Co-Conspirator Jonathan has already remarked below on the seeming collapse of the media-academic-NGO-international organization-et al. global warming coalition in-between last year’s Copenhagen meeting and this year’s much-subdued Cancun event. I broadly agree with Jonathan, and with Margaret Wente, on whom he comments, on the policy merits.
I also think the right approach to climate change is not some massive project for the most far-reaching, long-term, costly, uncertain attempt at governance through the demands of climate for the whole globe. It is wrong as a global political project, doomed not to just fail but to transmute into some set of spectacularly bad unintended consequences, and wrong as a question of management of long-run uncertainties. It is noteworthy that even the voice of the global establishment, bien pensant global opinion, the Economist, is now saying what should have been said a decade ago – you have to manage the problems as they arise through mitigation, not some exercise in doomed global political glory to seek to head it off on the front end.
I say all that as background, not to try and persuade anyone, but simply to be clear what the starting point of the discussion is for me (be warned, this is a long post). As far as the future of the global project over climate change is, I would point you to Walter Russell Mead’s new blog essay on Cancun (h/t Instapundit) (for the glass-half-filled view, see this news story from the NYT; note that it is filed from DC and NY, not Cancun). It is useful in large part because it lays out something on which I have commented occasionally in the course of writing about the UN and its member states as a (non-) governance mechanism, and its “public choice” pathways of rent-seeking, income extraction, and wealth transfer under the banner of climate change. Mead offers a comprehensive essay in a relatively short space and it is worth reading closely. But on the daunting problems of collective action at Copenhagen and UN mechanisms generally, Mead notes, a Copenhagen climate treaty
In the diplomatic negotiating event, the “experts and enthusiasts” of the northern environmental lobby departed, predictably, from anything the rich country publics, in the midst of financial crisis on top of everything else, might have been expected to support. The elites of the climate change movement, raised on the statist milk of the EU breast, figured they were doing God and Gore’s work on behalf of once and future voters, and devoted themselves to negotiating with the developing countries, seemingly without regard for the willingness of said publics to pay the price. On the developing country side, the question was how much and how fast:
But now a couple of additional observations that take things a step further than Mead does. In the past I have remarked (and say in my little book manuscript now in copy editing on UN-US relations) – that the environmental intellectuals and campaigners might have done better to have paid less attention to their own favored issue and more attention to the incentives as evidenced by the history of the UN not just on this issue, but a long list stretching back decades. They might have learned that the UN follows a well-laid out path of embracing an issue to see how much institutional leverage toward “governance” it might yield, combined with the rent-seeking interests of the UN-complex and member states.
The UN believes – Ban Ki Moon, for example – fervently that climate change is every bit as important as it is to Al Gore. And, “serial absolutist believer” that the UN is, it will believe so … until it perceives that it has got whatever it can get in the way of leverage toward its own notions of global governance at the UN, and member state rent-seeking. Whereupon – as is unfolding now – this issue is down the memory hole that is so crucial to being a “serial absolutist” and on to the Next Big UN Thing that promises an accretion of global governance at the UN and more money for member states. The environmental lobbyists could have learned from considering their issue as the UN does – not as the sole issue in the history of the human race, but instead as simply a succession of possible political levers for the UN.
Second, if one looks at the bribe mechanisms underlying Copenhagen from the perspective of developing countries, they don’t much appear to be about the environment, but instead about the Next Big Thing in development. Which is to say, the best way to understand the income transfers of climate change treaties is as a replacement for the failed Millennium Development Goals, which got started back in 2000, and which promised massive amounts of income transfer from rich world to poor (whatever they promised in the way of development, the one certainty was that they promised very large amounts of development money). The MDGs will not go away, of course, because they now have an invested UN bureaucracy, but from the developing countries’ point of view, they are a mechanism for transferring bureaucracy-supporting money to the UN itself, but not large enough cash flows to be attractive to the developing countries themselves, as bureaucracies and governments. Climate change, through the bribe mechanism of Copenhagen, essentially offered an alternative political process for transferring income.
It’s a development program with the words “climate change” attached, so far as the transferees are concerned. Again, attention to the long run of the UN and resource transfer, rather than a myopic focus on climate change, might have led to understanding how Copenhagen merely replaces the MDGs. True, probably some number of environmental lobbyists did think about this, and thought that a good take-over of the income-transfer cause, but do not appear to have thought sufficiently about how developing countries would want very vague “green” labels attached to whatever they intended to do with the money anyway.
And, even if one allows a certain amount of good faith in thinking of these transfers as having some point other than rent-seeking, something actually welfare-useful in development for poor people, it has to be noted that from a purely development standpoint, in which environmental issues are one but not the exclusive package of needed goods and climate change merely one contingency among those, running the world’s biggest international development activity through a climate change lens, priority, and filter leads to grave welfare distortions. True again, if climate change is all that matters to you, the “distortions” are a feature, not a bug – but if your concern is much more immediate and holistic development concerns ranging across issues from industrialization and jobs to public health and education, then the distortions have to be seen as a bug. Or else, as happened in the event, you insist on such vague labels for greenness that you can justify nearly anything.
Third, one of the deep attractions of climate change as an international development income transfer mechanism is that it returns a lot of international development assistance back to a model that had been sliding away over time – direct transfers to governments in the developing world. Since the aim of the campaigners was fundamentally to bribe their way to agreement, the actual development effects of the bribe turned out to be far less important than simply getting agreement. But developing country governments saw that this offered a way to ensure that a far larger amount of the income transfers would go to governments rather than, as had been the trend, toward NGOs, local actors, etc., in an effort to reduce rent-seeking, out and out corruption, and so on. To be sure, there is an important debate over the tradeoffs of de-funding governments in favor of disaggregated agencies such as NGOs – one might gain in less diversion of funds, but lose from the standpoint of building the crucial state-level governance institutions. But whatever the right answer in any given place to that quite difficult question, once again the climate change agenda, once invested with the potential resources of the most important and expensive income transfer program in the world, would have massively distortionary effects on that debate, if one proposed to see it as a development question. Again, if one’s priority was the climate change grand bargain-bribe, then the distortion is a feature if not simply irrelevant; if one’s priority is development, it’s distinctly a bug.
Fourth, Mead and most of the analysts have focused on the collective action problems baked into the UN processes and Copenhagen. Insincere promising followed by defection. It cannot be said that the environmental movement’s intellectual wing ignored this problem; on the contrary, serious, major thinkers devoted great effort to trying to figure out ways around the collective action problems. I don’t think they solved them, but they thought they had, or at least thought they had a reasonable way around them. Viz., the bribe mechanism – if the collective action problem is the developing world, then bribe it. If it is the voting public of the rich world, then steamroll it Brussels-style and declare unholy anyone who challenges the ideological consensus.
In effect, with a sufficient attenuation of democratic processes in the rich world, the costs that would otherwise be reflected in collective action problems can be externalized onto the publics of the rich world. It doesn’t necessarily fully solve the long run collective action problem – take the money and then defect. But if the payments are spread out sufficiently, there will be enough reason for the developing world not to defect, at least not too transparently or too soon.
Add to that the massive bribe specifically aimed at the BRICS – essentially a transfer to them of the rights to carbonize that were prohibited to the rich world, a massive structural shift in the production and consumption of carbon. They get to make and sell what the rich world consumes. The effect, fully intended, as Mead points out: