Climate Change is An Act of Theft

West Africa is famous for its power outages. It's known as the dumsur here in Ghana, where power goes on and off and on and off erratically, and it can seriously disrupt business. Apparently it's not just a West African thing though because the New York Times has a very depressing piece today on how early climate change is making days without water - and therefore no hydroelectric power, which is the main source of energy - far more common.

That's in addition to the heat factor - having been in Ghana during the hottest month, I can't imagine it being even worse. Given how intermittent the water is already, having less water and less power is unthinkable.

This brought me back to what I think is the best writing on climate change I've seen, though at six years old it's a bit outdated. Back in 2010, The New Republic had a back and forth between its in house critic Jim Manzi, a very intelligent conservative pundit arguing that it's not worth tackling climate change, and Bradford Plumer, an environmental writer now at Vox.

Manzi made the point that according to IPCC estimates, climate change will lower global GDP by about 3 percent by 2100 while instituting policies to prevent it will lower global GDP by 6 percent based on the best estimates. Now as I said the piece is outdated and the more recent news has suggested the toll of climate change will be greater and will come sooner than expected.

Still, the point still stands that action to prevent climate change would likely be at best neck-and-neck with the toll of climate change when you look at GDP, which adds up global wealth. Seems like a pretty persuasive case, no (if you just care about humans)?

Well the issue Plumer pointed out was this: that 3 percent will come much more from developing countries, the countries that can least afford it. "And as Nate Silver once noted, you could completely wipe out the poorest 81 nations in the world, with a total population of 2.8 billion, and the blow to global GDP would "only" be about 5 percent," Plumer notes.

While the penalties from climate change are accruing largely to the poorer countries, with this event in Zambia one of what are likely to be many more such episodes, the gains from climate change have accrued to the rich ones. Even as we hear stories about abnormally warm winters and all of their consequences (such as potential rises in crime), the U.S. is largely powered by coal, oil, and natural gas. Fossil fuels have underwritten industrialization and the creation of U.S. wealth.

This tragic news out of Zambia (and I believe Ghana, which is not under the spell of El Nino, is having a drought too) reminds me of what I concluded after reading the New Republic piece a few years back: the conventional narrative in U.S. politics around climate change is probably inaccurate. Progressives attack conservatives for being anti-science troglodytes who ignore our country's future at all of our peril.

While many conservatives are proudly "not scientists", the science may not actually be the issue. The issue may be a moral disagreement: it may be a question of whether we prioritize members of our own country (dramatically) or whether we care about all equally. If we care only about or strongly prioritize (human) Americans, it may actually make sense to do nothing about climate change, at least for the next century.

Ultimately, I think most of us do have a deep sense that there's something wrong in such dire inequality. To trigger that conscience, though, we need to talk head on about the crime being committed when U.S. legislators refuse to turn the light switch off occasionally at the expense of Zambia having any light to turn on at all.


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