The Optimist

Greening It Alone

The world is building a low-carbon global economy -- with or without the United States.

It may be hard to remember amid all the news of decline, but in plenty of areas, the United States is still the world's leader. You can't propose global banking regulation without buy-in from Wall Street. And if you want to invade somewhere far away, it's probably best to have America front and center, or at least ferrying troops and supplies. But when it comes to responding to the biggest global challenge of the 21st century, the United States is no longer even first among equals. And given the complete paralysis in Washington, that's a relief.

I'm speaking about climate change, which has emerged as the most intractable issue for a U.S. Congress that apparently can't manage anything more exciting than naming a post office without threatening the country with default. With the U.S. House of Representatives busy trying to zero out aid financing for activities related to climate change and delaying any domestic regulation of carbon dioxide emissions by the Environmental Protection Agency, it would be hard to imagine how the phrases "U.S. leadership" and "global climate change" could be used in the same sentence without the word "absent" making an appearance. To be fair to House Republicans, however, it isn't as if two Democratic chambers and President Barack Obama did much better prior to the midterm elections -- which suggests that this isn't a problem that might just go away in 18 months.

But before you pack up the kids and move to higher ground to avoid rising sea levels, consider this: China's fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles are already around 25 percent tougher than those in the United States. The country generated 667 terawatt-hours of electricity from hydro, wind, and nuclear electricity in 2009, a 50 percent increase on four years earlier (and 10 percent more than Brazil's or India's current annual electricity consumption). China already accounts for one-quarter of the world's installed capacity of wind, small-scale hydro, biomass, solar, geothermal, and marine power facilities. And the overall amount of energy used to produce a dollar of GDP in China has dropped 5 percent every year since 1980, according to Qi Ye at the Climate Policy Initiative in Beijing.

China's attempt at a green leap forward isn't entirely new news -- but this isn't just a Chinese story. Developing countries as a whole accounted for two-thirds of the growth in renewable and nuclear power generating capacity worldwide between 2002 and 2008, according to my colleague David Wheeler at the Center for Global Development. The developing world is now home to more than half of the world's renewable energy generating capacity, and it is likely to extend that lead.

Going forward, Wheeler reports that India is planning to generate 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, up from less than 2 percent today. Ten thousand megawatts of that -- a little under 10 percent -- would come from new solar energy installations (to put that in perspective, that's more than total global solar photovoltaic capacity in 2007). At the U.N. global warming conference in Cancún, Mexico, last year, developing countries pledged to restrict their carbon emissions considerably more than did rich country delegations. In particular, China's promised reductions from what would happen under "business as usual" were a lot larger than promises made by the United States. Indeed, in the U.S. case, some calculations suggest the pledge may amount to the commitment to do nothing, which sounds all too plausible.

You wouldn't have guessed developing countries were taking the lead on counteracting climate change given the caterwauling about harm to U.S. competitiveness that accompanies discussion of greenhouse gas regulation in Washington, but it is true. They're motivated by a mix of wanting to stave off climate change and wanting to develop renewable industries, and they benefit from energy and industrial sectors with less installed capacity as a proportion of future demand -- which means less entrenched opposition to higher standards. And that's good news, because while the United States accounts for three times China's carbon dioxide contribution to the atmosphere to date, today China is the largest carbon emitter in the world. India and the rest of the developing world are fast climbing the ranks, as well. Without developing country leadership, we'd all be sunk (literally, in the case of Vanuatu).

What's good news for those already baking in the tropics and getting their feet wet on low-lying island nations, though, may not be so wonderful for America. There is a strong element of self-interest in India's and China's investments -- beyond reducing the effects of climate change on their own people, the scale of their renewable energy programs is large enough that the countries are becoming leaders in manufacturing green technologies. China is already the world's largest producer of wind turbines and solar cells. And it isn't just new industries. If the United States doesn't start to catch up, it will be hard to retrofit American-designed gas-guzzling vehicles to run on the roads anywhere else -- a real concern now that General Motors sells more cars in China than it does in the United States. The new mileage standards recently agreed between the White House and auto-makers would help -- but (inevitably), the House of Representatives has already begun investigating whether those standards will "limit consumer choice."

