Climate Realpolitik
Book Review

In his new book, The Plundered Planet, Oxford University economist Paul Collier proposes using tough measures to restrain climate change. Collier suggests that a small group of the world's most powerful states should impose a global regime aimed at restraining greenhouse gas (GHG) discharges. To achieve this end, the great powers may well need to use a mix of trade sanctions and threats of cutting off foreign aid to countries that do not abide by the regime.

The book covers many subjects at the interface between development economics and the environment. In doing so, it offers a host of bold and striking ideas. But this prescription for climate change may prove to be the most provocative of its ideas. On its face, this proposal seems to give new meaning to the term "climate Realpolitik," albeit Realpolitik in an idealistic cause. But is it, in fact, realistic? I suggest that it is not.


The greatest virtue of Collier's wide-ranging book involves his weighing in on a long-running and acrimonious debate. The quality of the public discourse in this debate falls far short of its intensity. Many climate scientists insist on proclaiming what are actually their own policy preferences as if they were scientific findings. In response, many conservatives have taken to disputing the findings of climate science. The result, as one wag has put it, is a heated debate between those making claims based on bad policy analysis and those opposing them based on bad science.

Access to the markets of the G-5 is of great value to the rapidly growing middle-income states, and the threat of G-5 trade sanctions should bring them to heel.

Compared to this muddle, many parts of Collier's treatment of climate policy unfold with great clarity. GHG emissions, he notes, have the same impact on climate whatever their point of origin, and halting the rise of GHG levels in the atmosphere requires limiting discharges to quite low levels. Together, these facts imply that, to end manmade climate change, very stringent GHG controls would have to cover all major regions of the globe.

Collier is fully aware of the failure of the United Nations climate talks, and he is ruthless in pointing out that the moralizing and opportunism that have dominated them lead to a dead end. His handling of the Clean Development Mechanism, biofuels policy, and nuclear power do a superb job of exposing both nonsense and rent seeking.

He notes that the challenge of GHG control centers on the middle-income states, which are likely to host an increasing share of the world's heavy industry, and he sees these states as presenting the main line of resistance to GHG control. Above all, in a world of discourse in which the very mention of power has been taboo, Collier sees that at least the threat of coercion would be essential to success.

To this end, he offers a quasi-Bismarckian plan. The G-2--the United States and China--are its cornerstone. Collier claims that his plan reflects their national self-interest: For the United States, climate change may eventually harm Florida, a politically important state. For China, melting Himalayan glaciers will provide a spur to action. The European Union has led on climate, and Japan would like to; so Collier thinks that they will readily fall in line--as will India, although why he thinks so is more than a little hazy.

These states, the G-5, will supply the muscle needed to save the planet from climate change. Access to the markets of the G-5 is of great value to the rapidly growing middle-income states, and the threat of G-5 trade sanctions should bring them to heel. The really poor countries are dependent on aid; threatening to withhold it should yield their compliance.


Why, the reader may well ask, when for over 20 years the G-5 have been unable to act on GHG control, will they suddenly coalesce into a global oligarchy? The threat of higher sea levels is neither likely to dominate the next U.S. election nor is it new. The pace of melting of the Himalayan glaciers remains the subject of much debate. Then too, why should the G-2 seek GHG controls instead of building dikes and reservoirs? The EU's actions on climate have lagged behind its rhetoric, and that statement applies even more to Japan. India has made it quite clear that poverty reduction comes before GHG reductions.

Over time, green values may indeed gain strength, but for them to attain real power, a society must first be wealthy for several generations.

Perhaps Collier is troubled by these thoughts, because he offers a second conjecture about why his proposed policies might be implemented. The power of informed citizens, he surmises, will compel governments to adopt enlightened policies. Collier rests his hope on three grounds: a new ethic of environmental values may come to animate people everywhere; government may become more transparent; and citizens could begin to take the trouble to inform themselves about the economics of the natural world.

Like a philosophe presaging the imminent arrival of the age of reason, Collier's hopes seem to have overpowered his critical faculties. Over time, green values may indeed gain strength, but for them to attain real power, a society must first be wealthy for several generations. Some governments may have become more transparent, but the global political economy has also become more complex and more opaque. Have people become better informed? Perhaps we have, but about 40 percent of the world's population has still not even heard of global warming, let alone formed a clear concept of what to do about it.

Other trends, moreover, have been working against Collier's grand design. As Stephen Krasner has noted, today's more constrained United States is less likely to persist in costly, ideologically-driven global regime building than was the case in earlier decades. Resources are scarcer, and there are many calls on them.

Worse still, the United States seems to be drifting toward protectionism. Collier's scheme depends on the G-5 threatening trade sanctions, but also on withholding or lifting them when other states give in on GHG control. The implicit risk is that we get the first effect, but not the second.

Finally, in both of the G-2 states, internal political trends are clearly hobbling action on climate. China's energy-intensive heavy industry has forged tight two-way bonds with its Communist Party, and the shift of power away from Beijing and to regional and local governments has largely insulated this sector from regulation. With Beijing's very limited control at the local level, foreigners would have little grounds for trusting any GHG control promises that China makes. In the United States, too, regional interests are very powerful, and the votes of the many coal-dependent states have checked demands for stringent GHG control. If Collier had looked at the actions of the G-2 states instead of projecting his own wishes onto their governments, he would have read the prospects for his scheme far more skeptically.


The Plundered Planet is a splendid book. It is chock-a-block with insightful analysis. It explores the stakes for the world's poorest countries of reforming resource extraction policies or of failing to do so. If the book fails in the task of offering a convincing solution to climate change, it is in good company. Indeed, it is not that Collier has overlooked some obvious means of curbing GHG emissions--it is that, under current conditions, no such means exist.

That conclusion is an unwelcome one. It implies that the world will need to cope with continued high GHG emissions for much longer than many idealists, including Collier, would wish. In turn, this prospect implies that adaptation to climate change must be a higher priority than it has been, and the option of engineering the climate to curb warming even as GHG levels rise deserves serious study.

Lee Lane is a resident fellow at AEI and the codirector of the AEI Geoengineering Project.

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