Memorandum by Professor Julian Morris,
University of Buckingham
Some claim that climate change will result in
an increase in vector-borne disease, flooding, catastrophic weather
events, loss of biodiversity, changes in agricultural production
and other problems. Yet these are problems today and are either
caused or are exacerbated by poverty. Tackling poverty is likely
to be better way to address these problems than attempting to
control the climate.
Climatic change may turn out to be benign or
harmful: we do not know. But in the context of this uncertainty,
policies that are narrowly focused on adaptation to possible negative
effects are short-sighted and may even be counterproductive. Policies
aimed at mitigation through control of atmospheric carbon are
almost certainly counterproductive.
Adaptive, sustainable development can come only
through the adoption of institutions that enable people to engage
in economic activities that create wealth and lead to technological
progress. Policies that rely on these institutions provide the
best way to deal with an uncertain climate future.
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1. Proponents of the Kyoto Protocol and
similar proposals to limit emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs)
have justified their case by asserting that climate change poses
a grave threat, with a range of devastating consequences for humanity,
and that restricting emissions now is the best response to that
2. The problem with this argument is that
nearly all the alleged negative consequences of climate change
(its "impacts") are in fact problems that humanity faces
today. Future changes in climate may or may not make these problems
worse, but the fact remains that unless they are addressed directly,
they will continue to remain problems, regardless of attempts
to limit human impacts on the climate.
3. Article 3 of the United Nations Framework
Convention on Climate Change, to which the Kyoto agreement is
a Protocol, says that
"Policies and measures to deal with
climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global
benefits at the lowest possible cost," and that "The
Parties should cooperate to promote a supportive and open international
economic system that would lead to sustainable economic growth
and development in all Parties, particularly developing country
Parties, thus enabling them better to address the problems of
4. Meanwhile, "Measures taken to
combat climate change, including unilateral ones, should not constitute
a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised
restriction on international trade."
5. These qualifications suggest that the
question we should ask ourselves is not, "what should we
be doing to limit human impacts on the climate"? Rather,
we should ask, "what actions can we take that will most cost-effectively
reduce the problems we face today that may be exacerbated by climate
6. Imposing restrictions on GHG emissions
is only one of many possible policy optionsand it may well
not be the most cost-effective option.
7. It is climatethat is to
say the prevailing weather, not changes in the climate per
sethat is a major problem for most people on the planet.
Heat and cold pose problems for human survival, both directly
and indirectly. Direct effects include deaths from dehydration
when it is hot, and deaths from hypothermia during cold spells.
Indirect effects include impacts on agricultural productivity;
both frosts and long periods of heat can cause crop damage. Likewise,
droughts, floods and storms also have both direct and indirect
impacts on humanity.
8. While the climate of a regionespecially
associated floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves and cold spells-
affects everyone, it disproportionately affects the poor. This
is because poor people are less able to adapt than are wealthy
people. The wealthy are able to limit direct effects by constructing
robust buildings, with efficient heating and cooling systems.
They also have wider access to the better warning systems afforded
by mass media and communications technologies, which enables them
to escape adverse events.
9. Still, some campaigners and scientists
suggest that climate change will have a variety of incontrovertible
environmental effects, including the loss of biodiversity and
desertification. Both biodiversity loss and land degradation are
realities today but have little to do with climate change.
10. Biodiversity loss: the main
reason for the loss of biological diversity globally is the conversion
of habitat for human uses, especially agriculture. While climate
change may affect biodiversity (positively or negatively), improving
the incentives of people to manage habitat sustainably is a far
more urgent issue.
11. Desertification: the concept
of desertification is highly contentious. Nevertheless, land degradation
is a real problem and, like biodiversity loss, is strongly related
to the incentives people face when making decisions about resource
12. Flooding: Some allege that climate
change will lead to rapidly rising sea levels, causing flooding
in low-lying areas and displacing large numbers of people. Whether
or not this is the case remains unclear, but for the purposes
of argument, I will assume that it is true.
13. Bangladesh is often cited as a country
particularly at risk because a large proportion of its 130 million
inhabitants live in a low-lying river delta which periodically
experiences massive flooding and other severe weather events.
