I’ve always been a bit skeptical of development programs that claim to work on issues of environmental governance. Most donor-funded environmental governance work stems from concerns about issues like sustainability and climate change at the national to global scale. These are legitimate challenges that require attention. However, such programs often strike me as instances of thinking globally, but implementing locally (and ideally someplace else). You see, there are things that we in the wealthiest countries should be doing to mitigate climate change and make the world a more sustainable place. But they are inconvenient. They might cost us a bit of money. They might make us do a few things differently. So we complain about them, and they get implemented slowly, if ever.

Yet somehow we fail to see how this works in exactly the same manner when we implement programs that are, for example, aimed at the mitigation of climate change in the Global South. These programs tend to take away particular livelihoods activities and resources (such as cutting trees, burning charcoal, or fishing and hunting particular species), which is inconvenient, tends to reduce household access to food and income, and forces changes upon people – all of which they don’t really like. So it is sort of boggling to me that we are surprised when populations resist these programs and projects.

I’m on this topic because, while conducting preliminary fieldwork in Zambia’s Kazungula District last week, I had yet another experience of this problem. In the course of a broad conversation on livelihoods, vulnerabilities, and opportunities in his community, a senior man raised charcoal production as an alternative livelihood in the area (especially in the dry season, when there is little water for gardening/farming and no nearby source of fishing). Noting that charcoal production was strictly limited for purposes of limiting the impacts of climate change*, a rationale whose legitimacy he did not challenge, he complained that addressing the issue of charcoal production is not well understood or accepted by the local population. He argued that much of the governance associated with this effort consisted of agents of the state telling people “it’s an offense” and demanding they stop cutting trees and burning charcoal without explaining why it is an offense. He then pointed to one of his sons and said “how can you tell him ‘don’t cut this tree’? And his fields are flooding [thus destroying his crops, a key source of food and income].” But the quote that pulled it all together…

“Don’t make people be rude or be criminals. Give them a policy that will open them.”

The text is clear here: if you are going to take away a portion of our livelihoods for the sake of the environment, please give us an alternative so we can comply. This is obvious – and yet to this point I think the identification and implementation of alternative livelihoods in the context of environmental governance programs is, at best, uneven.

But the subtext might be more important: If you don’t give us an alternative, you make us into criminals because we will be forced to keep practicing these now-banned activities. And when that happens, we will never view the regulations or those that enforce them as legitimate. In other words, the way we tend to implement environmental governance programming undermines the legitimacy of the governance structures we are trying to put in place.


The sad part is that there have been innumerable cases of just the phenomena I encountered last week at other times and in other places. They’ve been documented in reports and refereed publications. Hell, I’ve heard narratives like this in the course of my work in Ghana and Malawi. But environmental governance efforts continue to inadequately explain their rationales to the populations most affected by their implementation. They continue to take away livelihoods activities from those that need them most in the name of a greater good for which others pay no tangible price. And they continue to be surprised when people ignore the tenets of the program, and begin to question the legitimacy of any governance structure that would bring such rules into effect. Environmental governance is never going to work if it is the implementation of a “think globally, implement locally (ideally someplace else)” mentality. It has to be thought, understood, and legitimized in the place it will be implemented, or it will fail.



* Yes, he really said that, as did a lot of other people. The uniformity of that answer strikes me as the product of some sort of sensitization campaign that, to be honest, is pretty misplaced. There are good local environmental reasons for controlling deforestation, but the contribution of charcoal production to the global emissions budget is hilariously small.

The Economist ran an article on Australia’s newest efforts to green their economy, this time by instituting a carbon tax.  The Economist has its own ideas about this, as do many other people.  Indeed, there are serious debates, even among those who think that climate change is real and human-caused, about whether market-based or carbon-tax-based solutions are best (or some other completely different alternative might be useful).  I’m not wading into all that here. Instead, I want to make an observation about politics, political structures and how we address climate change.

