Thursday, December 17, 2009

Funding to fix climate change and making sure the world doesn’t go hungry or thirsty

Today in the news it was announced by Hillary Clinton (secretary of state for the Obama administration) that 100 billion dollars per year was what the Americans were offering as part of a multinational deal to help fight climate change.

That is a lot of money. However, it is not clear how this money would be spent. One of the main concerns about climate change is that eventually some of the world’s regions will not produce as much food or have as much clean water as they do presently and so this may cause poor people in the future to die of starvation or dehydration. This is where the problem comes in – I have been reading the newspapers (one could say religiously) just about everyday for as long as I can remember. Sometimes when one particular region is subject to some particularly problematic circumstance then deaths due to starvation can increase dramatically, this can result in news articles being written about the crisis thus raising people’s awareness of the problem and encouraging them to help (for instance, I recall when I was a child there were severe droughts in Ethiopia or more recently how North Koreans were often going hungry so that Kim Jong Il could feed his millions of soldiers). Despite reading the news religiously it wasn’t until very recently that I discovered how severe and persistent the problem of world hunger really is.

There are more people dying everyday right now whose death is linked to malnutrition than there were dying in a typical day during World War II. We really should be taking vast amounts of money towards an international agreement to fight world hunger, unfortunately, this issue is not well publicized. The United Nations estimates there are about 1 billion malnourished people in the world (mostly in poor countries). A multinational agreement with the amount of funds being proposed to fight climate change could surely be super beneficial to our planet and humanity if earmarked for fighting hunger and giving people clean drinking water. Now part of the mandate of climate change funds is to prevent a future circumstance whereby some lands won’t produce enough food to feed the local population. But we already have this problem! I think it would be best if the mandate of any climate change agreement is expanded to alleviate conditions (like starvation and dehydration) that climate change can contribute to. Thus a large amount of any climate change funds could be immediately earmarked for relieving existing starvation and dehydration issues that already occur around the planet. There's a 0.6 or 0.7 degrees Celsius temperature increase over the last 100 years, thus the world’s hungry poor people who don’t have adequate water supplies are likely already being adversely affected by climate change that started a century ago. These people should be helped right now!

Normally it is expected that this money would be devoted to reducing greenhouse gas emissions which are known to sit in our atmosphere and act as a heat retaining insulator – thus leading to planetary warming. There are many approaches to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions; the least appealing one to me is a carbon swap / carbon credit type approach. First of all no business is going to want to admit just how many greenhouse gases they are emitting because they will have to pay more money to compensate for their emissions. So if we can’t trust the businesses to universally and accurately report their emissions then we will need an expensive set of government regulators and inspectors to force the companies to comply. I am skeptical that such an approach will even work, although I do expect that it will cost a lot of money. Furthermore, governments which have a bad track record of forcing their companies to behave themselves are even less likely to produce accurate numbers for their greenhouse gas emissions. What’s to stop a company from emitting a LOT of greenhouse gases on the many days when no government inspectors are present? Furthermore, those companies that buy a carbon credit to compensate for their polluting will buy it from someone else who has polluted less. In theory this sounds good – a polluting company is forced to pay money to a green company. Once again I am skeptical that regulations will effectively force the polluting company to pay, but an even more ironic circumstance will happen when a polluting company does pay but pays the carbon credit to a company which no longer operates an unprofitable formerly polluting factory. This unprofitable polluting factory was already shut down and we got the benefit of the reduced greenhouse gas emissions already. It doesn’t make sense for a polluter to send money to this company to compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions as money would be paid but there would be no net reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions.

A much much better strategy to reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be to invest lots of money into new technologies that one day will provide us with a more economical option than our present polluting options. If a green energy option were cheaper than our present polluting options then we would dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions through standard capitalist free market economics (everyone would choose the green option because it saves them money and the benefit for the planet through reduced greenhouse gases would be a positive side effect).

Hopefully one day all of humanity will have an adequate supply of food and water.

I was thinking - when dealing with such huge amounts of money it would be a real shame if we just throw money at the problem and expect everything to work out.

Jacob Levman