If Gandhi were around today, I think he would be less reasonable and tractable about the climate crisis; instead, he would challenge the moral integrity of so-called western civilization. The galvanizing march to the salt flats (the famous “Salt March”) would be a tour of threatened island nations: Inuit seeking redress for loss of habitat, mountain people facing bewildering change, deluges in Bangladesh, landslides in the Philippines, and masses of people in the Indus-Ganges-Yangtze river basins facing an uncertain future over water supplies. It would be a march to bear witness to the moral wrongness that pervades the fossil-fuel civilization. It would not, my fellow environmentalists, be the image of a stranded polar bear, regardless of how signatory a phenomena.
In May I was in Pakistan, and I have traveled in that region for several years working on microfinance strategies aimed at bringing people out of poverty and — I would suggest — building local financial institutions that can survive the coming climate onslaught. I learned that historically much of Pakistan’s electrical power generation comes from hydroelectric and geothermal sources; but with 7-8 percent growth rates fueling more air conditioners and refrigeration, a drop in river flow from the Himalayan snowpack, and a 150-percent-plus growth rate in car sales, the carbon footprint for the (at least) 170 million Pakistanis is increasing rapidly. And unless it can get off this American-style sprawl-and-consume model, the problem will become exponentially larger over the next few years. As I wrote on nextbillion.net, energy is a key issue for this country and any developing country in this region.
This is not to say I agree with Mr. Bush, who has again linked U.S. action with concurrent action by China and India. To agree with the head-in-the-oil-sands neocons, I would need to believe in the rightness of the equivalent of the used-car salesman telling me to slash the tires of the car I just bought from him because he was tired of being stuck in traffic. Or, the moral equivalent of “let them eat cake.”
Because, as Bono has so rightly stated in the recent edition of Vanity Fair, there is a poverty crisis now with millions dying in Africa alone, never mind a future “environmental” calamity. Governments faced with such a situation, and expecting to stay in power, cannot deny the energy-consuming aspirations of their populations. Nor should they; the correlation between lack of electrical supplies and poverty is clear even if causation is not. There is a failure of leadership and imagination to find ways to link the local village- and city-level decisions about energy use and generation with the very urgent need for climate solutions — people are buying generators to cope with totally inadequate electrical supplies because the generators are cheaper. It’s absurd — after all the warnings and discussions, there are currently no easy mechanisms for internalizing the externalities of so many millions of decisions.
I was on an IM chat with colleagues in Bangladesh a few days ago and was dismayed but not entirely surprised to hear that Chittagong, a city of nearly 4 million people (in a country of 130 million) was under four to six feet of water from a 30-year storm that dropped three inches of rain per hour, overwhelming the inadequate drainage systems, closing the airport, cutting communication, shutting down the TV station, and suspending microfinance operations across a wide swath of the area. Dozens of people had been killed, and since then the lack of pumping stations and clean water is creating the possibility for cholera and other disease outbreaks. These stories, remote to most of us, drive home that there are human costs to this uncontrolled experiment with our atmosphere.
The question posed by those in the carbon-tax vs. carbon-trading regime debate on this blog has real meaning for the majority of the world’s population. We will need these two items as part of a new policy-regulatory-economic regime, but we need more. It is high time for unreasonable people to propose ways to tax, penalize, and overthrow the status quo.