Jeff Jacoby / December 8, 2022

What Poor Nations Need Is Wealth, Not Climate Reparations

Poverty makes every problem worse, including those caused by climate change.

There is a lot to dislike about the climate reparations deal hammered out last month at the United Nation’s climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Under presidents of both parties, the United States had for years firmly opposed the idea. Heading into the conference, US climate envoy John Kerry insisted that any deal “tied to compensation or liability [is] just not happening.” But in the end, succumbing to pressure, delegates from the wealthy countries agreed to compensate developing nations for the costs of coping with storms, heat waves, and droughts worsened by climate change. The plan to create what the conference called a “loss and damage fund” was greeted by supporters as a “new dawn for climate justice.” Cynics called it a “Sharm el-Shakedown.”

Scientists say carbon dioxide emissions from the advanced industrial world may contribute to an increase in extreme weather events like the recent terrible flooding in Pakistan. But the notion that wealthy countries, by using fossil fuels, have made life worse or more dangerous for residents of poorer countries doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Through the burning of petroleum, coal, and natural gas to generate energy, the industrialized nations have improved the quality of human existence — not just within their own borders but everywhere — to a degree that would have been inconceivable in the 19th century. Of course the spread of carbon-based industry has generated costs, some quite serious — air pollution and mining accidents, for example. So did the gift of fire that Prometheus, in the ancient Greek legend, turned over to human beings. But just as the benefits of fire enormously outweigh its drawbacks, so do the benefits of fossil fuels.

Since the rise of the industrial revolution made possible by oil, coal, and gas, billions of people have been liberated from destitution. The energy derived from fossil fuels has been a feedstock for fertilizers that massively increased the world’s food supply. It has facilitated the building of modern infrastructure — paved highways, modern hospitals, well-built homes and schools. In countless ways, it has made the lives of human beings today safer, healthier, and longer than ever before.

The gains from fossil fuels have been especially dramatic when it comes to protecting societies from natural disasters. Writing in Foreign Policy about the UN climate summit, Ted Nordhaus, Vijaya Ramachandran, and Patrick Brown of the Breakthrough Institute observe that people now are more than 90 percent less likely to die from floods, droughts, storms, or other extreme weather events than in the 1920s.

“Well into the 20th century, annual death tolls from climate-related natural disasters numbering in the hundreds of thousands or even millions were routine,” the authors note. The death toll in the 1931 Yangtze-Huai River floods in China, to cite one horrific example, may have been as high as 4 million. Tropical cyclones in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh frequently left tens of thousands dead. Millions died in famines. Today, however, deaths in China from flooding number fewer than 500 each year, cyclone fatalities across the subcontinent are numbered in the hundreds, and China has not suffered a famine in decades.

What made those tremendous global gains possible was modern industrialization in the wealthy nations. That economic growth would have been impossible without extensive use of affordable fossil fuels. And it is the energy from those fuels, not reparations, that offer the best chance for the developing world to catch up to the wealthier nations.

Rising CO2 levels are not the greatest handicap faced by the world’s most vulnerable countries. Poverty is. Poverty makes every problem worse, including those caused by climate change. The premise of the UN’s new reparations fund is that it is up to the West to compensate poorer nations for damages due to climate change. At the same time, those nations are encouraged to shift away from using fossil fuels.

But that is exactly the wrong approach. What poor countries need above all is to climb out of poverty. They require more growth, more technology, more infrastructure — all of which require more access to the fossil fuels that remain, overwhelmingly, the source of the world’s energy. The surest way to expand resilience to climate change is to first expand economic development. The United States today leads the world in reducing carbon emissions in large part because it earlier led the world in building an industrialized economy.

That is the pattern for the developing economies to emulate. First let them work on getting rich. Then they can work on getting to zero emissions.

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