Fighting global warming. Who gets the bill?

Mighty matters are afoot in the world today. Powerful men are gathering together, or planning to gather together, to discuss two of the great challenges facing the human species: cooling the overheated planet and thawing the frozen economy.

Mighty matters are afoot in the world today. Powerful men are gathering together, or planning to gather together, to discuss two of the great challenges facing the human species: cooling the overheated planet and thawing the frozen economy.

That the world is heating at an alarming rate is no longer a matter for debate, and only a handful of flat-earthers still maintain that human folly is not the principal cause. For some, such as the powerful few who will cut the climate change deal in Copenhagen this December, not to mention the G8 deal in Huntsville next year, environmental disaster is looming. For others, such as the inhabitants of low-lying islands, it’s already here.

US President Barrack Obama made history this week by acknowledging the reality of the human-caused climate disaster. Unfortunately, his position on what to do about it differs little from that of his predecessor George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The sticking point for Harper, Bush, and now Obama is the need for developing nations, especially the larger ones like China and India, to take their own steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly since China is now the No. 2 emitter in the world, and India is not so very far behind, there can be no real progress on climate change unless these countries sign on.

The trouble with the Bush/Harper/Obama position is that it requires that developing nations take the same steps as wealthy nations, at the same speed and the same cost. Developing nations, whose economies are based on low-regulations, cheap labour, and cheap means of production, insist that rich countries have benefited for decades from the economic results of burning all that carbon, and should bear the brunt of the recovery.

It is this difference in views that has kept action on global warming stalled for years. The wealthy nations won’t proceed without full co-operation from the poor nations, who will take no significant action until the rich set an example. In the meantime, emissions go up, and islands go under.

If this dispute remains unresolved, global warming will spiral out of control, and our grandchildren will inhabit a planet we would not recognize as our own. At least, not we Canadians. Third World people might find it quite familiar, since it will be blighted by poverty, war, starvation and disease.

So let’s stand back a bit and take a look at the diverging views on responsibility for this crisis. The US and Canada say all countries that produce emissions share an equal responsibility to change, China and India say that those countries that have profited most should sacrifice most. Maybe the problem with both views is that in a globalized world, they look to nation states for solutions.

Maybe the divide that we need to address is not between rich and poor countries, but between rich and poor people. For 30 years rich and powerful men, and a handful of rich and powerful women, have pushed the globalized economy – the uncontrolled industrialization of poor countries and the deepening addiction of rich countries to cheap consumer goods.

They’ve trumpeted the economic benefits of globalization while the rich got rich and the poor got poorer in both Western and Third World countries. They have suppressed dissent with tear gas and with tanks, and they have warmed up the planet with dirty coal, weak regulation, and a constant stream of fuel-guzzling ships between Asia, Europe and the Americas.

At every turn rich and powerful individuals in countries both rich and poor have opposed “protectionism,”, the sin of trying to grow local economies. Prosperity, they tell us, is only possible when corporations are free to roam the globe in search of the cheapest labour and the slackest regulations.

All of this has brought tremendous profit to the rich at great cost to the poor. In China, for instance, globalization resulted in the largest and most ruthless forced migration in human history, when millions were driven from the old collective farms and into the new industrialized cities. Untold numbers died, and most of the rest were exploited as the cheap labour needed to feed the profit machine.

In Canada and the US, good manufacturing jobs disappeared, to be replaced with poverty-level service industry jobs. More Canadians live below the poverty line today than in the 1980s, before Brian Mulroney led us into “free trade” and the globalization of profits.

China and India are right to say that those who have profited most from greenhouse gas emissions should bear the largest cost of reducing them. Where they’re wrong is to suggest that this means Western nations as a whole. At the same time globalization was driving the colossal rise in GHG emissions that occurred over the past 30 years, it was creating a concentration of wealth in private hands such as the world has never known.

Let’s not get hung up on the false dichotomy between developing nations and rich ones. Rich men and richer corporations have fattened themselves on the globalization of profit. To get out of the mess they’ve created will require a restructuring of the global economy, with an emphasis on local production, and a globalized tax on obscene wealth.

Restructuring the world’s economy will not be cheap or easy. Without doubt, it will cost trillions of dollars. Guess who’s got ‘em?

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.