Australia is a democracy, but its elections work quite differently than ours do here in the US.  From the Australian Government’s Webpage:

Australia does not use the ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system (where a candidate can be elected with less than 50 per cent of the total vote). Preferential voting is used for elections to the House of Representatives. Australians must put a number against each candidate’s name in order of preference. First, all the number ‘1’ votes are counted for each candidate. If a candidate gets more than 50 per cent (an absolute majority, 50 per cent plus one) of the formal first preference votes, then they are immediately elected. If no candidate has an absolute majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is excluded. These votes are then transferred to the other candidates according to the second preferences shown by voters on the ballot papers. If still no candidate has an absolute majority, again the remaining candidate with the fewest votes is excluded and these votes are transferred. This process will continue until one candidate has more than half the total votes cast and is declared ‘elected’. This voting system has been used in Australian federal elections since 1918.

To help supporters order their preferences, political parties hand out ‘how-to-vote’ cards at polling booths. The preferences that flow from less popular candidates often decide who wins. Distributing preferences can take days or even weeks.

Proportional representation is used in the Senate. Candidates must receive a quota of the voters in state-wide, multiple-seat electorates. Preferences are also used in Senate voting. The Senate currently has 76 members, 12 from each state and two each from the two mainland territories. The House of Representatives currently has 150 members.

In a nutshell, what this all means is that Australia cannot be dominated by two parties – lots of parties end up getting people elected to both houses, which often forces the parties with large pluralities (but not majorities) to form coalitions with other parties to build a majority, and therefore the right to run the government.  So it is right now – where the Labor party was forced into a coalition with the Greens.  As a condition of their joining the coalition, the Greens extracted a promise to develop a climate plan . . . right after a failed climate plan brought down the previous prime minister.  If Labor was governing by itself, do you think they would be working on climate again?  Of course not – the new Prime Minister “promised not to introduce a carbon tax” during her campaign.

This is sort of a perverse mirror-image of the United States.  In Australia, you have a party that probably wants nothing to do with climate change legislation being forced into a serious effort by the structure of their government.  In the United States, the structure of our elections and government pretty much rewards nobody for working together and building coalitions, with the result a highly polarized government that can’t get easy, obvious things (like raising the debt ceiling) done, let alone address climate change.

Political structures matter, people – and there is nothing written in stone that says we can only have two parties, or that we should only have two parties.  However, most people don’t realize there are ways to make small changes that could bring about big shifts in how we do business.  Mickey Edwards (who spoke to my incoming class of AAAS Fellows back in September 2010, and was fantastic for his candor) has an interesting piece in the Atlantic on some of these changes.  The most interesting of these, to me, was:

In 2010, Californians voted to create an “open primary” system in which every candidate for a particular office, regardless of party, will appear on the same ballot, and every voter who wishes to participate, also regardless of party, will be able to choose among them. The top two will advance to the general election, even if they belong to the same party. Louisiana has long had a top-two, everybody-runs primary system, and Washington State adopted a similar one in 2004. Their voters have a much wider range of options—Republicans, Democrats, independents, third- or fourth-party candidates. If all candidates could get their messages out through free mailings or free television time, minor-party candidates would have a better chance of finishing in the top two in an open primary than on a general-election ballot that pits two major-party giants against each other and discourages supporters of other parties from voting for long-shot candidates.

Just the act of establishing an open primary would break the partisan and ideological chokehold on the general-election ballot and create a much truer system of democratic self-government. As a result, members of Congress would have greater freedom to base their legislative decisions on their constituents’ concerns and on their own independent evaluations of a proposal’s merits. They would be our representatives, not representatives of their political clubs.

This alone could create a serious set of alternatives to the two big (currently mostly useless) parties – and perhaps get us to a place where we need coalitions to govern . . . and can relearn the art of compromise at the heart of politics, and that we so desperately need to address the environmental and economic challenges ahead of us.

There were two upsides to the recent global economic downturn.  One was largely limited to the developing world, at least at first glance.  Due to the continued economic growth of many developing economies even as the OECD economies contracted, there was actually a measure of convergence among economic productivity levels globally (with the huge caveat that the data on this is a bit shaky).  I’m not sure many living in the OECD would have seen this as an upside, except in hoping that this growth would foster greater consumption and the emergence of needed markets in which we might sell our stuff and therefore trigger our own recovery.  The other upside, though, was of global import – less economic activity notably lowered global greenhouse gas emissions, slowing our otherwise breakneck effort to change the global climate.  Yeah, great!  That downturn could really help . . .