14. But is climate change the real threat
to Bangladesh? Compare with Holland, a country of around 11 million
inhabitants, most of which lies below sea-level, which has not
experienced a flood since 1953. Purely on the basis of the threat
of inundation from the sea, Holland should be more "at risk"
than Bangladesh. So why is Bangladesh so much more at risk of
losing human life and experiencing economic losses from flooding
15. The simple reason is that Holland has
been a liberal democracy for over three centuries and has benefited
from more-or-less continuous economic growth during that period.
By contrast, prior to independence in 1971, Bangladesh was ruled
by a series of more-or-less oppressive absentee landlords (the
Moguls, the British, Pakistan). Since independence, it has been
ruled by a series of more-or-less oppressive and/or incompetent
elected officials. As a result, and in spite of (perhaps even
in part because of) billions of dollars in aid, the majority of
its inhabitants remain poor and disenfranchised, unable to control
their immediate environment.
16. Effects on human health: Another
alleged consequence of climate change is the spread of vector-borne
and bacterial diseases. As with climate in general, these diseases
are a problem today and they affect the poor far more than the
wealthy. Vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue, are
essentially diseases of poverty.
17. Many countries that are today wealthy
once experienced levels of vector-borne diseases similar to those
now experienced by poor countries. In the fourteenth century,
one-third of Europe's population died from the Black Death, which
was spread by fleas that thrived on rats living in the sewers
of medieval towns.
18. Today, every year between one and three
million people, mostly children, die from malaria. A similar number
die from dehydration as a result of diarrhoea. Approximately two
million people, mostly children, die every year from respiratory
infections which are largely brought on by indoor air pollution.
Most of these six million total deaths are of children, all of
them are poor, and most of them preventable.
19. Wealthy countries have largely eliminated
such diseases through a combination of environmental interventions
(such as the use of pesticides), improved water supplies (piping
to the home and using chemical decontaminants) and sanitation
systems, improved energy delivery systems (including grid electricity),
improved agriculture (which has dramatically reduced malnutrition),
and the development of vaccines and medicines.
20. Activists, policymakers and others have
also argued that changes in the climate will have negative economic
consequences, caused by a combination of changes in agricultural
production, droughts and water scarcity, movement of pests, and
other ecological factors. Such claims are, however, highly contentious
for a variety of reasons. Predictions of widespread negative economic
effects are predicated on the assumption that the earth's climate
will warm dramatically during the coming century. The IPCC upper
estimate for warming by 2100 is 5.6ºC. To arrive at this
upper estimate, the IPCC had to assume that emissions of GHGs
will rise dramatically. In fact, the scenario that leads to the
5.6ºC prediction assumes that economic growth will occur
extremely rapidly and that coal will supply an increasing proportion
of the energy that fuels this growth.
21. An increase in the proportion of energy
derived from coal seems plausible in the short to medium term,
as poor populations shift from burning biomass (wood and dung)
to more reliable and less polluting forms of energy, such as distributed
electricity produced by burning coal. In the longer term (eg post-2050),
a switch to other energy sources seems very likely. The implausibility
of the assumption that coal use will increase during the second
half of the 21st century pales into insignificance compared to
the absurdity of the economic claim underlying the scenario. It
is barely consistent to argue, on the one hand, that climate change
will result from rapid economic growth and, on the other, that
climate change will have massively negative economic impacts.
22. The only way these two assertions could
be reconciled is if the growth occurs in some places, while the
adverse effects occur elsewhere. But that is not the basis of
the IPCC scenarios. Instead, in these bizarre fictions, the world's
economies are assumed gradually to converge over the course of
the 21st century. Now, economic convergence in itself is not so
improbable, even though it implies that by 2100 both Bangladesh
and the USA would have similar levels of economic output. The
problem is that in order for that to happen, Bangladesh would
either have found a highly cost-effective way of coping with any
adverse effects of climate change, or it would not have suffered
these adverse effects. Either way, there appears to be a contradiction
between the economic scenarios that underpin the IPCC's climate
forecasts and the scary stories that the IPCC tells on the back
of these forecasts.
23. The IPCC's median forecast for global-mean
warming by 2100 is 2ºC. Some argue that even this dramatically
overestimates the likely warming. But the good news is that warming
of 2ºC is likely to be largely benign. Any GHG-induced warming
is expected to be greater at high latitudes than at the tropics.
A small amount of warming at high latitudes would improve farming
conditions by lengthening the growing season and increasing the
amount of precipitation. In addition, higher levels of carbon
dioxide would enhance rates of growth, further benefiting agriculture.
