Climate: World Must Hold China Responsible for Damage

Cooling towers of a coal-fired power plant in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China, in 2015. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

Jeffrey Ball has written an interesting essay on climate change, finance, and the developing world. Ball argues, persuasively, that the most sensitive point upon which pressure can be applied is financing for utilities and other infrastructure projects in the developing world, which will produce most of the greenhouse-gas emissions in the coming decades.

Nowhere is cutting carbon emissions more crucial than in the world’s emerging and developing economies, where the thirst for energy, and the output of carbon dioxide, is rising the fastest. New power plants there will lock in the trajectory of global warming for decades to come.

But here’s the big problem: Fifty-two percent of new power generation financed in those countries from 2018 through 2020 is on track to be inconsistent with the global goal of keeping Earth’s average temperature from surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold scientists have said is crucial to stave off particularly disastrous effects from global warming.

The biggest foreign financiers of these projects were in Japan, China and South Korea. But significant funds have also been coming from banks, utilities and other companies in the countries themselves.

. . . If the financing of these climate-shaping projects doesn’t get smarter soon, then all that money from corporations and governments claiming it as evidence of progress is likely to end up doing all too little for the planet.

I don’t disagree with much in his analysis. But if this argument were written more directly, it would be denounced as pure “neo-colonialism.” Because what Ball is arguing for here is effectively attenuating the decision-making powers of the governments of poor countries, taking real power from their elected governments and local authorities and transferring it to financial powers, the most powerful of which are in the developed world, in effect imposing a partial capital embargo on the poor countries until they have been financially starved into adopting the rich world’s climate agenda.

I don’t think that’s necessarily the wrong way to go about it, but the antiseptic language disguises what ought to be plainly admitted as an exercise of brute financial force upon the governments of poor countries, including democratically elected governments that are working to balance the competing interests of the people and groups to which they are directly accountable.

The climate movement has never been able to deal directly with the fact — or even to admit that it is a fact — that its agenda enjoys widespread popular support almost nowhere, being rejected by all but a vanishingly small handful of electorates when costs are included. That is true of the United States, it is true of India, it is true of much of Europe, and it is true of most of the rest of the world.

And in non-democratic countries, the mechanics of accountability may work differently but the results must be in many cases the same: Beijing isn’t going to hold a plebiscite on the question, but it is unlikely that the Chinese Communist Party bosses are going to impose any real economic pain on the Chinese people in order to keep a promise made to the conventioneers in Paris and Glasgow.

Leaning on finance is one possible way around that. But we should not be under any illusions about what that means in practice: deploying the financial might of the rich world against the democratic preferences of the poor world.

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