect against peak oil too, which could be a big problem for poor countries.

  25. this discussion illustrates that there is no a one-solution-everyone approach to climate change. In developed countries we must learn to consume much less. In major developing the challenge will be to seek development but not to follow our model of over -consumption in particular in relation to energy.

    we often hear of examples of countries or societies who are causing problems out of step with their populations.

    What are the examples of countries, both developing and developed, which have been successful in providing for their people without unduly taxing their environment? What are the reasons for that success?

  26. The amount of carbon dioxide the planet can absorb over the long term is not large, since it is erosion of rock that permanently removes CO2 from the atmosphere. As such, even countries with relatively low levels of per-capita greenhouse gas emission are still unduly taxing the environment. Even the very poorest countries will eventually need to cut emissions dramatically. That said, it is most urgent and important that large and fast-growing countries change their development pathways.

  27. The best way to reduce your personal carbon emissions: don’t be rich

    Some lifestyle choices matter more than others.

    As you can see, your lightbulbs and laundry verge on meaningless, carbon-wise. The only “high-impact” actions are ditching your car, flying less, switching to a plant-based diet, and, the biggie, not having a child.

    This shows that the top 10 percent of the wealthiest people in China emit less carbon per person than people on the bottom half of the US wealth distribution — again, inequality between countries — but it also shows that the top 10 percent wealthiest in the US emit more than five times as much CO2 per person as those on the lower half of the income scale.

    So wealthy people in the US produce 10 times more per capita emissions than the wealthy in China. That is pretty mind-boggling.

    So if you’re rich, quit flying so much. But if you’re not, the best thing you can do to reduce carbon emissions is to get involved in politics and policymaking. That’s the only frame for climate mitigation that makes sense.

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