Costing climate change

Now that the dismissal of climate change is no longer fashionable, the professional deniers are trying another means of stopping us from taking action. It would be cheaper, they say, to wait for the impacts of climate change and then adapt to them. They have the figures to prove it. It is tempting to prove them wrong. Given the new projections of major drought in continental interiors, of a possible global food deficit, of sea level rises with the potential to affect billions of people, it should be easy to demonstrate that the price of waiting for the catastrophe is higher than the price of reducing emissions. But it’s a temptation we should resist. Such calculations use costs which simply cannot be compared. The most famous exponent of the comparison is the Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg. In his book _The Skeptical Environmentalist_, he argues that the cost of doing nothing about climate change – of letting nature take its course – is $4,820 billion. The cost of stabilizing global temperatures at 2.5° above the 1990 level would be $8,553 billion; and the cost of stabilising them at 1.5° above the 1990 level would be $37,632 billion. He warns that ‘with the best intentions of doing something about global warming we could end up burdening the global community with a cost much higher or even twice that of global warming alone’. It would be better to use our money to make investments with higher returns, leaving ‘future generations of poor people with far greater resources’. Many environmentalists have taken him to task, claiming that his costs for taking action are too high and his costs for the impacts of climate change are too low. But they have been drawn into a fake debate. For while the costs of taking action can reasonably be measured in dollars, most of the costs of climate change cannot. We are told, for example, that the financial costs of Hurricane Katrina, which may have been exacerbated by climate change, amount to some $75 billion, and we can use that number to help derive a price for carbon pollution. But does it capture the suffering of the people whose homes were destroyed? Does it reflect the partial destruction, in New Orleans, of one of the quirkiest and most creative communities on earth? Does it, most importantly, measure the value of the lives of those who drowned? In other words, is it possible to place an economic price on human life? Or on an ecosystem, or on the climate? Could such costs, when rolled out around the world, really be deemed to amount to $4,820 billion, give or take the odd dollar? Such figures are not just wrong. They are meaningless. When economists have tried to put a price on such things, they have simply exposed the limitations of their science. In 1996, for example, a study for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that a life lost in the poor nations could be priced at $150,000, while a life lost in the rich nations could be assessed at $1.5 million. The researchers produced these figures by estimating how much people would be prepared to pay for the adaptive measures that would save their lives. Unsurprisingly, they discovered that the lives of rich people were worth more than the lives of poor people. These days, economists are less prepared to expose themselves to ridicule. So anything that cannot be quantified is simply excluded from the balance sheet. What this means is that the loss of all the really important things – a functioning ecosystem, human communities, human life – is overlooked. Because they aren’t counted, they don’t count. It would be wrong to blame only Bjørn Lomborg and the economists whose work he promotes for taking this line. Almost everyone feels obliged to attach a price tag to global catastrophe. The British Government, for example, has decided that the ‘social cost’ of carbon emissions is somewhere between $60 and $250 per tonne, with a middle value of $120. We might reasonably ask what the heck this means. Does the British Government really believe it can put a price on the people of Africa? On Bangladesh?

‘Either we decide that it is right to spend a lot of money seeking to prevent catastrophic climate change or we decide that it isn’t, but we must make that decision on the grounds of how much we value people and places as people and places, rather than as figures in a ledger’