Oh wait, it only lasted one year.  And now emissions appear to be surging past even our not-so-happy scenarios into the void beyond the worst case.  Climate Crocks has the chart (click to enlarge):

What does it mean?  Hard to say.  All I can say with certainty is that we are hurling ourselves down a very uncertain, unclear path without any safety nets.  I find that deeply worrying.

I’ve been going on quite a bit about how we envision the relationship between aid and development – or perhaps more appropriately, how we do not really envision that transition, but assume that it simply happens – quite a bit lately.  But pressing on my mind during my work life is the relationship between climate change and development – how do mitigation and adaptation efforts relate to development?  The answer, of course, is that they relate to development in many different ways.  For example, mitigation efforts include things like land use, which can impact existing agricultural practices, and constrain (or sometimes enable) the options available to the designers of agricultural development projects.  Adaptation efforts emphasize the prevention of negative outcomes, a form of coping, but unless this relationship is explicitly considered they do not necessarily rhyme with development projects that seek to build on existing resources and capacity to improve people’s situations.

(I confess that I am deeply concerned that development is rapidly being subsumed under adaptation in some quarters, which is a real problem as they have two different missions.  To refocus development projects on adaptation is to shift from an effort to improve someone’s situation to an effort to help them hang on to what little they might have.  But this is a post for a different day.)

There is a danger, in this era of enhanced attention and funding toward climate change, of using climate change funds to continue doing the same development work as we were doing before, only under a new label (i.e. calling agricultural development “agricultural adaptation”, then using climate change funds to support that program even though nothing about it has really changed).  It is an annoying habit of people in agencies, who are often cash- and personnel-strapped, to try to use new initiatives to support their existing projects.  There is also a danger, in places where climate change has a greater emphasis than development, that development dollars aimed at particular challenges will be repurposed to the end of addressing climate change, thus negatively impacting the original development goal.  A year ago, Bill Gates wrote warned against just such an outcome in his 2010 Annual Letter as co-chair of the Gates Foundation.  On first read, it is a reasonable argument – and one that I largely agree with.  We live in a world of finite donors, and new dollars to address climate change often have to come from some other pot of money funding another project or issue.  These are difficult choices, and Gates has every right to argue that his pet interest, global health, should not lose funding in favor of climate change related efforts.  However, his argument sets up a needless dichotomy between development/aid (in the form of public health funding) and efforts to address the impacts of climate change:

The final communiqué of the Copenhagen Summit, held last December, talks about mobilizing $10 billion per year in the next three years and $100 billion per year by 2020 for developing countries, which is over three quarters of all foreign aid now given by the richest countries.

I am concerned that some of this money will come from reducing other categories of foreign aid, especially health. If just 1 percent of the $100 billion goal came from vaccine funding, then 700,000 more children could die from preventable diseases. In the long run, not spending on health is a bad deal for the environment because improvements in health, including voluntary family planning, lead people to have smaller families, which in turn reduces the strain on the environment.

Well, sort of.  I could make a pretty brutal counterargument – not spending on health, such as HIV/AIDS leads to a lot of deaths in the productive segment of the population pyramid, leaving a lot of fallow land to recover its nonagricultural ecological functions.  This sort of land use change is actually visible in places like Swaziland, but very hard to quantify because the studies aren’t there yet – nobody wants to be seen as potentially supporting this sort of nightmarish conservation argument.  I certainly don’t – but that is not my point.  My point was that Gates’ argument is pretty thin.

In making a political point, Gates is being a bit selective about the relationship between climate change and health.  What he is completely ignoring is the fact that mitigation efforts might limit the future range of disease vectors for any number of illnesses, thus saving tremendous numbers of lives.  This is especially true for diseases, like malaria, where a vaccine has proven elusive.  Further, he ignores the ways in which coherent, participatory adaptation programs might address health issues (by managing everything from nutrition to sanitation) in an effective manner.  While I am not arguing that mitigation and adaptation efforts could completely address the impacts caused by the loss of $1 billion in vaccination funding, his argument for 700,000 extra deaths* rests upon the assumption that nothing in the climate change portfolio will address the causes of such deaths through other means.  He’s creating an either/or that does not exist.

