Foreign Policy Blogs

Climate Change, Category Mistakes and Process Oriented Outcomes

The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed piece by one Bjorn Lomborg, who occupies the role of Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a Danish think tank.

Dr. Lomborg is interested in prescribing some hard to swallow medicine to all those environmentalists who claim that capping carbon emissions is the magic pill that will solve all environmental and social problems in the developing world.  He writes about Momota Begum a 45-year old mother and wife to a cart-puller who earns $44 each month.  The family lives in a refugee camp established in 1971 for Urdu speaking people of East Pakistan–colloquially, known as “Biharis–who, unhappily found themselves, stuck, sequestered in the newly established land of Bengali’s, Bangladesh.

(Please note that Begum is more a title than a name.  Hence, it is not correct to address her as Mrs. Begum, as Dr. Lomborg does, repeatedly.  For all we know, her husband’s name is Alif Miah Talukdar.  Consider moreover that if his name were Alif Miah, then we still would not address Momota Begum as Momota Miah, because the noun “Miah” is also a title.)

“The family has no savings”, he writes. ” Mrs. Begum believes that education could help her children achieve a better life. But her eldest daughter dropped out of school at age 13. The family could not afford the $22 annual fee for books and uniforms. “It’s better that she stays at home and helps out,” Mrs. Begum said.”

“Bangladesh provides camp residents with water and electricity, but not proper sanitation. Mrs. Begum cooks the daily meal next to an open drain. Diarrhea is common. Mrs. Begum’s family cannot afford the $2.90-$4.30 cost of going to a private health clinic when someone in the family gets sick.”

From this story of terrible deprivation and constrained capability, Dr. Lomborg infers that 1) Momota Begum’s problems can only be solved by making specific and targeted changes to infrastructure, by say, delivering clean water and better sanitation to the camp.  2) That such a move cannot be consistent with a broader macro-level move to halt the rate of release of emissions because–as claimed in the organization’s website–“when financial resources are limited, it is necessary to prioritize the effort. Every day, policymakers and business leaders at all levels prioritize by investing in one project instead of another. However, instead of being based on facts, science, and calculations, many vital decisions are based on political motives or even the possibility of media coverage”

So Dr. Lomborg writes, “In the developed world, when we consider how best to help Bangladesh, our minds quickly turn to policies that would reduce the amount of carbon emissions to lessen the risk that global warming will lead to rising sea levels over the next 50 or 100 years.”

Moreover, “getting basic sanitation and safe drinking water to the three billion people around the world who do not have it now would cost nearly $4 billion a year. By contrast, cuts in global carbon emissions that aim to limit global temperature increases to less than two degrees Celsius over the next century would cost $40 trillion a year by 2100. These cuts will do nothing to increase the number of people with access to clean drinking water and sanitation. Cutting carbon emissions will likely increase water scarcity, because global warming is expected to increase average rainfall levels around the world.”

Apart from the fact that he is building a straw man and then knocking it down with extreme prejudice–he seems to welcome global warming because it would increase rainfall levels in a country like Bangladesh– he is making a category mistake and furthermore, is confusing a long term process for an short term outcome.  In the first case, it is simply not true that collectively signed environmental policies, coordinated over a period of time, fall into the category of policies that would help alleviate Momota Begum’s troubles.  Collectively capping carbons emissions will have little impact on the lives lived by the current generation of people, the world over.  Hence, it is false to argue that one set of policies should be prioritized over other policies; they are different sets of policies, all together.  That controlling emissions will still leave Momota Begum immiserated is not a reason to delay putting into place a fairly well coordinated regime to control global carbon emissions.  

Momota Begum needs clean water and the resources to cook her meals far removed from open sewage.  These are not overly fantastical demands to make on her government, other foreign donor governments and international aid agencies.  Nevertheless, these terrible problems ARE problems that are best solved by single governments or single agencies.  Why is this?  For no other reason than because a coordinated approach between multiple agents would complicate a fairly simple political economic problem of resource allocation. And even Dr. Lomborg would support a solution that was consistent with Occam’s razor.  

Hence, the problem that Dr. Lomborg wants us to know about can be solved in one shot by a government–in this case, the government of Bangladesh, led by the Awami League–that is interested in the capabilities of its own people and is also serious about the country’s macro-political economic development.   International agencies and NGO’s need not be involved in this issue.  The solution to the problem is feasible but only if there were enough political will to solve it.

On the other hand it is simply not feasible that any one country, on its own, could address any one element within the set of problems that we think about when we think about climate and environmental change.  Capping emissions, for example, DOES require coordination and co-option between non-cooperative agents, (countries, institutions, agencies, businesses) each of whom has its own agenda.  And because the solution to the problem will come in halts and starts, the process of solving the problem is as important as the final solution that provides a stable equilibrium outcome to the coordination game.

So a complete prescription that takes seriously the plight of Momota Begum and others like her, now and in the days and years to come, needs to take into consideration the multiple ways to solve micro-level individual accounts of deprivation and destitution and the ways in which coordinated strategies between countries can ensure that such accounts and experiences of deprivation do not cycle into our extended and communal future.



Faheem Haider

Faheem Haider is a political analyst, writer and artist. He holds advanced research degrees in political economy, political theory and the political economy of development from the London School of Economics and Political Science and New York University. He also studied political psychology at Columbia University. During long stints away from his beloved Washington Square Park, he studied peace and conflict resolution and French history and European politics at the American University in Washington DC and the University of Paris, respectively.

Faheem has research expertise in democratic theory and the political economy of democracy in South Asia. In whatever time he has to spare, Faheem paints, writes, and edits his own blog on the photographic image and its relationship to the political narrative of fascist, liberal and progressivist art.

That work and associated writing can be found at the following link:

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