Saturday, January 26, 2008

The White Man's Burden

The wheels of the white guilt industry are madly spinning away in Berkeley, as demonstrated by this dubious scientific assessment of the debt owed by the developed nations to the developing nations with regards to the environmental costs of, well, existing:

The environmental damage caused to developing nations by the world's richest countries amounts to more than the entire third world debt of $1.8 trillion, according to the first systematic global analysis of the ecological damage imposed by rich countries.

The study found that there are huge disparities in the ecological footprint inflicted by rich and poor countries on the rest of the world because of differences in consumption. The authors say that the west's high living standards are maintained in part through the huge unrecognized ecological debts it has built up with developing countries.

"At least to some extent, the rich nations have developed at the expense of the poor and, in effect, there is a debt to the poor," said Prof Richard Norgaard, an ecological economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the study. "That, perhaps, is one reason that they are poor. You don't see it until you do the kind of accounting that we do here."

Using data from the World Bank and the UN's Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the researchers examined so-called "environmental externalities" or costs that are not included in the prices paid for goods but which cover ecological damage linked to their consumption. They focused on six areas: greenhouse gas emissions, ozone layer depletion, agriculture, deforestation, overfishing and converting mangrove swamps into shrimp farms.

The team calculated the costs of consumption in low, medium and high income countries, both within their borders and outside, from 1961 to 2000. The team used UN definitions for countries in different income categories. Low income countries included Pakistan, Nigeria and Vietnam, and middle income nations included Brazil and China. Rich countries in the study included the UK, US and Japan.

Striking disparities

The magnitude of effects outside the home country was different for each category of consumption. For example, deforestation and agricultural intensification primarily affect the host country, while the impacts from climate change and ozone depletion show up the disparity between rich and poor most strikingly.

Greenhouse emissions from low-income countries have imposed $740 billion of damage on rich countries, while in return rich countries have imposed $2.3 trillion of damage. This damage includes, for example, flooding from more severe storms as a result of climate change.

Likewise, CFC emissions from rich countries have inflicted between $25 billion and £57 billion of damage to the poorest countries. Increased ultraviolet levels from the ozone hole have led to higher healthcare costs from skin cancer and eye problems. The converse figure is between $0.58 and $1.3 billion.

The team publish their results today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We know already that climate change is a huge injustice inflicted on the poor," said Dr Neil Adger at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Norwich, who was not involved in the research, "This paper is actually the first systematic quantification to produce a map of that ecological debt. Not only for climate change but also for these other areas."

"This is an accounting tool that allows you to say how much the high-income world owes the low-income world for the environmental externalities we impose on them," he said.

The team confined its calculations to areas in which the costs of environmental damage, for example in terms of lost services from ecosystems, are well understood. That meant leaving out damage from excessive freshwater withdrawals, destruction of coral reefs, biodiversity loss, invasive species and war. So the researchers believe the figures represent a minimum estimate of the true cost.

"We think the measured impact is conservative. And given that it's conservative, the numbers are very striking," said co-author Dr Thara Srinivasan, who is also at Berkeley.

I'd run a short contest for the Daily Duck readers to correctly identify the basic underlying flaw in this assessment, but it is so glaringly obvious that it would not be much of a contest. The study is looking only at the expense side of the income statement. There is no attempt to assess the revenue side. Only by weighing the monetary benefits that trade with and development assistance from the developed world brings to the undeveloped nations and then subtracting the costs can you gauge a true net balance of wealth transfer between the two.

The second glaring flaw is that the authors imagine they can calculate the alternate historical scenario of a world without industrial development to use as a baseline against which to compute an economic delta. How much income would the average Nigerian be making now had the Industrial Revolution never happened? He might have less skin cancer from ozone depletion, but he might also be dead from polio or some other disease that Western medicine can prevent him from contracting now.

And how do you calculate the difference that the Green Revolution has made on the wealth of the developing world? There are an estimated one billion people alive today that wouldn't be had this intrusion of western cultural imperialist technology never been foisted upon these hapless victims of development. Even at the low levels of third world wages, that's a huge economic benefit, to say nothing of its benefit to humanity, which the studys authors don't seem to want to address.

But if you must indulge in white guilt, take heart in this one fact. We are paying back this debt, literally. There is a massive transfer of wealth taking place as we speak, from the West to the East and South. You can see it in the trade deficit. We are borrowing money from the developing world in order to purchase their manufactured goods and natural resources. Everything evens out in the end.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Sigh. This is what Hobsbawm did in his volume of the Oxford History:
It is OK for Indians to charge Europe high prices for textiles, but wrong for Europe to charge India low prices.

Besides, almost all those assessments are bogus. Skin cancer is not increasing noticeably in Maui, although we get just as much extra ultraviolet rays as people in poor sunny countries get.

January 26, 2008 11:24 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

... identify the basic underlying flaw in this assessment.

What Harry said.

The cost side of the ledger is so bogus. Just to pick one example: This damage includes, for example, flooding from more severe storms as a result of climate change.

Storms are neither more severe, nor more frequent now than over any similar period preceding global warming. There are, of course, more people alive, and more living in coastal areas, and more doing egregiously stupid things -- eg New Orleans -- but that is hardly something to put at the door of the rich countries.

This assessment is propaganda that won't stand up to even the most superficial analysis.

January 27, 2008 6:35 PM  

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