How nice to be able for a change to praise a minister in the South African government. But Barbara Creecy is absolutely correct in demanding that the rich countries up their game on climate change.
As far back as the climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, rich countries pledged $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor ones cope with “climate change”. But Ms Creecy, our minister of forestry, fisheries, and the environment, says this is not enough. She wants $750 billion a year. This is vastly more than the rich nations have so far been willing to stump up annually, although they keep on repeating their promise. In 2018, for example, they managed only $79 billion.
Other poor countries, China and India among them, should back Ms Creecy’s demand, or push it even higher. Last month she joined 50 other environment ministers in London at a meeting to prepare for the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow in November.
Reporting back on the London meeting, Ms Creecy said she had proposed that “developed countries commit to a new goal of mobilising jointly $750 billion a year by 2030 from a floor of $100 billion, taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries”. The money should come from both public and private sources.
South Africa, she said, was committed to doing its bit to “reduce carbon gas emissions”. However, she warned, this country would be able to raise its own ambitions on climate “mitigation and adaptation” only if “we have access to support from developed countries in the form of finance, technology, and capacity building”.
She is right to lay down this condition. The war on fossil fuels in general and carbon dioxide in particular is largely a rich world and elitist phenomenon. It is being waged principally by countries which themselves got rich by burning coal. They now want to deny that opportunity to poorer countries by bullying them into eschewing fossil fuels and adopting more expensive (and less reliable) sources of energy instead. A bill of at least $750 billion a year for compliance with what has sometimes been called “eco-imperialism” sounds about right.
Perhaps Boris Johnson, who recently said coal must be consigned to history, and who will be hosting the Glasgow meeting, could take the lead by announcing how much of the $750 billion he would seek from British taxpayers. Greta Thunberg could tot up the Swedish share. And so on.
Mr Johnson made his comment following the publication last week by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of its latest assessment report. Publication prompted reiterations of warnings about impending climate catastrophe that always follow IPCC reports.
“Nobody is safe,” said the head of the environment programme at the United Nations. “No safe place” declared the cover of The Economist a few weeks before the IPCC report – or melodramatic interpretations thereof – hit the headlines. Right on cue, the Democratic Alliance in South Africa warned that “any rise in sea levels will have serious consequences for [our] 2 800 kilometres of coastlines”.
Year in and year out we hear these warnings. Yet, as The Economist complained, progress towards eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough to hold the temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius has been “woefully inadequate”. Even if efforts were dramatically increased, it would not stop flood and fire and other climate “extremes”.
“Cutting emissions is thus not enough,” said The Economist. “The world also urgently needs to invest in adapting to the changing climate. The good news is that adaptation makes political sense… When a country invests in flood defences, it benefits its own citizens.”
“Adaptation” has in fact been going on since even before The Economist started publication. It is also precisely what a number of writers have been urging for a long time. Build dikes, strengthen dams, erect sea walls, move people to higher ground, introduce better warning systems for floods, establish more efficient water channels, stop subsidising the insurance of households that build on flood plains, install green roofs, create more water-absorbent areas in cities, restore wetlands, improve forest management, and generally build climate resilient infrastructure.
In October 2019 the Global Commission on Adaptation published a report entitled Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience. Although it echoed the familiar claim that climate change was increasing the number and ferocity of “potentially extreme weather events”, it pointed out that “humanity has always lived under the looming threat of nature’s fury” but that humans “have adapted to climate variability for thousands of years”.
One of the interesting aspects of reporting on the recent lethal floods in Germany and Belgium is the focus on adaptation. Nearly all political parties blamed them on “global warming”, although The Economist quoted a pollster who said it wasn’t clear whether German voters agreed. Much of the criticism for the deaths and destruction was levelled at government failure to give people enough early warning of the flood danger.
Amsterdam, which Al Gore once predicted would soon be drowned, suffered no fatalities in the flooding – for the simple reason that the Dutch have a superbly efficient water management system, dating back to before anyone had ever heard of climate change.
Where does this all leave COP26? It is obvious that rich world governments do not possess the political will to implement all their own vastly expensive carbon cutting commitments, let alone to come up with the sums they have previously promised to poorer countries. Least of all do any of them wish to be honest about the costs to their taxpayers.
In the meantime, even the ultra alarmist Economist is talking of the virtues of adapting to climate hazards. And in Germany, scene of recent flooding, the Green Party is calling for stronger dams and dikes, more green spaces, better warning systems, and the recharging of aquifers.
Among the disadvantages of trying to prevent climate change is that it is a one-size-fits-all strategy that will supposedly save the planet from the different kinds of disaster routinely predicted by various “models”. This is not only a tall order but also rather hit and miss.
Adaptation can be much more precisely and efficaciously targeted. Its benefits will be obvious to taxpayers and householders. It does not entail increasing energy prices and so reducing economic growth rates, something which poor countries seeking to pull themselves out of poverty cannot reasonably be expected to do.
People in rich countries can afford the costs of adaptation, which is why floods and other extreme weather events kill fewer people there than they do in poor countries.
Thanks to engineering skills and political accountability, people in rich countries are much safer than they were a hundred years ago. Thanks to such measures as better warning systems and storm and cyclone shelters, even Bangladesh, a very poor country, has seen a decline in deaths from disasters.
According to Michael Shellenberger, there has been a 92% decline in the world’s per-decade death toll from natural disasters since the 1920s. Bjorn Lomborg notes that the decline in the number of natural disaster deaths over the past century from almost half a million a year to fewer than 20 000 has occurred despite a quadrupling of the world’s population.
If more poor countries were richer they would also be safer, because they would be able to spend more on making their people safer, healthier, more comfortable, better educated, better able to move about, and better fed.
Like so many intergovernmental gatherings, COP26 will no doubt be characterised by much posturing, virtue signalling, alarmist warnings, humbug, and one-upmanship – along with the making of renewed promises to poor countries which will not be fulfilled.
But poor countries should resolutely resist pressures to endorse policies that push up their energy costs and so undermine economic growth.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.