January 29, 2008

From Fred Colbourne:

Re: Do rich nations “owe” poor ones for environmental damage? (Jan. 22): Do rich nations “owe” poor ones for eco-damage? Based on U. N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and World Bank reports the researchers, Srinivasan, Norgaard and others concluded that “rich nations have developed at the expense of the poor”. The authors cite several types of environmental damage caused by rich nations, including farming intensification and expansion, deforestation, loss of man­grove swamps and forests, loss of habitat and biodiversity among others.

In my experience studying this subject for many years at universities and then working 37 years as an economist in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the kinds of environmental damage listed above arise through population growth and economic development. Indeed Srinivasan is quoted as saying that Earth’s population doubled in the past 50 years to 6. 5 billion as the average per-capita gross world product also doubled.

Much of this population growth arose through the introduction of public health improvements throughout the developing world. So should we blame rich countries for aiding public health to save the lives of millions of children? Why not? Had the children died in infancy, there would not have been a population boom and much of the additional cropland hacked from forests and wetlands would not have been needed. Or should the rich countries have refused to buy the products poor people had for sale? Why not? Such a policy would have ensured the poor countries remained poor, thus preserving much of the forests and wetlands.

Pollution caused by sewerage, vehicles, factories, burning of urban waste and rural plant debris are all worse in developing countries than in developed countries and mostly caused by local companies and local families, not by rich countries operating abroad.

Ozone depletion and climate change may some day be confirmed as major cost factors in poor countries. When I raised this question with a professor of climatology in Malaysia, he just laughed and said, “Do you think a one degree C change in temperature is going to have much effect in the tropics?” I countered by saying, “How about rainfall, the increase in rainfall will have an effect.” He just smiled. I thought about for a minute and realized that an increase of rainfall and CO2 will probably benefit most tropical crops. When I discussed climate change with an American professor of Earth Science who specializes in the Quaternary Period, he said that he and many of his colleagues still believe that Earth is just coming out of the Little Ice Age into a Modern Warm Period, the process is a natural phenomenon, not the result of human activities. Someday about 30 years hence we will know the answer, but it’s too soon to be confident.

I agree that over-fishing can be squarely attributed to rich nations that operate the big fleets. I agree with one other point: “There will be much controversy about whether you can even do this kind of study and whether we did it right.”

What bothers me about a study like this one and so many studies about climate change is that they attract attention away problems that poor people face every day: air pollution and water pollution. No amount of change within rich countries will benefit the poor in Jakarta or a hundred other cities where millions of vehicles spew smoke and where garbage is burned instead of collected and disposed of in sanitary landfills. No amount of change to the river Thames or the Great Lakes will benefit people whose untreated wastes enter their wells through the groundwater or contaminate the rivers used by water utilities that pump the water to their kitchens or floats in the streets after a heavy rain.

I ask myself the question: Will spending ten trillion dollars on reducing carbon dioxide have any impact at all on the life of a becak driver in Jakarta?

Fred Colbourne


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