24. Empirical evidence from the past two
centuries suggests that economic growth, human wellbeing and a
clean environment go hand-in-hand. Increased wealth is associated
with improvements in nearly every aspect of human well-being and
environmental quality. Wealthier people live longer, are better
nourished, have lower mortality rates, have better access to clean
water, sanitation, and education, and benefit from a cleaner environment.
25. Environmental quality has improved dramatically
over the course of the past century in rich countries, with significant
declines in air and water pollution. The air in London is now
cleaner than at any time since the sixteenth century. At the turn
of the 20th century, British towns were plagued by smog caused
in large part by the burning of coal in relatively simple household
fires. Over the course of the following four decades, households
graduallyand almost entirely voluntarilyswitched
to burning "town gas" in increasingly sophisticated
heating systems. The result was a dramatic reduction in pollution
and associated ill-health. By the time of the Clean Air Act of
1956, which mandated the replacement of coal fires with gas, electricity
or coal, the transition was already well under way.
26. Even indoor air pollutionamong
the most significant causes of early death amongst poor people
todayis improving as people in poor countries switch from
poorly flued wood and dung fires to more efficient and cleaner
fuels such as gas and electricity, or simply better, more efficient
stoves. But these changes are possible only with increases in
income, which enable the purchase of superior technologies and
encourage people to spend money on more efficient goods because
their time is no longer efficiently spent gathering wood and dung
27. Access to technology allows people to
use their resources more efficiently, to be healthier and to live
a more benign existence. Such technologies are not an end in themselves:
they allow people to work fewer hours and with less effort, to
earn a living rather than subsist, to control their environment
and to invest in the future of their children, their community
and their country, as well as their environment.
28. Economic development and associated
increases in wealth, enhanced technologies and improved infrastructure
have been the primary drivers of the improvement in the lives
of people globally. Increased wealth means that can children go
to school rather than working on the farm. Improved technologies
enable the eradication of water-borne diseases. Improved infrastructure
means children can obtain the variety of foods and medicines that
will enable them to grow up and live healthy, happy, long lives.
29. Given the strong relationship between
prosperity, health and a clean environment, the best policy for
reducing the vulnerability of people to potentially negative aspects
of climate change is one that enables people to become rich and
thereby avail themselves of all the adaptive measures that the
wealthy can afford.
30. What is meant by these "institutions"?
Institutions are the framework within which people act and interactthey
are the rules, customs, norms, and laws that bind humans to each
other and act as boundaries to human behaviour. Institutions reduce
the number of decisions that we need to take; they remove the
responsibility to calculate the effect of each of our actions
on the rest of humanity and replace it with a responsibility to
abide by simple rules.
31. In a system in which rules emerge spontaneously
and rules are selected by evolutionary processes, good rules will
tend to crowd out bad rules. That is to say, over time, rules
that result in better outcomes will be preferred to rules that
result in worse outcomes.
32. If the focus were on the institutions
of the free society rather than specific outcomes, political decision-makers
would be less able unfairly to favour special interests.
33. These institutions enable adaptation
by fostering resilience in the face of uncertainty.
34. The absence of such institutions creates
poverty and vulnerability to change in general.
35. The key institutions are property rights,
contracts, the rule of law, open trade and good governance.
36. Property rights typically arise
as a means of resolving competing claims over resources.
37. To function effectively as an incentive
to both use and conserve resources, property rights must be well-defined,
enforceable and transferable. In this way, property rights are
capital; they give people incentives to invest in their land and
they give people an asset against which to borrow, so that they
might become entrepreneurs. The innovation of new technologies
occurs when people are allowed to benefit from the investments
they make through ownership of property.
38. However, poor countries generally lack
well defined, readily enforceable property rights. Many people
in poor countries are oppressed by tenure rules which make it
difficult for them to rent, buy or sell property formally. Land
transactions typically involve paying large bribes to local officials,
who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
39. Contracts: Another fundamental
institution for adaptive, sustainable development is freedom of
contract. This includes both the freedom to contractthe
freedom to make whatever agreements one desires, subject to fair
and simple procedural rulesand the freedom from
contractthe freedom not to be bound by the decisions of
others. Freedom of contract is a fundamental part of the freedom
to associate with others. It includes the freedom to transactto
buy and sell propertyand as such it is an essential adjunct
to the right to clearly defined and readily enforceable property
40. Contracts and property rights underpin
the functioning of markets. The freedom from contract prevents
others from attempting to interfere with one's right to engage
in exchange. The freedom to contract also enables people to bind
themselves to agreements and thereby creates greater legal certainty.
