Gleneagles and the Cartel of Good Intentions

Greenhouse politics remains mired in a swamp of soft-hearted soft-headedness. (Source: Courier Mail)

You may nor may not think this is a good colum, but it took me bloody ages to write. It helps to have a single line to stick to in a column given the need for simplicity, clarity and brevity. But it seemed to me that there were important parallels between what William Easterly calls ‘the cartel of good intentions’ and how it cripples effective action in foreign aid, and something similar in greenhouse. So I was writing up a (slightly original) idea that had only recently occurred to me. Getting that into column format was hard – for me anyway.For years I watched the Australian diplomats go off to shovel smoke negotiating with the Europeans (who wanted to prevent others having access to trading and ‘hot air’ whilst preserving it for themselves within the European ‘bubble’). And this was against a backdrop in which the developing countries took on no commitments but were a majority of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol.

The whole thing was and remains bizarre even if the Europeans have since backed out of their more outrageous attempts to hobble emissions trading. We have various countries like the US and Oz pointing to the absence of the developing countries from the Protocol as a great weakness, but it’s always been mixed up with other excuses. Meanwhile because the diplomatic community appear to take their idea of the possible from the language of the participants, and because the developing countries have a majority of the relevant international deliberative bodies, their non-participation remains a point of irritation rather than being seen by all as the central fact that must be overcome if we’re to make progress.

Some ideas in the column are that there can be creative synthesis between left and right (eg aid at Gleneagles) – and there can be stalemate (greenhouse at Gleneagles). That this synthesis can emerge either fully formed in some expert’s or politician’s head but that an alternative is that it emerges in a more uncertain and painful way. As James Farrell pointed out – this is pure Hegel. He pointed this out on the day I sent a lengthy e-mail to Rafe waxing rhapsodic about Hegel. (As I said in the e-mail, I presume Rafe choked on his Weeties) I will try to turn it into a post sometime if I get the time. Marshall who first coined the expression “cool heads; warm hearts” was a thoroughly smitten Hegelian.

(On a less relevant note I’m reading a bio of Oscar Wilde and his Oxford notebooks make it clear that he was dead keen on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich too. But I digress!)

Thanks again to James Farrell, Tony Harris and others who may not want me to acknowledge them for pointing out weaknesses in earlier drafts. I’m really enjoying this ‘open sourcing’ of the column. It makes me work harder and try for something substantially better. So it’s more rewarding. If anyone would like receiving early copies of these columns and offering comments, I’d be only too happy to oblige.
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Postscript – Thanks to the Courier Mail for the Graphic. But not sure what the subbie meant by giving the piece the heading “Heat softens resolve”.

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Hot air and high ground at Gleneagles

Doing good takes more than good intentions. You need to be tough-minded. That’s the idea embodied in the economists’ synthesis: “hard heads; soft hearts”.

It’s such a powerful idea that if it’s forgotten we’re often forced to relearn it often through the agency of the painful and uncertain political contest between left and right.

At Gleneagles this synthesis worked on foreign aid.

Because program failures undermine its support, a left-of-centre ‘cartel of good intentions’ has covered up the many failures of foreign aid. So we’ve been slow to discover and learn from what works and what doesn’t. We’ve even seen aid disappear into the Swiss bank accounts of third-world kleptocrats.

It’s taken the political right to impose some hard-headedness. George Bush has sharply increased foreign aid whilst imposing much stronger conditions for instance on cleaning up corruption and Gleneagles extended this approach. That’s hard-headed soft-heartedness in action.

But on the environment, Gleneagles gushed greenhouse gobbledygook.

Leaders committed to “act with resolve and urgency” about as firmly as St Augustine prayed for virtue. “Lord make me chaste but not yet”. Lord make me reduce my emissions but not yet.

We’re at a pretty pass. No-one’s sure that the world will continue to warm or that our emissions of greenhouse gases are causing it. But scientists who deny it are now a rump consisting increasingly, though not entirely, of cranks.

There’s plenty of uncertainty about the costs of global warming too and that’s not counting the subjective value of unique eco-systems we could lose. But the costs of global warming could vastly outweigh the modest cost of even quite vigorous action.

