Understanding the UN’s Incentives in the Missing Climate Refugees Kerfuffle

A quick further comment to Jonathan’s post below on the missing 50 million climate change refugees that were supposed to be migrating across the globe by 2010 and, if I read the update correctly, are now supposed to materialize by 2020.  We are used to reading such stories as the politicization of science and its corruption by the politics of the UN, funders, and, to be sure, the desire of some scientists to switch professions from research to policy.  We hear about it because it is correct.

But there is another – no less unimpressive – way to understand the story.  That is from the standpoint of the long term incentives of the United Nations and its many agencies.  Seen from the standpoint of climate change and its scientists and environmental activists alone, this story looks to be about hyperbolic claims about the immediate effects of climate change.  Seen from the standpoint of the longer history of the UN, it is much more about the long-running movements by the UN to find issues that tend to do two things.  One is to increase the institutional UN’s governance responsibilities, authority, legitimacy, and power.  The other is to increase the amount of money that runs through UN mechanisms from rich countries to poor countries, with an administrative cut to the UN itself.

Environmentalists and climate change scientists seem sometimes unaware of the UN’s own agendas and history in these two institutional incentives.  They thus seem sometimes insufficiently sensitive to the possibility that their own issue is not the first matter of apparently apocalyptic but also immediate import requiring vast changes in the global political economy that has ever seized the UN.  On the contrary, apocalyptic rent-seeking is an institutional feature of the UN, and likewise its complete willingness to throw over one cause for another when it appears that the previous one had run out of steam either in garnering greater governance authority to the UN or attracting cash through a planetary income transfer arrangement.  The one prior to climate change was the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The environmental lobby seems oddly unaware of the ways in which, from the UN’s standpoint, both the MDGs and the current efforts to reach a grand bargain on carbon involving massive transfers from the rich countries are really just versions of the same thing.  The MDGs still exist – nothing at the UN actually disappears, of course – but they are zombies, an idea that came and went.  But hope, like rent-seeking, springs eternal at the UN, and climate change has emerged as the Next New Thing.  But it appears to be foundering, at least on the two criteria above, so we should keep an eye out for the Next Next New Thing.

Luckily for all concerned, however, a book will soon appear from The Hoover Press that will Explain It All To You.

(Update:  To be clear, this post is not about climate change, contrary to some of the comments to the post, on which this post takes no position.  It is about the UN and its incentives, seen over the long run, on a wide range of issues that one might think good ideas or bad ideas, but which have little or nothing to do with climate change.  It is about the UN, and some of the comments seem to me to miss the point.)