The poor’s environment

The poor’s environment

A funny thing happened on the way to saving the world’s poor from the ravages of global warming. The poor told the warming alarmists to get lost.

This spring, the Geneva-based Global Humanitarian Forum, led by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, issued a report warning that “mass starvation, mass migration, and mass sickness" would ensue if the world did not agree to “the most ambitious international agreement ever negotiated" on global warming.

According to Annan’s report, climate change-induced disasters now account for 315,000 deaths each year and $125 billion in damages, numbers set to rise to 500,000 deaths and $340 billion in damages by 2030. The numbers are hotly contested by University of Colorado disaster trends expert Roger Pielke Jr, who calls them a “poster child for how to lie with statistics".

But never mind about that. The more interesting kiss-off took place in New Delhi late last month, when India’s minister of state for environment Jairam Ramesh told US secretary of state Hillary Clinton that there was no way India would sign on to any global scheme to cap carbon emissions. The Chinese have told the Obama administration essentially the same thing.

Roughly 75% of Indians—some 800 million people—live on $2 a day or less, adjusted for purchasing power parity. In China, it’s about 36%, or about 480 million. That means the two governments alone are responsible for one in every two people living at that income level.

If climate change is the threat Annan claims it is, India and China ought to be eagerly beating the path to Copenhagen. So why aren’t they?

To listen to the climate alarmists, it’s all the US’ fault. “What the Chinese are chiefly guilty of is emulating the American economic model," wrote environmental writer Jacques Leslie last year in The Christian Science Monitor. Facts tell a different story. When Deng Xiaoping began introducing elements of a market economy in 1980, Chinese life expectancy at birth was 65.3 years. Today, it is about 73 years. The numbers are probably a bit inflated, as most numbers are in the People’s Republic, but the trend line is undeniable. In India, life expectancy rose from 52.5 years in 1980 to about 67 years today. If this is the consequence of following the “American economic model", then poor countries need more of it.

But what about all the pollution in India and particularly China? In Leslie’s telling, carbon dioxide emissions are part and parcel with common pollutants such as particulate matter, toxic waste, and everything else typically associated with a degraded environment. They’re not. The US and China produce equivalent quantities of carbon dioxide. But try naming a US city whose air quality is even remotely as bad as Beijing’s, or an American river as polluted as the Han: You can’t. The US, the richer and more industrialized country, is also by far the cleaner one. People who live in developing world countries tend to understand this, even if First World environmentalists do not.

The real source of China’s pollution problem is a state-led industrial policy geared towards production, and state-owned enterprises that strive to meet production quotas, and state-appointed managers who don’t mind cutting corners in matters of environmental responsibility, and typically have the political clout to insulate themselves from any public fallout. In other words, China’s pollution problems are not a function of laissez-faire policies but of the regime’s excessive lingering control of the economy. A freer China means a cleaner China.

There’s a lesson in this for those who believe that the world’s environmental problems call for a new era of dirigisme. And there ought to be a lesson for those who claim to understand the problems of the poor better than the poor themselves. If global warming really is the catastrophe the alarmists claim, the least they can do for its victims is not to patronize them while impoverishing them in the bargain.


Edited excerpts. Bret Stephens is a WSJ columnist. Comments are welcome at