Surely some will enjoy the irony that American intransigence to act on climate change -- based in part on fears of global competitiveness -- may itself be a cause of U.S. firms being unable to compete. But it would be better for America, and much better for the planet, if the United States started to regulate and invest toward a low-carbon future today. Even with developing country commitments at Cancún, we're a long way from a path toward a sustainable level of global emissions, and the United States will have to be a part of that path. So most of the world would happily swap out schadenfreude for pleasant surprise were the U.S. government to act -- and pay its fair share.

But the good news for the planet is that the rest of the world -- including developing countries -- isn't waiting on a global agreement blessed by the United States to invest in green technologies. With the ice caps melting up north, some worry we might be heading toward a unipolar world. Thankfully, the global response to climate change looks distinctly multipolar. And at some point, if the United States doesn't come into line, the rest of the planet will start finding ways to encourage it. One obvious response would be taxing U.S. exports to take into account their carbon footprint -- an approach the United States itself has suggested with regard to its imports if it ever got its act together to tax domestic greenhouse gas emissions. At that point, years behind in investing in energy efficiency and facing significant tariffs on exports, coddled American industries would really understand what it meant to be uncompetitive.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

The Optimist

Famine Is a Crime

Civilization has defeated mass starvation. So why are so many Somalis dying of hunger?

Deprived of food long enough, the bodies of starving people break down muscle tissue to keep vital organs functioning. Diarrhea and skin rashes are common, as are fungal and other infections. As the stomach wastes away, the perception of hunger is reduced and lethargy sets in. Movement becomes immensely painful. Often it is dehydration that finally causes death, because the perception of thirst and a starving person's ability to get water are both radically diminished.

Thousands of Somalis have already suffered this tragic end, and it is likely to kill tens of thousands more in the coming months. The famine now starving Somalia affects 3.7 million people, according to the U.N. World Food Program. Writing on his personal blog, the U.S. Agency for International Development's Edward Carr, who works on famine response, estimates that on current trends Somalia's south could see 2,500 deaths a day by August.

For all its horror, starvation is also one of the simpler forms of mortality to prevent -- it just takes food.  Drought, poor roads, poverty -- all are contributing factors to the risk of famine, but sustenance in the hands of the hungry is a pretty foolproof solution. As a result, famine deaths in the modern world are almost always the result of deliberate acts on the part of governing authorities. That is why widespread starvation is a crime against humanity and the leaders who abet it should be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Historically, famines were sometimes the simple result of collapsed local food production, limited resources, and weak infrastructure to bring in food. But as infrastructure and markets have spread, the failure of local crops has become a contributing factor rather than a sufficient cause of widespread death by starvation. For example, economists Robin Burgess and Dave Donaldson have found that peacetime famine in India ended at the same time (1919) as railroad networks finally reached every corner of the subcontinent.

Infrastructure is still a barrier to famine response in many parts of the world -- studies of modern famine suggest being near a main road significantly increases the chance of survival. But roads and rail are far more widespread worldwide than they were 50 years ago, and a global famine relief industry now has significant capacity to provide food to those in need even in remote areas of the world. Humanitarian aid financed by the major donors climbed from a little over $1 billion in 1990 to $9 billion by 2008 -- a size and capacity which, even with the aid industry's well-documented faults, is enough to ensure the ability to stop mass death by starvation wherever it is allowed to operate.

Thanks to globalization, the spread of infrastructure, and the growing capacity of agencies like the World Food Program, famines have become very rare over the last 30 years. Somalia's is the first official famine declared by the U.N. worldwide since 1984. Because declaring a famine is usually the responsibility of the government (a requirement waived by the U.N. in the case of Somalia), the official count is far from exhaustive: North Korea saw somewhere between 600,000 and 1 million people die from famine in the second half of the 1990s, and Omar al-Bashir's Sudan and Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe have seen outbreaks as well. But, in general, starvation is on the wane. According to Bill Easterly of New York University, less than three tenths of a percent of the population of Africa was affected by famine in the average year between 1990 and 2005.

So why do famines still happen at all?  As the economist Amartya Sen famously observed, famines rarely occur in democratic or even relatively free societies. In fact, they don't happen any more in any country where leaders show the slightest interest in the wellbeing of their citizenry. Thanks to spreading markets and improved international assistance, famine is no longer associated merely with passive or excessively weak governance. In order to ensure widespread death by starvation, a governing authority must make a conscious decision: it must actively exercise the power to take food from producers who need it or deny food assistance to victims.