Again, Gates is making a political point here – which is his right.  But that political point sets up a false dichotomy between aid/development and efforts to address climate change that even Bjorn Lomborg has abandoned at this point.  We can argue in the interest of our agencies and organizations all we want, but the problems we are trying to address are deeply interlinked, and in the end creating these false dichotomies, and claiming that one issue is THE issue that must be addressed, shortchanges the very constituencies we claim to be working with and working for.

*I must admit I loathe this sort of quantification – it is always based on horribly fuzzy math that, at best, is grounded in loose correlations between an action and a health outcome.  I raise this issue and take it apart at length in my book . . .

So, I heard a new and depressing phrase today – “the gigaton gap”.  UNEP published a technical report, just before the Cancun COP, on the gap between likely emissions under any global agreement, and our best scientific understanding of what our emissions levels need to be to prevent warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius over the next 90 years.  The findings were stunning (but sadly not all that surprising)

  • To get on a path likely to keep us at or below 2° C of warming, we would need to hold ourselves to emissions levels of  44 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (this includes all CO2 emissions, as well as emissions of other greenhouse gases normalized to CO2 by converting their impact to the amount of CO2 required to create that same impact).

Yeah, it is a huge number, so big as to be meaningless – but don’t worry about the huge number – worry about how this number stacks up the next set of numbers

  • If we just keep doing what we are doing, projections have us at 56 GtCO2e in 2020, leaving a gap of 12 GtCO2e.  That is a big, big gap.  Horrifically huge.  Hell, we have a gap equal to 21% total emissions!
  • Low ambition pledges are not that much better.  Lenient implementation of such pledges would lower emissions to around 53 GtCO2e, leaving a gap of 9 GtCO2e.

But this really gets depressing when we look at the “good” scenario:

  • Even under a best case scenario for the agreement, emissions would only drop to about 49 GtCO2e, STILL LEAVING A GAP of 5 GtCO2e.

“But 5 is much better than 12 or 9, right?” you say.  Well, it is better.  But 5 GtCO2e is approximately equal to the annual global emissions from all the world’s cars, buses and transport in 2005.  ALL OF THEM.  So 5 GtCO2e is not good news.

Summary: In Cancun, we kicked any real action down the road a year, making things harder to achieve under any circumstances.  We already knew this.  But, even under the good scenarios, we were going to come up short of what was needed – something many have long suspected, but after Copenhagen and Cancun, we now have numbers people are likely to commit to, so the analysis becomes a lot more read.  Ladies and gentlemen, ditch the global agreement – we can do this other ways.

While I have my doubts that a global climate agreement is actually in the best interest of the planet (mostly because I think local adaptive management is likely to yield locally-appropriate, more accountable outcomes), it is worth remembering why there is so much debate about such an agreement.  Many people still fail to grasp why the developing world thinks it absurd that places like the US, Canada and Germany feel justified in demanding big cuts of them – there are two reasons:

1)Big cuts close the door to historical development pathways.  Most of the OECD countries went through a major industrialization phase that was hugely polluting.  China is going through this today on an unprecedented scale. While I think these pathways are, by and large, dead ends for development anyway these days, the fact is that a global climate deal more or less demands that currently poor countries abandon the very methods that we in the wealthier countries used to get to our current status.  This, by the way, is why there is a transfer of money and technology being built into the agreement – because the wealthy countries are not completely hypocritical, and therefore recognize that creating new development pathways will be expensive and beyond the means of most currently-poor countries.  If we are going to demand they change what they are doing, we should at least contribute financially to those changes.  So the next time you hear this deal called a huge wealth transfer, feel free to remind the speaker that the age of exploration, through colonialism, through the first 40 or so years of free trade was a giant wealth transfer from poor to rich.  We are only partially answering for that, no matter how large the transfers built into a climate agreement.

