Posted by: bmeverett | December 11, 2010

Cancun land mine

I have deliberately avoided any postings about the UN’s current climate change meetings in Cancun, Mexico. The 16th meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP-16) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which began on November 29 and is scheduled to wrap up today (December 10), follows the well-established pattern of expensive boondoggles for hundreds of government officials, NGOs, reporters, academics and others resulting in nothing of any relevance to the average human on the plant. Trust me, that’s a good thing. When you read press reports about COPs, don’t bother to look for constructive developments because there won’t be any. Be on the lookout, however, for possible land mines that could explode with devastating effect at some time in the future.

Many of the concepts debated ad nauseam in climate change meetings are embarrassingly unserious. One of the central themes of the Cancun discussions has been “climate justice,” the idea that industrialized nations caused climate change, so they should pay for the solution. OK, so far, but the proposed solutions generally involve a pledge by the industrial countries, particularly the US, to commit economic suicide and leave their wealth to third world dictators. Evo Morales, the socialist President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, has proposed a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the industrial countries by 2017, massive financial transfers and an international court to punish polluters (presumably Americans). The credibility of President Morales as a global environmental economist might be slightly diminished by his claims that factory-farmed chickens cause homosexuality and that genetically modified foods cause baldness, but he remains a hero to people like Friends of the Earth.

This bizarre political theater puts the representatives of the industrial democracies in an awkward position. Nobody wants to draw the ire of the global left by treating this discussion with the contempt it deserves. The negotiators instead generally seek the standard climate change compromise: inexpensive actions that have no impact on carbon emissions. That’s fine with me, provided they don’t do unwittingly something really dangerous in the process. The scariest idea that has been floating around for the last few years is to give the UN taxing authority.

The left likes this idea because they don’t trust either national governments or multinational banking institutions to disburse climate aid fairly. The US government is reviled in any context, and the World Bank has discredited itself by financing fossil fuel projects. Hence, the UN. Many people still regard the UN as a kind of international representative legislature, where the “world community” can meet and solve problems through rational discussion. In fact, it’s nothing of the kind.

The UN was formed in 1945 with 51 members. The governing body of the UN is the General Assembly in which every country has one vote. Sounds good, but the membership has now been expanded to 192 countries. Forty-one of the countries have populations of less than a million. Sixteen have populations of less than 100,000. Each gets the same vote as the US. Half the world’s population lives in only six countries (China, India, the US, Indonesia, Brazil and Russia). Only about 42 member-states (20% of the total) can be classified as democracies. Many of the worst actors in the world (Sudan, Libya, Myanmar, Cuba) not only vote in the General Assembly, but periodically sit on its human rights and social development committees. The UN spends most of its time, effort and considerable budget railing against Israel, advocating for limits on free speech, attacking anyone who criticizes Muslim countries and enriching its senior bureaucrats. If you want to look at a case study of the way the UN really operates, just review the oil-for-food program administered during the sanctions against Saddam Hussein.

Giving the UN more responsibility strikes me as a bad idea in any case, but giving them taxing authority would be a disaster. Two specific taxes have been proposed: a tax on international financial transactions and fees on international air travel. Even if the rate of taxation started out very small, the potential for mischief is enormous. Much of the revenue would end up in the hands of corrupt governments or UN officials. As with all taxes, the pressure to increase these taxes over time would be relentless. Decisions affecting the health of the global economy would be in the hands of corrupt bureaucrats accountable to no one. Under the glare of publicity, it would be easy for climate change negotiators to try to come up with something, anything that will give the conference at least some claim of success. When it comes to giving the UN taxing authority, my advice to the negotiators is DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!


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