Laurence Cockcroft is worried about global warming. Yes, like many of us, he's concerned about the implications of rising temperatures. But he's also aware of another danger that most people have probably overlooked -- namely, the link between climate change and corruption.
So what could these two things possibly have to do with each other? A lot, it turns out. As Cockcroft points out, many forms of environmental destruction are against the law in the places where they happen, but the perpetrators -- illegal loggers, say, in countries like Brazil, Indonesia, or the Congo -- often resort to corruption to evade the law.
But there's an even more interesting angle, too. Some of the mechanisms that the international community has put in place to tackle climate change, Cockcroft says, are potentially vulnerable to abuse. Carbon trading has proven notoriously susceptible to fraud. Rich countries are already committing hundreds of billions of dollars to funds that are supposed to compensate poorer nations for the cost of adapting to global warming.
The amounts involved, Cockcroft warns, are potentially bigger than all the money currently spent on development aid. So that makes them a tempting target for graft -- especially when you consider how much of the money spent on aid projects in the past has been lost to corruption. "If corruption undermines those funds the way it has undermined a lot of aid programs," he says, "it could prove a big obstacle to restricting temperature rises to less than two degrees before 2050."
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One could easily dismiss Cockcroft as just another single-issue advocate cultivating a pet obsession. But I think that would be a big mistake. I believe that he's entirely right to argue that corruption has become a systemic disease that undermines governance around the world, and that it can cripple the ability of states to function if left unchecked.
He knows what he's talking about. A development economist who spent decades working in Nigeria, Cockcroft is one of the founders of Transparency International, a global non-profit that offers remedies for stemming the tide of sleaze. Though the group recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, Cockcroft says that isn't why he just decided to publish his new book, Global Corruption, which offers a handy guide to the biggest problems and possible solutions. The real reason, he says, is that the challenges posed by corruption are more urgent than ever.
The headlines this week would seem to prove him right. Chinese President Hu Jintao, speaking at the watershed Communist Party conference that's under way in Beijing right now, has just told delegates that corruption could prove "fatal" to communist rule if the Party can't get the problem under control.
This should probably come as little surprise in the wake of the huge scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, the once heavyweight official whose downfall this year has shone a spotlight on the apparently routine abuses of power and influence within the Party. (For some reason Hu didn't mention other recent disclosures about the astonishing wealth of the people surrounding China's most powerful men, including Premier Wen Jiabao and incoming Party leader Xi Jinping. Those unseemly reports, both produced by western news organizations, have been kept away from the prying eyes of Chinese citizens by government censors.)