Climate colonialism by stealth

Climate colonialism by stealth

Third World activists are often animated by an anti-colonial instinct that induces them to oppose initiatives of Western governments, especially when it comes to globalization or capitalism. And these same activists can be counted on to speak out for and act on behalf of the global poor.

But now, it looks like being part of a hodgepodge alliance of interests supporting international climate negotiations has dulled the sensibilities of these activists. As such, they became unwitting supporters of neo-colonialism under the auspices of the 16th session of the Conference of Parties (COP16). And the REDD programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) in developing countries, widely applauded at Cancun, involves some decidedly anti-poor elements.

In the first instance, European Union (EU) countries and Japan realized that emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol would put them at a competitive disadvantage compared with less-developed economies. In turn, they supported climate meetings backed by the United Nations at Bali, Copenhagen and Cancun to create subsidiary agreements that would amend Kyoto to burden all countries with emission reduction targets.

The justification for this ploy is that further industrialization of the Third World will significantly contribute to carbon emissions that are blamed for climate change—itself a disputable assertion. Whether or not industrial production is the villain behind climate change, the expected impact of modernizing the less-developed economies is likely to be overblown.

Consider that the human population has increased 10-fold since the Industrial Revolution, from 700 million to about seven billion, with nearly four billion living in countries with industrialized economies. Even more live in advanced economies, up from nearly zero at the onset of the revolution. This exceeds by far the Chinese, Indians and others being integrated into newly industrialized economies.

It also turns out that the offer under REDD to give foreign aid to less-developed countries in return for lower emissions through limited deforestation is against the interests of many of the global poor. As it is, payments for verifiable storage of carbon in forests, along with their conservation and sustainable management, is likely to be a poison pill.

In the rush to accept these arrangements, proponents overlook the wealth creation arising from agricultural expansion through deforestation, which tends to generate more benefits for rural people. As such, the presumed benefits from REDD are not being weighed against the fact that many would be left mired in poverty and with governments that are dependent on foreign aid.

It is rampant corruption and the lack of the “rule of law" in many developing countries that allow palm oil and forestry industries to have their way with natural resources. It is hard to imagine that countries with the biggest problems will find public administrators who enforce international treaties better than they do their own laws.

In all events, limiting deforestation was justified by data suggestions that it accounts for 17-20% of total greenhouse gas emissions from lost carbon sinks. But these data have little scientific support. This is because it is very difficult, if not impossible, to quantify and measure what might be preserved and how much carbon would be stored.

Another problematic aspect of enacting REDD is that it may undo reforms that empowered the rural poor in many parts of the world. For example, land tenure reforms in Mexico have granted control over most of its 64 million hectares of forest to rural communities, including many indigenous groups.

Under community forest management, rural people engage in local forestry enterprises using sustainable practices that increase their incomes. Among the practices are commercial timber production and ecotourism that help increase forest cover.

By contrast, REDD is likely to lead to centralization of forest management and undo gains enjoyed by rural peoples from reforms in laws of land tenure. With large sums of money involved, it is likely that governments will insist on controlling land resources since only they can be held accountable for the funds. This would be unfortunate. Local communities can act effectively as custodians of land and forest resources since they have stronger incentives to protect them than do government officials.

It is a lousy political calculus that justifies selling out the poor and promoting neo-colonialism under the banner of curbing atmospheric releases of carbon dioxide. This is especially tragic if one admits that the effect of carbon emissions on the temperature of the earth remains a testable and falsifiable proposition.

For example, linking rising temperatures to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution ignores the fact that this timing also coincides with the end of the Little Ice Age. A moment of reflection reveals that the use of fossil fuels at the start of the industrialization process was so limited and concentrated to so few areas that it initially had a negligible impact on the climate. As then, whatever warming that may be occurring is driven by forces of nature more powerful than what mankind can dish out.

Christopher Lingle is a research scholar at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi, and visiting professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala

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