Democracy Lab

Two Worlds, One Climate

Forget Kyoto. There’s a much better way to persuade the developing world to fight climate change.

Climate change, we are often told, is everyone's problem. And without a lot of help containing greenhouse gas emissions from rapidly growing emerging market countries (not to mention a host of wannabes), the prospects of avoiding disaster are small to nil. Now you tell us, retort policymakers in the have-less countries: How convenient of you to discover virtue only after two centuries of growth and unfettered carbon emissions. Since you were the ones to get us into this mess, it's your job to get us out. (The United States' what-me-worry posture on climate change does not, of course, make the West's efforts to co-opt the moral high ground any more convincing.)

This clash of wills is a bit more nuanced than that, but not much. Almost all the net growth in greenhouse gas emissions for the last two decades -- and more than half the total emissions today -- is coming from the developing world. What's more, most of the cheap opportunities for reducing emissions are to be found in the same countries. But as a matter of equity, it's hard to argue with "you've had your turn, now it's ours." And it's equally hard to see how the stalemate will be resolved before the world goes to hell in a plague of locusts (in some places, literally).

The carbon emissions stats by country are startling, and would be even more startling if we had comprehensive numbers for years since 2009.  Carbon emissions from OECD countries grew by 8 percent between 1990 and 2009, while emissions from the rest of the world grew by 73 percent (albeit from a smaller base). Breaking down the latter by country: China's emissions were up 207 percent, India's by 173 percent, Indonesia's by 165 percent, Vietnam's 563 percent (!!) and the Middle East's by 171 percent.

If you have any doubts about where the emissions containment opportunities lie, consider this:  In 2009, non-OECD countries generated four times as much carbon emissions per unit of GDP (at prevailing exchange rates) as OECD countries. Granted, these numbers don't look as bad if GDP is calculated in terms of purchasing power rather than exchange rates. But this is one of the few instances in which GDP comparisons at international exchange rates probably make more sense, because they offer better insight into a future in which consumption patterns across countries are likely to converge; that not-so-distant day when Indians drive cars to work instead of riding bicycles, and virtually everyone who experiences winter in emerging-market countries takes the chill off with central heating.

But those focused on social justice rather than efficiency point to yet another set of numbers. While most developing countries waste fossil fuel because their heating, cooking, lighting and motorized transportation depend on older, fuel-guzzling technologies, they are still too poor to consume enough in total to leave much of a carbon footprint.  Indeed, emissions per person in non-OECD countries are just 30 percent that of OECD countries. 

Bolivians, for example, emitted 1,300 kilos of CO2 per person in 2009, compared to 16,900 kilos per person in the United States. Resident of tropical Nigeria emitted a mere 266 kilos each, compared to 9,000 each in tropical Singapore. All told, those living in poor- and middle-income countries do emit more than half of all carbon emissions -- but only because there are so many of them.

There's another element here that distinguishes developed from developing countries. If, as expected, climate change brings rising sea levels and more severe weather of every sort -- droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornados -- the rich countries will muddle through with dykes, crops redesigned to survive drought, more air conditioning and the like. It will be expensive, but manageable, unless global warming triggers truly destabilizing changes, like the release of vast quantities of methane gas from now-frozen arctic tundra.

But the rich countries' travails may well be poor countries' damnation: the inundation of Pacific islands, catastrophic storm surges on the Bengal plain, the collapse of farm yields in semi-arid parts of Africa, and the spread of insect-vectored disease in the warmer, wetter parts. So, fair or not, poor countries have every reason to make emissions priority-one, right?

Maybe, and maybe not. The iconoclastic, Nobel Prize winning economist Tom Schelling has long argued that our interests diverge from theirs. What poor countries need most, he says, is to invest in economic growth, which will give them the income to mitigate the consequences of climate change. Roads must be paved to prevent the isolation of rural areas in heavy rains; sea walls must be built to protect coastal cities; canals must be dug to irrigate drought-prone land; emergency infrastructure must be created to minimize loss of life in weather-related disasters. So poor countries would be foolish to divert scarce capital to emissions containment, which has only a "second-order" impact on their own welfare. Spending a dollar would, in effect, generate two cents' worth of benefits for themselves, and 98 cents' worth for the rest of the world.

