Who will save the world?

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Last week in Hong Kong, a friend and I received tickets to an Intelligence Squared debate on climate change. Intelligence Squared is a non-profit organization that holds debates with leading experts around the world on pressing issues. Many of these debates are aired on BBC.

The debate I attended concerned the following statement, ““THE WEST IS FULL OF HOT AIR; ASIA IS SAVING THE WORLD FROM CLIMATE POLICY DISASTER”. Coming into the debate, the crowd was already against the motion, but after 90 minutes of discussion, the crowd had become even more against. The panelists for the motion argued that Kyoto had failed to produce reductions in GHG emissions and that developing countries such as India and China had a right to develop and produce greenhouse gases. The team against the motion argued that the west was already leading the fight against global warming and that Asia was building so many coal power plants that it could hardly be expected to save the world from climate change.

As with many of these debates, it is very hard to separate items for analysis. As was discussed, the developed countries rely on Asia to produce low-cost goods for our consumption – thus their coal plants are partially our fault. Conversely, most of the CO2 in the atmosphere today comes from the west, we thus have a responsibility to sacrifice first and lead the world to a carbon free future. The most interesting element of the debate was the discussion of the “right to develop”, the idea that all humans have a fundamental right to certain material comforts and to deny that, because of carbon emissions or any other reason, is morally wrong.

The right to a roof over your head, food on the table, healthcare and education are basic human rights. I challenge anyone to tell a poor asian father and mother that they cannot purchase a refrigerator or a car or that it will cost more because of global warming. As bad as global warming is, the solution cannot be to restrict the enrichment of poor people around the world. When you travel through a poor country, you come face to face with the desperate need for development.

When I lived in Beijing in 2005, I distinctly recall a friend explaining the sensation of eating an egg for the first time. She had never eaten meat, let alone an egg, because it was too expensive. In the west, we simply cannot comprehend the level of poverty found in many parts of the world and to deny them the right to develop because of global warming is wrong. As previously discussed on this blog, lifting people out of poverty will likely be our best chance at solving the pressing ecological problems we face. Only with more education and wealth can people understand our ecological problems and change their behaviour accordingly.

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P.S. China is already a leader in solar panel production, reforestation and wind power. They are also furiously building nuclear power plants, hydroelectric projects and other low carbon ways of producing electricity. So I hardly think we can say they are not working on modernizing their power production and reducing their carbon intensity.