2) While we in the US like to point at China’s and (to a lesser extent) India’s total emissions as an argument they have to accept big cuts, and use the argument that 80% of future emissions growth will come from poorer countries to argue for cuts to all emissions, these demands fail to account for the per-person production of these emissions.  The Washington Post has two graphics, which they ran on their front page on December 10th, that capture this issue perfectly.  First, the total emissions graphic:

Yeah, that looks pretty bad – China produces more emissions than we do, and India is catching up quick.  Man, we’d better get those people under control . . . right?  Well, no . . .

Yep, per capita we in the US are big emissions hogs – per person, we crank out 385% of the average Chinese person, and a boggling 1333% more emissions than the average Indian.  Hell, Iran looks bad compared to China when we get down to per-person use.  This is the sticking point – what right do we in the US have to be sloppy with our emissions, yet demand cuts of everyone else?

Building a global deal that addresses both of these issues is damn near to impossible – we need to control total emissions, but at the same time recognize that not everyone emits equally.  Addressing the first of these is politically unpalatable for the poorer countries.  Addressing the latter is unpalatable here in the US and in many other wealthy countries. The result: weak global agreements that address neither.

Well, Cancun did not totally collapse . . . but the outcome was maybe worse.  What we now have is a one-year stall with very little to show for it. The targets are basically useless.  The only thing this agreement has created is an excuse to keep talking without doing anything.  As I argued the other day, we might be better off if the whole thing just collapsed, creating the space and urgency needed to really push forward the various state, city and local initiatives that seem to be the only effective measures that are moving us toward real emissions reductions and a sustainable future.  Instead, this agreement creates a counter-argument – just hang on, don’t do anything yourselves, and the countries will figure this out soon.

First, I doubt the countries will get to a place where a real, meaningful agreement could be put in place in a timely manner.  Second, as I argued in the post the other day, there is empirical evidence, via the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s Scenarios, to suggest that a global agreement isn’t the best way to get to a sustainable future anyway.

I know everyone working on this was well-intentioned, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions . . . and we’ve not yet taken the off-ramp.

. . . a colleague in Senator Menendez’s office passed along one of their recently-introduced bills “To establish a program under which the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency shall provide grants to eligible State consortia to establish and carry out municipal sustainability certification programs” (S.3970).  In effect, the bill directs the EPA to fund the development of state-level sustainability certification programs that include local governments, a state, at least one public university and other organizations, such as NGOs or private sector entities.

So who cares?  The point here is that Senator Menendez’s bill recognizes that challenges such as water supply, energy demand and pollution are “regionally distinct”, and therefore addressing these challenges requires engagement with local and state governments (as opposed to a blanket solution at the national or global level) is a productive way forward.  In other words, this is a legislative effort to promote the Adapting Mosaic scenario I discussed in a recent posts . . . and a welcome demonstration of senatorial competence.

Now, let’s see if it ever emerges from the Committee on Environment and Public Works, which is likely to be chaired in the new session by (gulp) Senator Inhofe.  He of the climate bailout garbage.  Yeah, this is going nowhere.  Dammit.

Update (7 December)

Ah, crap, Hugh quite rightly points out that the Senate still belongs to the Dems, so at least Inhofe won’t be able to kill this right out of the gate.  Man, I am being sucked into the “Republicans own everything” mentality around here . . . when in fact they own one house in Congress.

One of the many barriers to a global climate deal is the standoff between the Global North (aka the wealthy countries) and the Global South (aka everyone else) over emissions cuts.  Basically, most of the Global South wants to avoid any caps on their emissions, or to have very limited caps, so they can develop as quickly as possible.  The Global North wants emissions caps across the board, rich or poor – ostensibly because most future emissions growth is projected to take place in the Global South.  This is a bit disingenuous, for while the majority of emissions growth will come from the Global South, these emissions will still be a tiny fraction of those emitted by the Global North . . . so in many ways, cuts in the Global North are more important to CO2 concentrations than cuts in the Global South.  Further, as several countries have pointed out, when countries like the US demand that everyone cut their emissions equally, we more or less ignore our own history of pollution.  This was the point of the funds committed to these developing countries in Copenhagen – to recognize that we will need to create new development pathways for these countries if we close off the old ones – so, once again Senators Barasso, Inhofe, Vitter and Voinovich, these funds are not a “climate bailout“.