The answer appears to be yes. In its White Paper on aviation, it washes its hands of responsibility for the 235-per-cent growth in flying expected in Britain between now and 2030. The massive boost to greenhouse gases this will cause should be remedied, it says, by encouraging the airline industry to ‘pay the external costs its activities impose on society at large’. But how? Should a steward be sacrificed every time someone in Ethiopia dies of hunger? As Bangladesh goes under water, will ministers demand the drowning of a commensurate number of airline executives? The only suggestion it makes is that aviation fuel might be taxed. The implication is that a payment in pounds or euros would somehow cancel out the ‘external costs’ of rising emissions, which means death and ecological collapse. Taking action, in other words, must be a moral decision, not an economic one. Either we decide that it is right to spend a lot of money seeking to prevent catastrophic climate change or we decide that it isn’t, but we must make that decision on the grounds of how much we value people and places as people and places, rather than as figures in a ledger. This is not the only way in which different kinds of costs have been conflated. The denial industry also manages to mix up money actually spent with money that might have been made if regulations suppressing climate change weren’t in place. But spending money that really exists and not having money that might have existed are costs which are felt quite differently. At the moment, all of us ‘suffer’ economically as a result of the ban on psychotropic drugs. If this trade had been legal, it would have increased the size of the economy, which means that on average we would be slightly richer today than we are. But, with the exception of a few people who have been hoping to sell these items legally, we do not walk around under a cloud, lamenting the fact that money which might have entered our pockets has been denied to us. The impact of this constraint is real, but it has not been felt by us. No-one’s bank account is emptied by what might have been. The political impact of the two kinds of ‘cost’ is very different. Even when taking action means spending real taxpayers’ money, it is not always true that this always represents a genuine social cost. It depends on how the money would otherwise have been spent. One of the arguments made by those who claim that we should take no action is that if the same amount of money were spent on relieving hunger, or supplying clean water, or preventing AIDS or tuberculosis or malaria, it would save more lives. This approach tends to overlook the fact that climate change is likely to cause more hunger, more water stress and more communicable disease, thereby raising the cost of addressing them. But this is not the strongest response to their argument. Behind their case is an unfathomable assumption: that money spent on preventing climate change is money not spent on foreign aid. In other words, it supposes that the climate change budget is in direct competition with the rich countries’ foreign aid budgets, rather than with any other kind of spending. If the rich countries were already doing everything in their power to help the poor, this argument would carry some weight. But it is hard to think of a national exchequer which has ever been endangered by its foreign aid spending. The governments of Europe have agreed that by 2015 – a mere 35 years after the date they first set for themselves - they will give 0.7 per cent of their national income in foreign aid. The US currently spends 0.17 per cent of gross domestic product – just over $19 billion - on aid. Britain spends 0.36 per cent, or about $7.5 billion. In other respects these governments are more generous. Britain’s budget for the widening the M1 motorway is $6.3 billion. This is nearly seven times as much as it is currently spending every year on tackling climate change. In his book _Perverse Subsidies_, published in 2001, Professor Norman Myers adds the direct payments US corporations receive from their government to the wider costs they oblige society to carry, and arrives at an annual figure of $2.6 trillion. This is roughly five times as much as the profits they were making at the time his book was written. As well as the annual $362 billion the 30 richest governments were paying their farmers when _Perverse Subsidies_ was published, they were spending some $71 billion on fossil fuels and nuclear power and a staggering $1.1 trillion on road transport. Worldwide, governments pay companies $25 billion a year to destroy the earth’s fisheries, and $14 billion to wreck our forests. In the European Union, according to the European Environment Agency, direct and indirect subsidies for the coal industry amounted to $17 billion in 2001, and subsidies to the oil and gas industry to $11 billion. In the US, Joseph Stiglitz, the former chief economist at the World Bank, and Linda Bilmes, an economist at Harvard, calculate that, on ‘very conservative’ estimates, the war in Iraq has so far cost their country between $1 and $2 trillion. This is not a choice between state spending on climate change or state spending on foreign aid and essential public services. It is a choice between state spending on climate change or state spending on coal, oil, roads, farm subsidies, environmental destruction and unprovoked wars. We could reasonably ask why governments seem to find it so easy to raise the money required to wreck the biosphere, and so difficult to raise the money required to save it. So please don’t take the ‘costs’ of climate change – either its impacts or action prevent it – at face value. Even when teased apart, they mean less than economists claim. We cannot use a spreadsheet to decide whether or not to act. We can only use our conscience.

*George Monbiot*’s new book _Heat: how to stop the planet burning_ is published by Penguin. He has also launched a new website – – exposing the fake green claims of corporations and politicians.

