Why climate change is a convenient excuse to justify economic stagnation

8 12 2009

Dictatorial African leaders such as Meles Zenawi from Ethiopia have been quick to take advantage of the Copenhagen talks to argue that climate change is the cause of their countries’ problems. This has rightly provoked an acid response from oppositionists in  Africa who say the problem is more lack of regime change than climate change.

The climate change debate has been honey in the mouths of forked tongue African dictators. It has provided them the perfect foil to avoid detection and accountability for their corruption and mismanagement of their societies, and a convenient opportunity to divert attention from their criminal state enterprises. Global warming has proven to be the perfect substitute for the old Bogeymen of Africa– colonialism, imperialism, neo-colonialism and poverty. Why is Africa reduced to becoming the “beggar continent of the planet”? Global warming! Why are millions starving (euphemistically referred to as “severe food shortages” by officials) to death in Ethiopia? Climate change. African dictators are using global warming as their new preferred ideology behind which they can hide and ply their trade of corruption while expanding their thriving kleptocracies.

The same leaders are looking for more aid from the west in order to ‘introduce anti climate change policies’, the latest euphemism for bigger cars and fatter Swiss bank accounts. Climate change is the latest convenient tag to avoid their own share of responsibility for the poverty and desperation of many of their countries.

So much for the rather transparent attempts of failing third world leaders to exploit climate change. But let us also consider how convenient it is for western politicians that climate change is at the top of the agenda. Western economies have suffered for years from stagnating growth. After the current recession there is a palpable fear that the future offers even slower growth, permanent high unemployment and a shift in the economic balance of the world from west to east.

The consensus response to the threat of climate change is that we need moderation in economic growth  and redistributionist rather than developmental economic policies.  These calls for sustainable growth fit very nicely with the lack of dynamism that infects western economies. How convenient that there is now a compelling reason why seemingly intractable economic stagnation can be turned into a virtue. Even a mainstream pro market economist like Martin Wolf puts reducing demand at the top of his list of ways to tackle climate change.

It is also very convenient  that the same climate change agenda points the finger at the fastest developing countries, such as China,  and leads to calls for them to slow down. Not because they represent a major threat to the strategic and economic power of the west, perish the thought, but because they are threatening the planet of course.

I am not proposing a conspiracy theory here by the way. It is more that the western elites  have lost belief in their ability to be dynamic and to lead economic growth and development. This lack of belief is built into reality, it is evident all around us in the decaying infrastructure and failing public services that we all experience. How comforting it must be in that situation to be told that this kind of stagnation is a virtuous thing rather than a sign of political and economic bankruptcy.

The climate change issue does represent a crisis, but not the one that is commonly understood. The real crisis lies in the loss of a belief in human progress and our collective ability to continue down the path of economic development. It represents collective exhaustion in the political and intellectual classes and needs to be thoroughly confronted by any of us who retain belief in the unlimited potential of humanity.