Samuel Breidbart and David Schlussel: Climate Diplomacy and the Poor

Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh urged Hillary Clinton to back off on climate change mandates when the two met in New Delhi last month.

“There is simply no case for the pressure that we, who have amongst the lowest emissions per capita, face to actually reduce emissions,” Ramesh brazenly told the secretary of state.

Not quite the Bollywood ending Mrs. Clinton was expecting. Certainly not the ending desired by scientists and policymakers as they look ahead to December’s Climate Conference in Copenhagen as a last-chance-dance for a meaningful international accord.

But Bret Stephens, the former editor of the Jerusalem Post, sees the Clinton-Ramesh exchange as a perfect outcome for an unsuspecting group: the billions of humans living on less than $2 a day. “The poor told the warming alarmists to get lost,” he writes in his August 4 Wall Street Journal column, describing Ramesh’s shut down of Clinton, whose climate policy, Stephens believes, will threaten India’s access to the free market.

Never mind that Ramesh, a Carnegie Mellon-educated economist and former commerce minister, is an odd choice by Stephens as spokesman for the poor. Stephens himself proceeds to make dubious claims on their behalf.

He argues that “people who live in Third-World countries” desperately thirst for the “American economic model,” rejecting the notion that high-carbon emissions, like those seen in the United States, automatically produce the kind of particles and toxic waste that are polluting the rivers of China, for instance. Indeed, as a litmus test, he urges readers to name a U.S. city with air as dirty as Beijing’s or a river as polluted as the Han.

At first glance, Stephens is right. American cities and waterways do appear cleanerin large part thanks to air and water regulations passed by Congress in the 1970s.

But what he misses is the underlying economics that have allowed Americans, unable to dump at home, to export their filth. Alongside Afghanistan and Haiti, the United States has yet to ratify the Basel Convention Controls on Hazardous Waste Export. It generates the most hazardous waste on earth, according to the UN and the OECD, and exports byproducts of development to a host of countries, China and India included.

According to a 2006 report by its State Environmental Protection Administration, China has become the recipient of 70% of the world’s electronic waste, a toxic brew which contains lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, and polyvinyl chlorides—materials with known harmful effects such as brain damage, kidney disease, genetic mutation, and cancer. Children in Guiyu, a town in Southern China that is the largest electronic waste site on earth, have lead levels in blood that are 50 percent higher than the limits set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While it is difficult to estimate the quantity of U.S. hazardous waste exports (since data is not kept), insiders in the electronic waste industry, according to the Basel Action Network’s “Exporting Harm” 2002 report, believe that 80 percent of what comes through their doors will be shipped to Asia, and 90 percent of that is destined for China.

Trying to find U.S. waste? Look beyond our borders. India and China, if they try to develop with an outdated polluting model, will find no market for their own trash. Empowering their poor will only work through cleaner growth.

In many respects, that’s exactly what Ramesh wants. But Stephens cheats his audience out of the rest of the Ramesh-Clinton exchange just before the minister makes this point. After declaring his opposition to emissions caps, he tells Clinton explicitly: “We want an international agreement.” He just wants it on his own terms.

For Ramesh, Copenhagen is a chance for India to flex newfound diplomatic muscle and not just follow America’s lead. India is concerned about climate change and smart growth. Its priorities include acquiring technological and capital assistance from the developed world to transfer and deploy clean technologies. “International capital,” says Ramesh, “is the key.”

Stephens depicts climate diplomacy in the style of the culture wars: as a liberal social program that does the poor more harm than good. Such pandering is a distraction to important preparations for December’s summit. A belief in the exceptionalism of the “American economic model” will not produce a better environment. Only good environmental policy can do that.

Samuel Breidbart and David Schlussel are undergraduates at Yale University and co-editors-in-chief of Wheel: Yale Undergraduate Sustainable Development Journal. Samuel is an intern at the World Policy Journal. David is an intern at Ecological, a sustainability consulting firm in New York.

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