Reclaiming globalization

All democratic movements encounter at some point in their development a fundamental conflict. They become torn between the need to remain inclusive enough not to alienate sections of their membership and the recognition that to be politically effective they must concentrate on a single set of policies and pursue them with ruthless determination.

The movement to which most of the readers of this magazine would consider themselves to belong, the movement which remains so beautifully diverse that we cannot even agree on its name, appears destined soon to bump up against this intractable reality. This movement (let us call it for the purposes of this article the ‘global justice movement’) in which Marxists, anarchists, statists, liberals, libertarians, Greens, conservatives, revolutionaries, reactionaries, animists, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims have found a home, has buried its differences to fight its common enemies. Those differences will re-emerge when it seeks to coalesce around a common set of solutions.

We have so far avoided this conflict by permitting ourselves to believe that we can pursue simultaneously hundreds of global proposals without dispersing our power. Almost everyone, among them writers whom I greatly admire, appears to agree that we can confront the consolidated power of our opponents with a jumble of contradictory ideas. We can pursue, Susan George believes, ‘thousands of alternatives’ or, as the Zapatistas and now author Paul Kingsnorth would have it, ‘one no, and many yeses’. But, and I am genuinely sorry to say this, we deceive ourselves if we believe that we can change the world by this means.

Of course we should seek to change our domestic political circumstances and draw support from other communities in doing so. But, as the entire movement implicitly acknowledges, thinking globally and acting locally is not enough.

If we propose solutions which can be effected only at the local or the national level we remove ourselves from any meaningful role in solving precisely those problems which most concern us. Issues such as climate change, international debt, nuclear proliferation, war, peace and the balance of trade between nations can be addressed only globally or internationally. Without global measures and global institutions it is impossible to see how we might distribute wealth from rich nations to poor ones, tax the mobile rich and their even-more-mobile money, control the shipment of toxic waste, sustain the ban on landmines, prevent the use of nuclear weapons, broker peace between nations or prevent powerful states from forcing weaker ones to trade on their terms. If we were to work only at the local level we would leave these, the most critical of issues, for other people to tackle.

Global governance will take place whether we participate in it or not. Indeed, it must take place if the issues which concern us are not to be resolved by the brute force of the powerful. That the international institutions have been designed or captured by a dictatorship of vested interests is not an argument against the existence of international institutions, but an argument for overthrowing them and replacing them with our own. It is an argument for a global political system which holds power to account.

By rebuilding global politics, we establish the political space in which our local alternatives can flourish. If, by contrast, we leave the governance of the necessary global institutions to others, then those institutions will pick off both our local and our national solutions one by one. There is little point in devising an alternative national economic policy – as Brazil’s president, Lula, once advocated – if the International Monetary Fund and the financial speculators have not first been overthrown. There is little point in fighting to protect a coral reef from local pollution if nothing has been done to prevent climate change from destroying the conditions it requires for its survival.

Few members of this movement would dispute these basic political realities. The conflict begins when we seek to decide what democratic global governance would look like. To claim that, at the global level, we can pursue ‘thousands of alternatives’ and remain an effective political movement is to succumb both to wishful thinking and to the familiar political solipsism: placing the importance of a movement ahead of the importance of the issues it contests. We have many reasons to fear the search for common solutions and the furious disputes and recriminations which are bound to accompany it. But we have one overwhelming reason to fear our failure to pursue them: unless we do so we will never present a mortal threat to the existing world order. To destroy it we need first to agree upon the structures with which we wish to replace it.

I have sought to lay out some of the characteristics of what I believe would be a just and democratic world order. I have not tried to be original. Where effective solutions have already been devised I have adopted them – though in most cases I have felt the need to revise and develop the argument. But where the existing proposals appear to me to be inadequate I have had to contrive new approaches.

I have tried to devise what I hope is a coherent, self-reinforcing system, all of whose elements – political and economic – defend and enhance the others.