This in turn encourages people to engage in trade and investment.
Armed with enforceable property rights and contracts, the peasant
becomes a merchant.
41. Rule of law: The rule of law,
brokered by an independent and fair judicial system, is necessary
to ensure that property rights, contracts and the freedoms associated
with a democratic and free society are upheld, respected and enforced
for all members of that society.
42. When the rule of law is absentthat
is, when the power of discretion is vested in politicians, bureaucrats
and civil servantsthis is a certain formula for bribery
and corruption. In this situation, economic and entrepreneurial
activity becomes dependent exclusively on political manoeuvring
rather than based on its benefits to consumers and society.
43. Open trade: Open markets and
free investment encourage competition. By removing barriers to
trade, all people can engage in mutually beneficial exchanges.
This enhances competition, creates incentives for innovation and
leads to more rapid advances in human welfare and environmental
protection. Removing market-distorting taxes and subsidies, especially
to agriculture and other products where people in poorer countries
have a comparative advantage, encourages economic development
and benefits consumers.
44. Good governance: While there
is no magic formula for good governance, it is enabled by transparency
and accountability amongst elected officials, bureaucrats and
civil servants, and the elimination of practices which are a source
of corruption. Good governance would be achieved with more universal
application of the rule of law, and an understanding amongst people
that the rule of law is higher than the discretionary power often
employed by governments.
45. The adoption of the institutions of
the free society by poor countries would lead to:
Improvements in water and wastewater
management, thereby enhancing access to safe drinking water, reducing
deaths from diarrhoea and related diseases, as well as decreasing
the incidence of diseases transmitted by insects like mosquitoes
that breed in stagnant water.
Improvements in education and access
to information, enhancing sanitation and reducing diseases associated
with improper sanitation, as well as other diseases.
Improvements in access to affordable,
reliable and cleaner forms of energy and other life-improving
technologies, such as refrigeration, air conditioning, more efficient
More political, social and economic
freedoms for all members of a given society.
Enhanced environmental protection
and better use of natural resources.
Adoption of institutions would likewise
Research and development of new energy,
construction, transportation, food production, heating and cooling
Investment in infrastructure projects
which are genuinelyrather than politicallyuseful.
Faster transitions when changes, catastrophes
and crises occur.
Economic diversification and higher incomesas
people's labour becomes more valuable, fewer people are engaged
in lower-value economic activities such as agriculture.
46. Sustainable development is a phrase
often employed carelessly to imply that poverty, environmental
degradation, disease, and other problems afflicting the world
are predominantly caused by, and therefore are the responsibility
of, wealthy countries.
47. An alternative viewand one that
is more consonant with the thinking represented hereholds
that the world is generally improving and that the rich world
in particular has adopted, for the most part, institutions and
policies that are sustainable. Broadly speaking, that means the
institutions outlined aboveproperty rights, contracts,
the rule of law and effective legal systems, open trade and good
48. According to this view, most of the
problems of the poor world result not from the actions of those
in wealthy countries but from the adoption of unsustainable policies
by governments in poor countries. Sadly, as the plight of most
poor countries suggests, few countries have come close to instituting
such systems of good governance and decentralised decision-making.
In particular, attempts to plan economies have proved disastrous
in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. A lack of adequately defined
and readily enforceable property rightsoften the result
of well-meaning but utterly misguided government interventionholds
back economic development in many countries, while red tape stifles
entrepreneurial activity and perpetuates poverty.
49. As a general rule, institutions that
are compatible with human nature are more likely to result in
appropriate levels of environmental protection and conservation
of natural resources. One institution in particularprivate
propertyhas been shown to have such characteristics. When
combined with the rule of law, which enables people to enforce
and transfer what they own, private property encourages individuals
to care for their property, for natural resources and for the
50. While such institutions do not guarantee
human happiness, they can be considered a critical step towards
humanity's well-being. Uncertainty about the future has defined
human existence. That is one of the reasons the institutions of
the free society have evolved: they help humanity more effectively
to cope with and adapt to change.
4 April 2005
84 NB this evidence is submitted in a personal capacity
and not on behalf of the University of Buckingham. The views expressed
are those of the author and not of the University or any of its
officers or employees. Back