The Climate Coalition of the Willing

The most tangible outcome of the climate agreement announced here Friday turned out to be cash….

But money in notable quantities should, in principle, start flowing next year….

The accord calls for the establishment of the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund to support immediate action to help curb emissions and to help communities adapt to the effects of global warming.

An initial, fast-start fund worth $10 billion annually would operate from 2010 to 2012.

For long-term finance, developed countries agreed to support a goal of jointly mobilizing $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries.

So says the NYT.  It is hard to know where these figures come from.  The Copenhagen Accord itself does not give figures.  Various heads of state, including President Obama, bandied around the $100 billion figure, but Obama did not say what America’s contribution would be, and he made it clear that he expected other countries to make up the difference, which they might or might not do.

Let’s suppose this money comes through.  What is it for?  One reads the press reports on the Copenhagen meeting in vain for this information; nor do any of the official documents I have seen shed any light on this issue.  Consider the following possibilities:

1.  The money will go to the countries that experience the worst climate-related harm.

2.  The money will go to the poorest countries.

3.  The money will go to the poorest countries that experience the worst climate-related harm.

4.  The money will finance green energy infrastructure in developing countries.

Each of these possibilities draws on different ideas of justice and pragmatism.  The first rests on an idea of corrective justice—those who cause climate change should compensate those who are injured by it.  The second reflects distributive justice, but note that it has nothing to do with climate change.  Should a very poor country be deprived of resources just because its poverty can’t be traced to climate-related harms?  The third principle says yes.  The fourth principle is forward-looking and would withhold resources from very poor countries that are not developing and thus cannot use green energy infrastructure—it would in fact reward the fastest-developing countries, meaning those whose people are likely to become wealthier sooner.  It is thus in tension with principles 2 and 3.

In fact, none of these principles ought to provide the basis for distribution of the fund.  The fund should be used to pay off countries whose participation in a climate treaty is essential but have little interest in participating.  Russia is the chief example, but China is a possible example as well.  Those countries that care about climate change must compensate large emitters that don’t care or care very little.  Countries can continue to provide foreign aid to poor countries as they have done for decades: there is no reason to use a climate treaty as a device for further redistributing wealth.

The contrary view(s), that rich countries should pay money to poor countries or climate victims, has no political legs.  This position simply raises the price tag for climate mitigation, a crazy thing to do when already people are balking at paying anything at all.

This is the truth that cannot be publicly acknowledged but fortunately it does seem to be guiding the next steps of negotiations.  The top 20 or so emitters have booted out the rest of the world, unwilling to allow poor countries to continue to hold up negotiations in order to extract further rents, as they did at Copenhagen.  This coalition of the willing is the best hope for a climate treaty.