I have not tried to suggest anything resembling a final or definitive world order. On the contrary I hope that other people will refine, transform and if necessary overthrow my proposals in favour of better ones. I have sought to design a system which permits, indeed encourages, its own improvement – and which mobilizes the collective genius unleashed whenever freely thinking people discuss an issue without constraint. And these proposals are of course a means to an end. If they fail to deliver global justice they must be torn down and trampled like so many failed proposals before them. But I hope that if it does nothing else this manifesto will help to accelerate the necessary debates.

Very briefly I have suggested the following transformations:

Such proposals are pointless unless we have a means of implementing them against the resistance of the world’s most powerful governments and corporations. So I have also proposed some cruel and unusual methods of destroying their resistance. Foremost among these is the poor world’s recognition of the power of the weapon it has been handed by the rich world: its debt. Poor nations, though their governments have yet to recognize the implications, effectively own the rich world’s banks. I have proposed that the ‘conditionalities’ applied to the poor nations by the rich world’s financial institutions be reversed: the indebted nations begin to impose conditions on the rich world which must be met if they are not to launch a collective default. These conditions would include the democratization of the structures of global governance which currently shut them out. Of course this won’t happen until the citizens of those nations demand – with the energy and persistence with which they have campaigned against the World Bank and the IMF – that their governments pursue such a strategy.

But internationalism surely means interaction between nations. Globalization means interaction beyond nations

Implicit in all these demands is the recognition which has slowly begun to seep through our movement that globalization itself is not so much of a problem as an opportunity. There even appears to be a case for reclaiming the term itself. Like many others I have in the past lazily used ‘globalization’ as shorthand for the problems we contest and ‘internationalism’ as shorthand for the way in which we need to contest them. While globalization has come to mean capital’s escape from national controls, internationalism has come to mean unified action by citizens whose class interests transcend national borders.

But internationalism surely means interaction between nations. Globalization means interaction beyond nations, unmediated by the state. For example, the powers of the United Nations General Assembly are delegated by nation-states, so the only citizens’ concerns it considers are those the nation-states – however repressive, unaccountable or unrepresentative they may be – are prepared to discuss. The nation-state acts as a barrier between us and the body charged with resolving many of the problems affecting us. The UN’s problem is that global politics have been captured by nation-states; that globalization, in other words, has been forced to give way to internationalism.

The problem is not globalization but the release from globalization which both economic agents and nation-states have been able to negotiate. They have been able to operate so freely because the people of the world have no global means of restraining them. Our task is surely not to overthrow globalization, but to capture and use it as a vehicle for humanity’s first global democratic revolution.

Ultimately, I don’t greatly care whether the movement as a whole adopts an agenda resembling the one I have proposed, or something quite different. What is important is that we adopt an agenda: not thousands of agendas, just one. As soon as we attempt to do so we will start to discover just how fragile our unity is. We may even start to fight each other with the determination with which we have previously fought our common enemies. But this is the fire through which we must walk if we are to transform our movement from an oppositional restraint upon the rulers of the world into an irresistible force for change.

George Monbiot expands these arguments in his new book, The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order (Flamingo, 2003).

A parliament for the planet

When George Bush announced that he was engaged in ‘a fight to save the civilized world’, he was assuming powers and responsibilities he does not possess. Though his attack on Afghanistan was retrospectively legalized by the United Nations Security Council, it plainly offends the provisions of the UN Charter (which permits states to defend themselves against armed attack but says nothing about subsequent retaliation). But the Security Council, whose five permanent members also happen to be the world’s five biggest arms dealers, tends to do precisely as the US requests. ‘World leaders’, in other words, can define their powers as they please.

This is just the latest manifestation of the permanent crisis of legitimacy which blights every global decision-making body. Those who claim to lead the world were never granted their powers: they grabbed them. The eight middle-aged men whose G8 meetings are the ultimate repository of global power represent just 13 per cent of the world’s population. They were all elected to pursue domestic imperatives: their global role is simply an unmandated by-product of their national role.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), which apportion votes according to the money they receive, are governed by the countries in which they don’t operate. The UN General Assembly represents governments rather than people and, while in theory it operates on a one- country-one-vote basis, in practice a poor nation of 900 million swings less weight than a rich nation of 60 million. UN ambassadors, as appointees, are remote from the populations they are supposed to represent, but all too close to their national-security services. While some poor nations can’t afford to send delegates to World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings, rich nations are represented by huge parties of business lobbyists. Many of the WTO’s key decisions are made in secret.

