The Poverty of the Ambitious

by | Mar 28, 2010

According to the Observer today,

Some of the planet’s most powerful paymasters will gather in London on Wednesday to discuss a nagging financial problem: how to raise a trillion dollars for the developing world. Those charged with achieving this daunting goal will include Gordon Brown, directors of several central banks, the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, the economist Lord (Nicholas) Stern and Larry Summers, President Obama’s chief economics adviser.

As an array of expertise, it is formidable: but then so is the task they have been set by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. In effect, the world’s top financiers have been told to work out how to raise at least $100bn a year for the rest of this decade, cash that will be used to help the world’s poorest countries adapt to climate change.

A trillion dollars for the developing world, eh? That sounds like a hell of a lot. And indeed it is. Except when you do the math.

It is said that there are a billion people who live on less than a dollar a day. So a $100bn a year changes the lives of these billion people to the tune of one dollar a day, for a hundred days a year.

In other words, it makes virtually no difference.

That’s not the way Bob Ward sees it.

“The prices we pay for our goods do not reflect one key cost: the damage that their production does to the planet’s climate system,” said Bob Ward, of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the LSE. “We need to find ways to extract payment from those who cause that damage and then use that money to fund developing nations so that they can protect themselves from the worst effects of global warming.”

When Bob Ward isn’t telling people what they are not allowed to say or do, he’s thinking up new ways to use the environmental crisis to do more of it.

What at first pass looks like an impulse to deliver some kind of humanitarian aid is revealed as an authoritarian instinct. When it turns out that the aid is paltry, only the authoritarian instinct remains. This is cloaked in the language of “helping” poor people at the expense of people who are seemingly responsible for their condition, but it’s really about using the climate to control both the wealthy and the poor. Make no mistake, this is a self-serving gesture. If it wasn’t, a discussion about poverty in the world attended by so many of the Global Great and the Good would not be dominated by the climate change agenda. It is only because it offers no genuine transformative potential (yet it offered them a platform from which to elevate themselves) that so many of the world’s most powerful people are so interested. The big numbers and the lofty goal flatter them. But in reality the effect will be to make no more difference than a few pennies here and there would.

The point here being that if $100bn a year is sufficient to make a difference with respect to people’s lives affected by climate change, then there are two serious implications. The first is that climate change is a minor problem – what determines whether or not it is a problem for you is whether or not you happen to have about a third of a dollar in your pocket on a given day. $0.3 makes the difference between you surviving and you being a climate victim. Second, the implication is that the world’s leaders do not give a stuff about poverty, unless it is “climate poverty”. That is to say it is only when poverty carries some instrumental value to them that they become interested. If you’ve $1.3 in your pocket, you can go hang. If you’re a climate victim, you generate moral authority for the changes that Gordon Brown, George Soros, Nick Stern, and Larry Summers – and the rest – have in mind.

This has nothing to do with poverty. What abolishes poverty are roads, factories, hospitals, schools, ports and airports, dams, bridges, and water infrastructure built by the people that use them. All of these things, in their construction and operation, produce CO2. The trillion dollars a decade promised by the people gathering this week will be predicated on minimising the impact of any potential development in the poorest part of the world, and its purpose is to buy support from the leaders of those countries for a specific climate agenda that suits the architects of this deal. The people who will administer this transfer of wealth – likely the cronies of Nick Stern – will be the only ones who see any real change in their circumstances. To the people on the receiving end, it is peanuts.

There are a lot of positive things, of course, that a $trillion could do to abolish poverty. But the abolition of poverty has been conveniently abolished from the agenda by the preoccupation with climate change. What this has done is to reframe the conditions that many millions of people have to endure in such a way as to appear as a natural consequence of industry, as if poverty never existed before climate change. So the very roles – the presidents and prime ministers – that created such conditions are now populated by people who seek to generate moral authority and political legitimacy for themselves out of those very conditions, through the logic of climate change.


  1. Fred

    Hey . . why doesn’t Obama just give his massive deficit to the 3rd world . . . that would be more than a $Trillion and he could claim he’d “eliminated the deficit”.

    He could do it just like he’s claiming his Health Care Bill will save money.

    All’s fare (and fair) in Obamaland.

  2. Louie

    I agree that the motive is not to save the underdeveloped world from catastrophe, but to further the power and the profit of the AGW politicians. But I take exception to your argument that the $1/day for 100 days is insignificant. Proportionately, (27%) for the U.S. that would be a contribution of 1.6 trillion dollars to our economy. Not insignificant.

  3. meleze

    According to my view you miss the point here. Behind the financial question of the climate mitigation for the developping countrie lies the same question for Great Britain. It is not clear for your own country how many renewables you can have in ten years and which budget for the nuclear energy. By some aspects your are not different of a developping country and the next PM could have to borrow to the FMI the budget he needs for his energy schedule. The people of the meeting you are criticising are looking for a common way for all the countries committed in Copenhagen. The point is that you are no more able neither France to take an offsetting financement on the state-budget. It is a global deal as it is teached by Stern. And the mastering of that deal is a key point of the next election

  4. George Carty

    How much would it cost to exterminate the tsetse fly? That would be a good start to helping sub-Saharan Africa…


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