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In 1856, the Xhosa had a serious problem. They had been defeated in many wars and had lost a lot of their ancestral lands. They faced the complete extinction of their culture and way of life at the hands of European colonists. So how did they deal with this serious and seemingly insurmountable problem?

They listened to a man named Mhlakaza who claimed that his niece was prophetess. According to the pair (I put most of blame on Mhlakaza), if the Xhosa killed all their cattle and destroyed all of their food then God would cause an army of Russians to rise out of the sea and destroy the British. The Xhosa people faithfully followed “God’s” commands.

The resulting famine destroyed the Xhosa as an independent culture. The entire people were reduced to servitude to the very British that were supposed to be driven into the sea by the ghostly Russian armies.

You could argue that this would have happened in any case. After all, the whole reason the Xhosa were so receptive to those prophecies in the first place was because their backs were to the wall. But you can hardly argue that Mhlakaza helped the Xhosa by peddling his delusions.

We like to think that we are above all that kind of stuff now. We would like to think that we are more rational. But I don’t see much difference between the solution that Mhlakaza offered the Xhosa and the solutions that are being offered for global warming.

We are told by many that should be in a position to know that global warming is a very serious problem that threatens us all. We are told that our backs are to the wall and we have no time to waste. Yet the solution they are pushing for is nothing but a change in the terms of trade between rich countries and developing nations. Needless to say, changing the terms of trade will do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

If you have not already picked up on it, I am talking about the various schemes to have greenhouse gases regulated and controlled in the industrialized world even though there is no prospect of them being regulated in the developing world.

On the face of it, it does not seem like such a bad idea. If greenhouse gases are the cause of global warming, why shouldn’t they be regulated?

The problem comes in through a little concept known as comparative advantage. If one place can produce something cheaper than another place, then the thing will be produced in the cheaper place. In other words, if the industrialized world makes it more expensive/harder to engage in activities that emit lots of greenhouse gases, then those activities will simply take place in the developing world.

Thus, caps on greenhouse emissions will simply cause the industrialized world to focus on industries that are not carbon intensive. At the same time, they would trade with the developing world for all those products that need to be made with carbon intensive processes. The result would be no net reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gasses at world level.

This is true even of things that you would think would not be transferable. For example, say you can wave a magic wand and make everyone in America drive the most energy efficient car possible with today’s technology. Would that reduce total greenhouse gases emissions?

Probably not. After all, oil is global commodity. If Americans used less of it, the price would drop. If the price dropped, the developing countries would use more of it. About the only way you could be sure that reducing your consumption of oil would reduce world greenhouse gas emissions would be to buy more oil than you needed and stick it back in the ground.

I am not the first person to make this observation and I won’t be the last. But I think that it is worth harping on the issue because people who are concerned about global warming ignore this point. Even economically literate people don’t seem to give it the weight that it deserves.

I think that it is the economically literate people who bother me the most. (I won’t name names because I can’t find the posts that I am thinking of right now.) They either take it for granted that if you cut emissions in one country you have not shifted them to another, or they brush the problem off by saying that we have to get our own house in order before we can tackle the developing world. I don’t see how any economically literate person can take either of those two positions without being embarrassed.

Given that comparative advantage is one of the underlying principles of economics, it seems to me that economically literate people would at least try to explain why emission caps won’t just move the problem to different spot on the globe. But I have never seen a good argument to that effect.

As for idea that we need to put our house in order before we tackle the developing world, it ignore two things. Number one, we cannot truly say that we have put our house in order if we have just exported our carbon emissions to other countries. Number two, I don’t think that the developing world will stop growth even if the developed world gave off no greenhouse gases whatsoever. And right now, the technology just does not exist to allow the developing world to industrialize without massively increasing their emissions.

To me, the fact that the developing world can’t develop without increasing emissions points to the real problem. We just don’t have the technology to freeze emission levels (much less reduce them) without going back to the Stone Age. Therefore, it seems to me that the only rational solution to the problem would be a desperate attempt to acquire better technology.

But you don’t find people fighting as hard for increased R&D spending as they do for emissions caps. Why is this?

I think it has to do with people’s desire for certainty. Government imposed caps give the illusion that something will be done about the problem whereas there is no guarantee that R&D will come up with a solution.

But we should remember that it was the Xhosa’s desire for a certain fix to their problems that led them to follow Mhlakaza. We should try to avoid making the same mistake. Let us not follow comforting illusions. Let us instead look for real solutions even if there is no guarantee that we will find one.

One Response to “If global warming is a serious problem, offer a serious solution….”

  1. […] _uacct = “UA-1202685-1”; urchinTracker(); Map of the Ethereal Land The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead About If global warming is a serious problem, offer a serious solution…. By Ape Man | February 27, 2007 – 9:26 pm Posted in Category: Money In 1856, the Xhosa had a serious problem. They had been defeated in many wars and had lost a lot of their ancestral lands. They faced the complete extinction of their culture and way of life at the hands of European colonists. So how did they deal with this serious and seemingly insurmountable problem? They listened Click Here to continue reading. […]

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