There is, we are told by almost everyone, no alternative to this rule of finance and fear. We might not like the way the world is run, but even the most radical NGOs and campaigners tend to call at most for the replacement of the World Bank and IMF, while failing to address the political framework which legitimized them. There is, in other words, a widespread tacit acceptance of a model of benign dictatorship in which rich and powerful nations govern the world on behalf of everyone else.

In 1937 George Orwell observed that: ‘every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed.’ Bourgeois socialists, he charged, were prepared to demand the death of capitalism and the destruction of the British Empire only because they knew that these things were unlikely to happen. ‘For, apart from any other consideration, the high standard of life we enjoy in England depends upon keeping a tight hold on the Empire… in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation – an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce to it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.’ The middle-class socialist, he insisted, ‘is perfectly ready to accept the products of Empire and to save his soul by sneering at the people who hold the Empire together’.

Since then, empires have waxed and waned, but that basic economic formula holds true: we in the rich world live in comparative comfort only because of the inordinate power our governments wield, and the inordinate wealth which flows from that power. We acquiesce in this system every time we buy salad from a supermarket (grown with water stolen from Kenyan nomads) or step into a plane to travel to the latest climate talks. Accepting the need for global democracy means accepting the loss of our own nations’ power to ensure that the world is run for our benefit. Are we ready for this, or is there lurking still some residual fear of the Yellow Peril, an age-old, long-imprinted urge towards paternalism?

As far as I can see, there is only one means by which this crisis of legitimacy can be effectively resolved. It’s a notion which most people find repugnant, but only, I believe, because they have failed to grasp both its implications and the extent of their own acceptance of the undemocratic fudge by which the world is run. Global democracy is meaningless unless ultimate oversight resides in a directly elected assembly. We need a world parliament.

If, like most people in the developed world, you abhor this idea, I invite you to examine your reaction carefully. Is it because you believe such a body might become remote and excessively powerful? Or is it really because you cannot bear the idea that a resident of Kensington would have no greater say than a resident of Kinshasa? That Sri Lankans would have the same number of representatives as Australians (and more as their population increases)? That the people of China would, collectively, be 41 times as powerful as the people of Canada? Are you really a new internationalist or are you, secretly, an old paternalist?

The key point here is that power exists at the international level whether we like it or not. The absence of an accountable forum does not prevent global decision-making taking place – merely ensures that it does not take place democratically. It’s not a question of removing further powers from nation-states or from their citizens, but of democratizing those powers which are already being wielded supranationally.

A parliament - in which people parley, or talk - has already been established by the new world order’s dissidents I’m often told, in response to this proposal, that democracy at the European level is bad enough: why should we want to extend the principle to the rest of the world? Well, one might, perhaps with good reason, lament the existence of the European Union (which, unlike the world, is a political artefact), but the real question is whether it would be better or worse off without the European Parliament. For all its feebleness and faults, the parliament is surely an essential counterweight to the unelected Commission and the photocopy democracy of the European Council.
A more legitimate concern is that a global parliament might be readily bought or subverted. This is a real danger for any representative body, but there are plenty of lessons to be learnt from systems, like Britain’s, which possess insufficient safeguards. The private funding of elections, for example, could be prohibited. Parliament could provide a small, fixed sum for every candidate: anyone who spent more than this on campaigning would be disqualified. It should be forbidden to use party whips to force representatives into line, if parties exist at all. But there’s no question that, like any other assembly, we would have to keep holding a world parliament to account, by means of exposure, embarrassment and dissent.