However, there is a question that the Global South ought to be asking right now – is any global climate deal better than no deal, and a set of bilateral negotiations on climate going forward?  A global deal creates a uniform set of rules for everyone – no more room for negotiation or pressure.  Bilateral negotiations, on the other hand, can get much more heavy-handed.  For example, the United States (or any other OECD country) could, if it chose, make very stringent demands (much stiffer than proposed in the current negotiations) of countries, and compel compliance by threatening some or all of a given country’s foreign aid.  This world would expose small, poor countries to pressure that larger developing countries (i.e. India, China, and Brazil) or countries that have natural resources we want/need (hello oil-rich Nigeria) might avoid.  This would create an even more inequitable outcome, where some developing countries are able to occupy dirty, lower cost development pathways while others are consigned to high-cost pathways with no guarantees of funding to offset these costs.

So, which is more dangerous – a less than ideal or fair global deal, or the risk of bilateral negotiations with rich countries that can use their foreign aid as a stick to compel compliance?  It seems to me the latter is a huge gamble that rests on the assessment of whether or not the rich countries will, indeed, force compliance in a relatively uniform manner via bilateral negotiations.  If they do, it seems to me that the Global South is screwed, and will wish that they had signed a global deal.  However, the Global North is hardly monolithic – the Scandinavians tend to put far fewer conditions on aid than other countries, the US and Great Britain have disagreed on fundamental philosophical issues like the value of markets and strategic food reserves, etc.  So a uniform policy coming out of the Global North seems unlikely.  As a result, each country in the Global South has to ask themselves if they will have enough sources of aid to avoid pressure on emissions caps in a world of bilateral negotiations.

Man, do some of the Republicans have a slick noise machine – Bloomberg is reporting on a group of senators who are referring to the funds the United States committed as aid to get developing countries moving toward cleaner, more sustainable development as an international climate bailout.  What a soundbite.  What complete idiocy.  Senators, let’s have a chat.

First, let’s consider the idea this is a bailout – what, exactly, are we bailing out?  Developing countries were, by and large, consigned to their positions by the last four to five centuries of global history.  Hell, a large portion of these countries had their borders drawn by other people over the last four to five centuries.  Have you seen Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta)?  Nobody chooses to be landlocked and primary commodity dependent, you know.  So, while the bank bailout here in the US generated outrage because we were saving people from their own irresponsible behavior, to label fast start funding as a climate bailout is to blame the victims – basically, to insinuate that developing countries put themselves in that position somehow.  Now, I am not denying that there have been irresponsible leaders and corruption in many developing countries that have contributed to the plight of their citizens, but most of these countries have only been under their own governments for fifty years or less – which means they arrived really, really late to the screw-things-up party.  Hell, the party had ended and the house had been trashed before they got there – these guys are the governance equivalent of the idiot who shows up drunk on the doorstep, pounding on the door at three AM after everyone has gone home.  No, this is not a bailout in the sense of the bank bailout.

Second, what this bunch overlooks is that this is an investment in OUR OWN FUTURE.  If we do not 1) get some sort of meaningful improvement in people’s quality of live in the developing world and 2) find some means to do so that does not involve massive carbon emissions, we are looking down the barrel of a global environmental cataclysm in my lifetime.  I go over this at length in my book – I would be happy to send a copy along to you and/or your staffs if you were at all interested (you’re not, I know, I know). Plain and simple, there will be nowhere to run to when it all goes bad.  Yes, we in the US, Europe and the rest of the OECD have far more resources with which to cope with such challenges, but our way of life will change dramatically – and not for the better.  Let me put this another way: Senators, your failure to grasp the basics of climate science, or the fundamental fact that we are all interconnected on a relatively small rock orbiting a fairly insignificant star in a mostly unimportant galaxy, leads you to believe that we can just carve off a big chunk of the (very poor) world and take care of ourselves.  We cannot.  You are on the wrong side of history here, and the evidence is already mounting.

Of course, what do you all care?

Sen. John Barraso (R-Wyoming): 58 years old

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma): 76 years old

Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana): 49 years old

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio): 74 years old and retiring at the end of this term

Senator Vitter, you are the only one with a shot of being around long enough to see things go really bad.

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