Consider China's Great Famine of 1959. If you want to give Chairman Mao the benefit of the doubt, you could argue that the disaster was the result of gross negligence and an ideology that put little value on an individual life rather than a deliberate and direct attempt to murder millions. But in any case, the disaster was Mao's doing. Economists Xin Meng, Nancy Qian and Pierre Yared have found that regions of China with higher per capita food production in the year of the famine suffered higher mortality rates -- which means that central planners were taking far too much food from places where it was needed. Similarly, the 1984 Ethiopian famine that prompted the launch of Live Aid involved a drought, but was exacerbated by government policies of enforced collectivization, grain confiscation, and taxation. And the provinces of Wollo, Tigray, and now-independent Eritrea, where the famine was centered, were also home to separatist movements -- they were victims of an intentional policy of using famine as a weapon of war.

Somalia is shaping up to be yet another case study of mass starvation as an intentional act of governance. It is true that the country is burdened with an official government whose remit extends only a short distance from the capital, a long-running drought, poverty, limited local supplies of food, and logistical factors that complicate imports from elsewhere, not least the near-total destruction of the country's infrastructure by 20-odd years of civil war. And as a result, local cereal prices are more than 2 to 3 times what they were in 2010 in some areas. Ed Carr noted this month that there are "no real jobs to earn money to buy imported food, and the livestock are dying, meaning livestock owners cannot sell them off for food." But Carr also hints at another problem: "we cannot get in to these areas with our aid." That is why, despite similar drought conditions in parts of neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya "famine stops at the Somali border."

To be more geographically specific, famine is concentrated in areas of the country under the control of al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab, which is refusing to let in relief convoys. In a reversal from statements earlier in the month that suggested some aid agencies would be allowed to respond to the drought, a spokesman for al-Shabab has declared that reports of famine are "sheer propaganda" and banned ad groups that it claims are "purely political." Even were al-Shabab officials to re-authorize large-scale NGO operations (and the Red Cross does appear to have some access in this regard), agencies would be understandably skittish about venturing back to a region where 42 aid workers were killed in 2008 and 2009. Those with longer memories will recall that the U.S. intervention in Somalia under President George H.W. Bush that ended with Blackhawk Down began as a food aid mission. One wonders what the response of a gun-touting teen would be to the appearance of a Toyota Land Cruiser with U.N. insignia, which he has been told is the steed of the devil. (And one wonders what will be the reaction of donors when, in six months time, some of the Land Cruisers they donated reappear, topped with machine guns firing at U.N. troops in Mogadishu.)  

If widespread famine now only occurs after the deliberate acts of leadership create the conditions for starvation, what should be the international response? In a 2003 article in the American Journal of International Law, lawyer David Marcus argued that famine could constitute a crime against humanity. European Parliamentarians have set a precedent by recognizing the Ukrainian famine of 1932 -- in which Stalin's government forced grain removals and forbade movement in a way that guaranteed widespread starvation -- as such. And most famines of the more recent past fit that description very well. That suggests it should become standard practice for the ICC to issue warrants for the arrest of leaders of regions or countries where mass starvation occurs.

Of course, because in the modern world local food shortages only cause widespread famine in places under the leadership of the criminal or insane, aid agencies trying to help will necessarily find themselves in the moral quagmire of negotiating access with the very people who are abetting the crisis in the first place. And that complicates the international response to famine crimes. Take the related case of Bashir's Sudan: In 2009, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for him based on evidence of crimes against humanity committed in Darfur. At the time, some commentators warned that the warrant would make negotiating with Bashir over access for humanitarian relief in the region all the more complex.

But in the case of al-Shabab such concerns appear less pressing. As the group is widely recognized as a terror organization, with its high-ranking officers already targets of U.S. drone strikes, it hardly seems likely that the international community has much to lose here. So now would be as good a time as any to set a precedent with a U.N. Security Council referral of al-Shabab's leadership to the ICC, on the grounds of crimes against humanity by method of mass starvation. That would make clear the international community fully understands that famine is not an act of God, but an act of mass murder.