Advocates of a world parliament have been careful so far not to be too prescriptive about the form it might take. If it is to gain popular consent and legitimacy, it’s essential that the model be permitted to evolve in response to grassroots concerns, rather than being handed down from on high, like the European Parliament or the United Nations. But two irreducible essentials emerge. The first is that all of its members should be directly elected. The obvious and revolutionary implication is that it thereby bypasses national governments. One could envisage, for example, 600 constituencies, each containing some ten million people, which would, where necessary, straddle national boundaries.

The second is that the parliament’s own powers must be strictly limited: both by the principle of subsidiarity (devolving power to the smallest appropriate political unit), and by restricting its capacity for executive action. We could, perhaps, see it performing like a collection of supercharged select committees, holding the executive agencies to account, producing policy reports, replacing or regenerating defunct institutions. But it would control no army and it would exercise no coercive power over states. If it possessed a presidency, this would be a titular and administrative role, but would carry no power of its own. The parliament would simply become the means of forcing multilateral bodies to operate in the best interests of everyone, rather than those of just the rich and powerful.

But it’s not hard to see how this modest function could transform the way the world works. Multilateral institutions like the World Bank and IMF, whose role is to police the debtors on behalf of the creditor nations, would disappear immediately. A democratic assembly would be likely to replace them with something like Keynes’s ‘International Clearing Union’, which would force creditors as well as debtors to eliminate Third World debt and redress imbalances in trade. The WTO, if it survived at all, would be forced to open its decision-making processes to democratic scrutiny. If a global parliament administered a global fund (arising, for example, from the proposed ‘Tobin Tax’ on international financial trans-actions), it could ensure that the money did not become the plaything of powerful nation-states. The UN’s humanitarian funding gaps would surely be plugged, and weaker nations could be given the money necessary to attend international negotiations.

Interestingly, the parliament could legitimize other internationalist proposals. As Troy Davis of the World Citizen Foundation has pointed out, without representation the legitimacy of global taxation is questionable. The absence of an international legislature undermines the authority of an international judiciary (such as the proposed criminal court). Judges presiding over the war-crimes tribunals at the Hague and in Arusha have been forced, in effect, to make up the law as they go along. The only fair and lasting means of reducing CO2 (namely ‘contraction and convergence’, which means working out how much pollution the planet can take, then allocating an equal pollution quota to everyone on earth) would surely be impossible to implement without a world parliament.

So, given that nation-states will be reluctant to surrender their illegitimate control over global governance, how do we persuade them to make way? The answer, I think, is that we don’t. We simply start without them. There are signs that this is happening, organically, already.

The ‘world social forums’ and People’s Global Action meetings which have sprung up in response to the World Economic Forum and G8 meetings have brought together campaigners from all over the world to discuss alternative global futures. These are, of course, unelected, unrepresentative bodies. But if these gatherings could transform themselves into representative bodies, whose members are chosen democratically by populations all over the world, we could rapidly find ourselves building a world parliament in exile.

As its moral power grew and the moral power of the existing means of world governance shrank correspondingly, it’s not hard to see how a legitimate representative assembly could emerge through consent rather than coercion. If it does, it will have solved the fundamental problem under-pinning the development of any new body: that of public ownership. The European Parliament is perceived as both remote and boring by many of the people it represents, largely because it was imposed from above by national governments. A world parliament would belong to the people from the beginning of the process.

We have been gathering every few months in different parts of the world to search for solutions, unaware, perhaps, that the gathering itself could be the solution. A parliament – in which people parley, or talk – has already been established by the new world order’s dissidents. Now we must invite the rest of the world to take part.

George Monbiot ’s latest book Captive State: the corporate
takeover of Britain
is now published in paperback by Pan Macmillan.
Around 400 of his articles are available online at

Where's Mr President?
Carnival day in Bolivia, the South American mainland's poorest country.
Find the G8 leaders, no longer able to shout down the crowd. Key below the picture.

[image, unknown]

Left to right: [in the white circles]
George Bush, Jean Chrétien, Gerhard Schröder, Jacques Chirac,
Silvio Berlusconi, Vladimir Putin, Junichiro Koizumi, Tony Blair.

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