We should help the poor, but not via global warming compensation

At the Warsaw climate summit, some developing countries argued that the rich, developed world, should compensate poor countries for the effects of global warming such as the recent typhoon. That is a very bad path to tread indeed.

Like almost everyone reading this, I am all for helping poor people to the very best of our ability, wherever they live. But we should do so because we can help them and because we want to help them, for the best of human reasons, not because we’re being forced to via some perverse compensation scheme.

As I argued in my book Total Sustainability, if we want to live in a sustainable world, we need to fix not just those things that directly affect the environment such as pollution and resource use, but also things that indirectly affect the environment via human impacts. We need to look at economics, politics, society, business and cultural effects too, and deal with the problems therein that would eventually adversely affect the environment and human well-being such as exploitation and corruption.

Let’s ignore for the time being the fact that global warming has levelled off for 16 or 17 years now even while CO2 levels have skyrocketed. Let’s ignore the fact that environmental catastrophes have always happened, and that it isn’t possible to attribute any particular weather-related disaster to ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’. There is no shred of evidence linking the recent typhoon to CO2 levels. Let’s ignore the fact that the number and severity of storms has declined, so the level of problem has actually gone down as CO2 level has increased. Let’s ignore those facts because the overwhelmingly important overall fact is that we don’t yet understand what is happening to our climate, nor how much of any changes we observe are natural and how much are due to human activity, still less the attribution to particular human activities. The only evidence I need cite for that assertion is that almost all of the climate models have grossly overstated the amount of warming we should have seen by now. If they are genuinely the result of the best understanding of climate we have and not scientific corruption or deliberate misrepresentation and tweaking to get the right answer, then we can be certain that some of the equations or factors in them are wrong, or still worse, missing. 

If we don’t even understand how climate works, if we don’t understand the effects of human activity on the climate, then it is utterly ridiculous to attribute particular environmental catastrophes to the behaviour of particular countries. A sensible demand for compensation would need to demonstrate a causal link between an act and a result. We are nowhere near the level of scientific understanding required for that. Even if we were, or if we eventually get to that point; even if future scientists could conclusively show that rich countries’ CO2 emissions caused a particular storm, we still would have no justification for compensation to developing countries. Let’s help them as much as we can, but let’s not use human-caused global warming or climate change as the reason.

Why not? Here’s why:

One of the chapters in my book was called  ‘the rich world owes no compensation to the poor world’. The world only has the technological capability to support a population over seven billion because of the activities of our ancestors. Without the industrial revolution, the energy it used, the pollution it generated, the CO2 it led to, very many of those alive today would not be. We owe no apology for that. It is only through that historic activity that we are where we are, with the technology that allows poor countries to develop. Developing countries are developing in a world that already has high CO2 levels and is still largely economically and technologically locked into CO2-intensive energy production. That is simply the price humanity overall has paid to get where we are. When a developing country builds a new power station or a road or a telecomms network, it uses today’s technology, not 16th century technology – the century where modern science and technology arguably really started. Without the rich world having used all that energy with its associated environmental impact, they’d have to use 16th century technology. There would be no rich world to sell to, and no means to develop. Developing is a far faster and easier process today than it was when we did it.

Our ancestors in the rich world had to suffer the pain hundreds of years ago – they were the giants on whose shoulders we now stand. It was mostly our ancestors in the rich world whose ingenuity and effort, whose blood, sweat and tears paid for a world that can support seven billion people. It was mostly they who invented and developed the electricity, telecoms, the web, pharmaceuticals and biotech, genetically superior crops, advanced manufacturing and farming technology that make it possible. That all cost environmental impacts as part of the price. The whole of humanity has benefitted from that investment, not just rich countries, and if any compensation or apology were due to the rest of the world for it, then it has already been paid many times over in lives saved and lives enabled, economic aid already enabled by that wealth, and the vastly better financial and economic well-being for the future developing world that resulted from that investment. The developing world is developing later, but that is not the fault of our ancestors for making our investment earlier.

Amount of compensation owed: zero. Amount we should give for other reasons: as much as we can reasonably afford. Let’s give through compassion and generosity and feeling of common humanity, because we can and because we want to, not because we are being forced.

