Saturday, January 10, 2009

Climate Change versus Poverty Alleviation

The world is playing tug-of-war with itself at the moment. At one end of the rope is the climate change industry, at the other end is world poverty. The arena is the world’s media and the winner is the cause that can attract the most media attention.

So far the climate change industry is winning hands down. It has proven to be spectacularly successful at playing the media game.

It’s so successful in fact it has even seduced some of the world’s leading anti-poverty campaigners, such as Oxfam, World Vision and Unicef, to come over and pull for its side.

In its Policy Position on Climate Change, World Vision Australia declares that it is prepared to refuse funds for the world’s poor in the interests of supporting its climate change policy. It states that it “will decline offers of funds, goods-in-kind, or services-in-kind from companies” that it believes do not support its position on climate change.

Frankly I find this deeply disturbing. It is an alarming sign of today’s omnipotent media.

As the UN IPCC makes clear, climate change is a very real problem. But it's not the only real problem. That fact that it is so pervasive in today’s news is a credit to its spin doctors.

There is no question that our daily news industry is of vital importance to a healthy democracy, but it is not the font of knowledge that some believe it to be. News organizations are in the business of selling stories. As Evelyn Waugh put it in Scoop, it's only news until it's read – "after that it's dead”. So good spinners know that the same message has to be constantly renewed – "more urgent", "more dire" – in order to make it into the papers.

The most important news doesn’t always make it into the daily media – the best stories do.

Tomorrow there will be a catastrophic international incident that will kill more than 20,000 children. The reason they will die is because the doctors and the ambulances will be too late in getting to them. But that's not news, because it also happened yesterday, and again today – in fact it happens every day, including Christmas and holidays.

Not one of these children will be killed by climate change. Their biggest cause of death is pneumonia, followed by other easily treatable conditions including diarrhea, malaria and malnutrition.

Ending world poverty is urgent – tackling climate change is important, but not urgent.

The good news is that progress is being made. According to UN Millennium Development Goal 2007 Report, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty in the world fell from nearly a third to less than one fifth between 1990 and 2004. As a result the Millennium Goal of halving the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015 is likely to be met.

Unfortunately this progress is almost entirely due to the rapid economic expansion in Asia, most obviously China. China is eradicating its poverty and raising living standards the same way we did in the West, by burning fossil fuels. As a result its CO2 emissions are projected to be greater than those of Europe and the US combined in the next quarter of a century. China is big enough and powerful enough to politely tell Western climate change lobbyists to get stuffed. Yes, it recognizes that reducing emissions is important, but it has made it clear that economic growth comes first.

Low-cost, high-yield energy brought us the industrial revolution. This did not just give us what we have today in our modern world, it formed who we are.

As neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield points out in The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, it changed us from "a cog in the machine of a feudal society" into the free-thinking individuals we are today. It made each of us "Someone". When manual labor became more mechanized, we got more leisure time to just think. At the same time the new manufacturing age was "desperate to draw on diverse types of individual talents". This, of course, sparked the need for education and innovation and before you know it, here we are.

Well now it's time for the Third World.

But this won’t happen without the low-cost, high-yield fossil fuel energy we rely on. Yet some in the climate change industry say developing countries should instead be encouraged to adopt high-cost, low-yield renewable energy. Make no mistake about it, to push this line is to pull the rope away from poverty alleviation.

The industrial revolution unlocked our brain power. Education of the masses delivered brilliant scientists, doctors and engineers who rapidly improved our technology and standard of living. But most of our human brain power is still locked away in the Third World struggling just to survive. 

Climate change is a global issue and a personal one. It's not a national issue – it can't be solved by politicians or corporations. It's up to us. We the consumers are the big polluters.

The only effective way to unite the world behind this cause is to adopt a long-term global per-capita target.

Then we work hard to get ourselves down to that target, but more importantly, we work hard to get everyone in the developing world up to that target.

One of the most significant factors driving global emissions growth is population growth. History has proven that as living standards increase birth rates decline.

The major global issues plaguing the world today – climate change, terrorism and poverty – are all linked.

Who knows, the person capable of providing a vital clue to our search for low-cost, high-yield sustainable energy technology could be toiling away today in some field in Africa.

Our challenge is to get her through school and into a university urgently.