The Kyoto Protocol caps global emissions, but with two huge exceptions. First, the US has refused to ratify. (And thus emboldened, we’ve joined the US in our own exclusive duo the coalition of the unwilling).

Second, Kyoto exempts the developing countries which produce nearly 40 percent of global emissions now, and will overtake the West within two decades. What are we doing about it? Next to nothing.

International greenhouse politics remains mired in a swamp of soft-hearted soft-headedness. Being poorer, the developing countries are supposed to be the good guys. They’re also a majority of the UN and its progeny, the Kyoto Protocol. Thus the bizarre spectacle of a small group of rich countries taking on politically difficult commitments within an agreement formally controlled by those doing next to nothing. The majority remain serenely intransigent about taking on serious commitments while berating the minority for the paltriness of their sacrifice. They even call for compensation.

Pointing to their own much lower carbon emissions per capita and the West’s relative wealth, they cry: “You created the problem, you fix it”. But if we were rationing water in a drought we’d want everyone to save water, though we might choose to compensate the poor. We should do the same with greenhouse.

Actually, we already have. When Kyoto was negotiated, Russia was in the midst of a depression produced by its botched transition to capitalism. So the richer countries gave it a very generous entitlement to emit. Indeed Russia was permitted to emit more carbon than it was then emitting – giving it so called ‘hot air’.

Why? To reward it for signing up. Whether you call this ‘compensation’ or an ‘incentive’, (I call it a bribe) Russia now sells its excess emission entitlements to the highest bidder. Get it? In addition to compensating Russia, trading emissions permits makes Russia keen to cut its emissions further so it can sell more permits. So it joins the global effort to reduce emissions.

The West should offer developing countries a similarly generous deal. But breaking through their intransigence would also require a credible threat to impose trade sanctions if they kept stalling. But so far a hard headed, soft hearted offer like this isn’t even on the table.

Why? Because the Europeans’ soft-heartedness is also soft-headed. They seem incapable of walking away from the table in the face of the developing country intransigence. American hard-headedness could be the antidote.

But so far developing country intransigence has just been a fig leaf for the Americans’ refusal to ratify Kyoto. The real motive is hard-heartedness. George Bush wants to protect the American ‘way of life’ from the costs of its existing emissions target. So he’s not about to accept an even smaller target, which he’d be forced to, if the developing countries were brought into Kyoto like Russia, with a generous emissions entitlement,.

While I wait for progress out of this mess I’ll think of that puritan saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I’ll be hoping that America’s walking away from Kyoto might just end up doing some good that here on Earth the road to Heaven might be paved with a few bad intentions.

Economists have been unable to sell their ‘hard heads, soft hearts’ recipe ready-made. But the contest between left and right might eventually deliver it.

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3 Responses to Gleneagles and the Cartel of Good Intentions

  1. Ken Parish says:

    One of the most succinct, clear-thinking expositions of global warming politics I’ve read. Unfortunately I’m not as optimistic as you that the Bush administration could currently be persuaded to accept an even smaller emissions target let alone the current modest one. In fact, I’d say there’s next to no chance of it.

    Fortunately, Bush is in his second and last term. A Democrat President would be likely to take global warming somewhat more seriously, as would some Republican possibilities (e.g. the Governator – not that he’s actually a Presidential posibility unless the Constitution is amended).

    Nevertheless, maybe Bush’s “concentrate on developing emissions-reducing technology” isn’t such a bad idea either. Economically viable options for hydrogen fuel, or sequestering carbon from coal emissions, for instance (both being technologies whose development the Bush administration is heavily funding), would have a major effect on global CO2 emissions. Similarly if the significantly cheaper and safer modular pebble bed nuclear reactor currently being developed by South Africa (in which China is also peripherally involved) proves a success. These sorts of technologies would enable the wealthy West to slash emissions drastically without economic damage, and they could then make the technology available to poorer countries cheaply.

    If this is the way things actually occur, Bush’s approach MIGHT end up being seen by history as an example of that ideal of hard-headedness and warm-heartedness.

  2. tim says:

    No mention of New Zealand, which faces a potential $1.5 billion Kyoto debt — illustrating the hilarious impracticalities and unfairness of this program.

  3. yobbo says:

    Nick, are you in Tokyo yet? I’m staying in Azabu Juban, if you’d like to go for a coffee or something let me know.

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