4 responses to “We should help the poor, but not via global warming compensation

  1. An interesting argument. I gather it would be the same one you could use to argue that there should be no compensation for victims of war. After all war always is disruptive and therefore we should assume the worst and only through kindness provide the best.

    It is clear you are a human induced climate change skeptic. I’ll grant you that our modeling and simulations are not an absolutely true reflection of the real world, but they are getting better through megadata collection and analysis. Two centuries of industrial activity have definitely altered the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. The last 50 years of this period shows mean temperature increases in the atmosphere, changes to the pH of the ocean, rising sea levels, loss of seasonal sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, and net increased melting of polar glaciers (not all are melting).

    Every time we have a major climate event more of us jump on the climate change bandwagon. You are right that no single climate event can be attributed to climate change. But you show a lack of understanding of atmospheric circulation to suggest that fewer storms such as Atlantic hurricanes contradicts the hypothesis of human induced climate change.

    When the IPCC states a 95% certainty that we are the principal agent impacting this warming of the atmosphere and altered chemistry of the oceans I would say it is worth sitting up and taking notice. The scientists and researchers haven’t drawn conclusions based on hunches. There is plenty of data and lots of correlation.

    As for compensating Developing nations on the basis that they cannot use the same carbon we have used to modernize, I too am ambivalent. I do, however, believe we need to compensate and assist nations that are most immediately impacted by rising sea levels associated with climate change. These will be the first climate change refugees and their countries (particularly many of the small Pacific and Indian Ocean island nations) may largely disappear within the next century or two. Some are already vanishing at an astonishing rate as storm surges combined with rising sea levels are eroding shorelines, contaminating groundwater sources and destroying the habitability of coastal areas.


    • Thanks Len. I am an AGW catastrophe skeptic. CO2 has gone up, temperature has increased, and some of that is probably due to CO2 emitted by humans. I don’t believe that human-contributed CO2 is the main cause of the warming we’ve seen, not that we are heading towards catastrophe. I also don’t believe we will keep on using carbon-based fuels since they will become economically less viable in the far future, so the potential problems caused by ever-increasing CO2 won’t ever happen in reality. We also will develop far superior technology across the board to help deal with both CO2 levels and consequences. The long term isn’t a problem, and it’s looking increasingly the case that the short and medium terms aren’t either.

      Loss of seasonal ice in the Arctic trades against increases in the Antarctic, ongoing debate on the whys and wherefores again demonstrating that we aren’t there yet. There is also debate about other human factors in the North that may contribute to melting that have nothing to do with CO2, such as human-heated rivers. Glacier melt can be accelerated by black carbon too. Again, we don’t have good understanding yet. My point throughout is that everyone agrees that humans contribute to CO2 and CO2 is one factor in climate, but the overall understanding is still seriously lacking, otherwise the models would be much more aligned with reality. No, I don’t understand atmospheric circulation. I’ve never suggested otherwise. But I did spend a decade working in finite element analysis and other computer modelling, so am well acquainted with the tricks and limitations of the field.

      I didn’t argue that fewer Atlantic storms contradicts the hypothesis of human induced climate change. I made the point that we are seeing fewer and less severe storms, so the problem has gone down even while CO2 levels have increased.

      I don’t accept that the IPCC is a scientifically credible body. It is too highly politicised and too willing to put spin on what it publishes – in fact I would say that politicisation in climate science is the main reason that what scientific understanding does already exist isn’t manifested in model-reality alignment. I lost faith in the IPCC around 2007 and nothing that has happened since has warranted a reevaluation.

      Sea level is only likely to rise a fraction of a metre this century. I don’t think it is beyond humanity’s means to address the problems arising from that. If there is increased erosion caused by storm surges, (and I’ve no figures on that)there is still a causal missing link to CO2 levels.


  2. We have heard this all before.

    Cheers Roger http://www.rogerfromnewzealand.wordpress.com


    • A priceless gem, thanks for this link! In 1978, with high precision dating techniques emerging, the radiocarbon community was starting to discuss the correlation between solar activity and climate too.



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