If all this sounds like a recipe for righteous posturing and diplomatic delay, go to the head of the class. Environmental policymakers and pundits, who once expected to build on the foundation of the Kyoto Treaty to create a truly collective effort to contain emissions, are now thinking smaller. The European Union, for example, is going its own way, investing heavily in emissions reduction in hope that others will be shamed into following its lead.

The containment part is more or less working: European emissions declined by 12 percent between 1990 and 2009. But the shame part isn't. China is reducing emissions per unit of GDP, mostly as a consequence of adding productive capacity that is far more energy-efficient than "legacy" capacity. But it is nonetheless widening its lead as emitter number one because the GDP is growing so rapidly. And there is no sign that the other big emerging market economies are planning to mend their emitting ways.

Must we then just accept the reality that the developing half of the global economy won't lend a hand in climate change containment? The rich countries might bully where blandishments fail, by imposing tariffs, for example, on imports that are less than green. Might, but probably won't: The United States, in particular, is in no position (geopolitical or financial) to complicate its relationships with either China or India. Besides, it's far from clear that such tariffs would meet the standards of the World Trade Organization.

A more plausible option -- one that appeals in terms of both economic efficiency and social justice -- would be to buy their cooperation. Europe already has in place incentives for businesses to invest in emissions-sparing activities in developing countries: For example, paying landowners in Africa to sequester carbon by growing trees on scrubland. By the same token, one could imagine western governments paying their counterparts in the tropics to lock up forest land that would otherwise give way to logging and grazing.

But the scale of such initiatives is probably limited by the inherent accounting ambiguities. How would you know, for example, that the forest wouldn't be preserved, anyway? Even more to the point, how would one verify that a government, paid to build natural-gas-fired power plants rather than coal ones, would have gone that way without the incentive?

Arguably, the most promising approach to gaining the cooperation of emerging market countries lies in innovation. It wouldn't take much persuasion to get developing countries to adopt technologies that are climate-friendlier if they are also cheaper than emissions-as-usual.  One could certainly imagine government-subsidized R&D that cut the cost of solar panels by 90 percent, or transformed the hydrogen-producing artificial leaf into a viable source of fuel.

The idea of a global grand bargain in which emerging market countries would join the west in an ambitious, cost-minimizing containment program is dead. The best hope, at least for now, is a pragmatic search for common ground, one that appeals to the angels but relies on self-interest.

A decade late and a trillion dollars short, you say? To paraphrase a former secretary of defense, you go to war with the army you've got, not the one you'd like to have.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Damned if You Do

Obama hasn't made a peep about cutting U.S. support to NATO -- though everyone agrees it's necessary to get Europeans to pay their fair share. And yet, Romney attacks him for it.

Ever wonder why it's difficult to cut the defense budget? This week's NATO summit -- which took place amid free-flying accusations by Mitt Romney that President Barack Obama has undercut the U.S. commitment to the military alliance -- provides us with yet another sterling though under-examined example.

As NATO leaders were gathering in Chicago over the weekend, the Romney campaign offered a statement that pilloried Obama for a failure of stewardship as NATO's biggest contributor. "NATO's success requires strong American leadership," said Romney. "It also requires its member states to carry their own weight. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has taken actions that will only undermine the alliance. The U.S. military is facing nearly $1 trillion in cuts over the next ten years. And President Obama has sent the message -- intentionally or not -- that the worth of NATO has diminished in America's eyes. At this moment of both opportunities and perils, the NATO alliance must retain the capacity to act."

Now there's a lot to unpack here. Thankfully, Romney was nice enough to extrapolate on his argument in an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune, in which he complained that only three of the 28 NATO member nations are meeting their agreed-upon pledge to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense (the United States currently spends just under 5 percent of its GDP on defense). But apparently this isn't what he was referring to when he bemoaned the failure of member states to "carry their own weight." Rather, he was pointing the finger at the United States and specifically Obama (but not the Republican-led Congress, of course, which held a proverbial gun to the president's head during last year's debt limit crisis and forced those trillion dollars in defense cuts on him and the nation). According to Romney, "While military underinvestment is an old problem for NATO, a lack of American leadership on the issue is an alarming new development."  

And the solution to this problem, wait for it ... is to spend more U.S. taxpayer dollars on defense.

