Do climate change policies hurt the world’s poor?

There’s something about what Bjorn Lomborg writes that makes me cross. He’s got an article on Project Syndicate in which he argues that environmental policy is hurting the world’s poor. He’s specifically referring to climate change policy and he thinks that what the developing world really needs is access to cheap fossil fuels. The article is called The power to develop, if anyone is interested.

I always gets annoyed when people use the world’s poor as an excuse to do nothing to combat climate change. They pretend to take the moral high ground making it hard for anyone to question their position. After all, who doesn’t want to do something about world poverty? If you try to disagree with their position, then you end up looking like you don’t care about poverty.

The idea that we must choose between combating climate change or helping the world’s poor is sometimes referred to as a false dilemma. To my mind, it’s not a choice of one or the other. We should be doing both. Yes, we should do whatever we can to reduce world poverty and yes, we should fight climate change by reducing fossil fuel emissions. The world’s poor are likely to be hardest hit by climate change and yet they are the least responsible.

If people like Bjorn Lomborg really wanted to help the world’s poor, then he would be arguing for an equitable distribution of the remaining carbon budget. This is the amount of carbon we can still burn if we’re to keep the change in global mean surface temperature from rising above 2°C. Some estimates put the cumulative total at about 1 trillion tonnes of carbon and we’ve already burned through half of this. Note that by “we” I mean the rich, developed world has already burned through half the budget. Based on our current trend, we will reach 1 trillion tonnes at around 2040.

Who gets to use the other half of our carbon budget? There are three ways it can be divvied up according to Peter Singer and Teng Fei.

  • It could be distributed on a per capita basis where countries are allocated a portion of the remaining budget in proportion to their population.
  • It could be allocated on a per capita basis but take into account past emissions. So countries that have already used up part of the cumulative total will get less while other countries – poor, developing countries – will get more.
  • It could be allocated on the basis of existing emissions. Countries that have used more of the cumulative total will get more of the remaining budget. This is essentially what is happening at the moment.

The second approach is the fairest, the last, the most unfair. My challenge to anyone who claims to hold the interests of the world’s poor in high regard, is to suggest that developing countries should receive a higher proportion of the remaining carbon budget while rich, developed nations receive less. If people like Bjorn Lomborg really want to help the poor, then this is what he should be arguing for. Climate change will hurt them more than us.