Friday, May 4, 2007

It's not a Question of Price

The BBC has been giving a lot of coverage to the report just released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the mitigation of climate change. The basic story is an upbeat one, concentrating on the economic feasibility of the recommendations and the uniform consensus of the panel, in spite of earlier resistance from China reported yesterday. Nevertheless, a more extended analysis by Richard Black make the important point that any optimism needs to be guarded. Warping yesterday's metaphor, Black points out that the "elephant of the room" is that all subsequent actions are the respective responsibilities of national governments. Every national government has its flaws; but any proposal that requires the buy-in of basically all national governments cannot ignore the hard truth that the respective flaws of the governments are going to start bumping into each other. To complicate matters further, we face the growth of terrorist organizations that claim no affiliation with any government who will be well-positioned to upset the entire apple cart (not to mention motivated to do so). Finally, there may be too much reliance on the economic machinery of a carbon credit market that overlooks how much of this market remains unregulated and the risk of the entire market turning into an economic bubble.

Black's observations were further supplemented when the BBC decided to do man-on-the-street interviews in China. If, at the level of international relations, China was willing to opt for being part of the uniform consensus of the IPCC, one cannot say the same about Chinese citizens. The people interviewed by the BBC mostly wanted to talk about fairness: The West has enjoyed the benefits of economic growth for many centuries; who is now going to tell China that it cannot do the same? This is another instance of my Fundamental Law of Economics, expressed again in terms of "because I can," but this time with a Chinese accent. How can a because-I-can argument be effectively refuted with a but-you-shouldn't argument?

To use Al Gore's favorite adjective, these are "inconvenient" questions; and from the point of view of governance, they may end up leading in a very unpleasant direction. As I listened to the BBC interviews, I also heard a voice in the back of my head saying, "Just remember, China is still subjected to a highly authoritarian government. If the government wants to refute because-I-can with but-you-shouldn't, then they will do so by any means necessary (as Malcolm X to eloquently put it)! In the spirit of Jean-Luc Picard, an authoritarian government just has to say 'Make it so;' and 'it' will happen!" Of course that is not the full extent of the unpleasantness. If this is how China ends up taking the IPCC recommendations and "making them so," will they then being to set an example to the rest of the world? Will Bertrand Russell's vision of international government finally be realized, but will that government be totalitarian? History teaches us about dictators who rose to power in times of crisis by exhibiting the will and strength to extricate the populace from that crisis. Given the short supply of will these days, the though of how that supply may be replenished can only give one pause. This may not be quite the scenario that Vonnegut had warned us about, but he would probably not be surprised were it to come to pass.

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