This reflects an age-old prisoner dilemma in U.S.-NATO relations. America's NATO allies -- you know, the European countries nominally being "protected" against enemies unnamed -- have long dragged their feet when it comes to devoting their full share to their own protection. Meanwhile, Washington complains bitterly about this situation and every few years someone in the U.S. government raises enough of a fuss to demand that the situation be rectified. The latest example was former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who went to Brussels on a farewell tour in June of last year and told Europe to pay its fair share (in the midst of the NATO Libya campaign, no less), warning darkly that "there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress -- and in the American body politic writ large -- to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense."

According to Gates, "future U.S. political leaders -- those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me -- may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost."

Gates was certainly unrestrained in his language but his sentiments accurately reflected much of the frustration toward NATO that exists inside the Pentagon. And it surely got the Europeans' attention, but guess what? Nothing changed. All the NATO allies went merrily on their way with the United States continuing to pay about 75 percent of NATO's defense budget (including 85 percent of missile defense funds) and European nations continuing to refuse to chip in more. Part of the reason, obviously, is that the Europeans don't exactly have a lot of money to spare right now, what with the eurozone potentially crashing down around them. But then neither does the United States.

And in the end why should they chip in more? They know that for all of Gates's tough talk, in the end it's just that; the United States has never shown any inclination to cut the cord for NATO and make a real effort to force the Europeans to contribute more to the alliance.

The sad reality is that while Gates was pointing toward a future in which the investment in NATO will not be seen as worth the cost, the United States has probably reached already reached that point. Unlike when it was founded -- and for the first 40 or so years of its existence -- Europe today faces no serious existential threat, or for matter, even a non-serious military threat. Every couple of months, the Russians make a few provocative statements (like the recent warning  that it would take out missile defense sites in Eastern Europe), but is Moscow really about to follow-up its stirring 2008 military victory in Georgia by rolling across the steppes of Ukraine? Hardly. It's a nation that is demographically, politically, and economically challenged,  and to make matters worse, it isn't exactly brimming with potential allies. Quite simply, Europe should be more than able to defend itself against Russia or any other foreign threat (particularly as long as the United States remains a member of NATO, and even if its responsibilities to the alliance diminish).

While the U.S. contribution to NATO is not stratospheric, the failure of European countries to develop their own capabilities directly harms U.S. interests. Consider, for example, last year's Libya war, in which America was dragged by France and Britain into a conflict it initially didn't want any part of -- and was then left holding the financial and military bag when it became obvious that NATO had little ability to fund even a limited war without the United States.

The irony of Romney's comments -- beyond the fact that during a primary campaign in which he regularly mocked America's European allies as ossified, socialist, basket cases, he is now complaining that Obama has betrayed them -- is that he shouldn't be criticizing Obama for allegedly wanting to cut military spending to NATO. Romney should be criticizing him for wanting to spend more. In what other situation would it be considered politically appropriate to have countries free ride off U.S. generosity, and then turn around and demand that Washington provide even more lucre? But yet this is precisely Romney's argument.

The only way to truly incentivize European defense spending for NATO is to say that the United States is going to reduce its commitment and then actually do it. Romney's solution would instead actually reward European obstinacy. But in the end, that sort of logic is lost on Romney. Sadly, we're back to the same old game -- where no Republican can pass up the opportunity to attack a Democrat for cutting U.S. defense spending and allegedly making the United States less safe.

Indeed, what advantage would Obama or any other president have for calling for a reduced U.S. role in NATO? Even when they're not pushing for such a policy outcome (as in right now) they're going to get attacked for it. Obama has never spoken of lessening the U.S. commitment to NATO. In Chicago, he mouthed the same tired platitudes about NATO being "the bedrock of common security, freedom, and prosperity for nearly 65 years."  Said Obama, "It hasn't just endured. It has thrived, because our nations are stronger when we stand together." And still he's accused of a lack of fealty to the organization?

From this perspective, the path of least political resistance is to maintain the status quo -- and simply kick the can of America's dysfunctional relationship with its NATO allies down the road. The same is true, of course, when it comes to the larger mountain of military spending: Even after both parties agreed to trim the Pentagon's sails last summer, they've been spending much of the last year running away from that deal.

In the end, it's politics, not security or logic, that makes it so hard to cut defense spending.

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