There are exceptions to this pattern. Ecuador is attempting to solicit payments in exchange for not developing oil in its Yasuni National Park, though it has only raised $300 million out of the total of $3.6 billion it is seeking. Considerably more thought has gone into a closely related area of low-carbon development for the resource-rich: charting alternative paths for highly forested countries that don't involve cutting down all their trees. In 2008, the consultancy McKinsey & Co. worked with Guyana to devise an economic plan that would leave its forests intact, provided wealthy donors (or carbon credit buyers) paid compensation. The plan got off the ground a year later, when Norway stepped up with cash, though it is far from fully funded.
Moreover, some countries -- those rich in rare earth elements, lithium, and other ingredients for advanced energy technologies -- might actually benefit from resource extraction in a carbon-constrained world. Natural gas producers could benefit in the near term if countries decide to reduce carbon emissions by shifting to gas from coal. And if technologies are developed to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions -- eliminating the need to avoid them entirely -- countries rich in coal (and perhaps natural gas) could benefit.
But these are possibilities, not guarantees, and in any case they would still leave many countries behind. No one has seriously argued that the schemes being peddled by Guyana and Ecuador can be scaled up to the massive level that would be necessary to avoid serious harm to poor but resource-rich countries, should demand for fossil fuels plummet. And few alternatives have been proposed. Efforts by Britain's Department for International Development to set out a low-carbon development path for Mozambique are telling: it investigated ways to lower emissions from agriculture, but ignored potential revenue pitfalls from depressed natural gas and coal prices.
Don't get me wrong: This is not an argument against taking action to combat climate change. While I was in Mozambique, large swaths of the country were paralyzed by intense flooding, a problem that will only get worse as climate change intensifies. Mozambique's agricultural potential -- the country ranks sixth in the world in fertile but uncultivated land -- would also be put at risk from rising temperatures and more volatile weather. But it is cold comfort for poor countries that serious climate action will spare them future horrors when their daily existence remains mired in severe poverty.
Of course, demand for the developing world's resources is unlikely to evaporate overnight; the planet has proved spectacularly incapable of combating greenhouse gas emissions. As we step up efforts to change that, a vision for poor but resource-rich countries should be part of the plan.