Nordhaus and Shellenberger: poor people poorer than rich ones by mattsteinglass
May 19, 2009, 3:19 pm
Filed under: Development, Environment

I have never understood what people find appealing about the work of Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. It seems to me like empty contrarianism, the Mickey Kaus of environmentalism. They’re like two guys trying so desperately to stand the conventional wisdom on its head that they end up dropping it, breaking it, hastily gluing it back together, and pronouncing: ta-da! Take this little insight from their piece in the current TNR:

Despite the rhetoric about “one planet,” not all humans have the same interests when it comes to addressing global warming. Greens often note that the changing global climate will have the greatest impact on the world’s poor; they neglect to mention that the poor also have the most to gain from development fueled by cheap fossil fuels like coal. For the poor, the climate is already dangerous. They are already subject to the droughts, floods, hurricanes, and diseases that future warming will intensify. It is their poverty, not rising carbon-dioxide levels, that make them more vulnerable than the rest of us. By contrast, it is the richest humans–those of us who have achieved comfort, prosperity, and economic security for ourselves and for our children–who have the most to lose from the kind of apocalyptic global-warming scenarios that have so often been invoked in recent years. The existential threat so many of us fear is that we might all end up in a kind of global Somalia characterized by failed states, resource scarcity, and chaos. It is more than a little ironic that at the heart of the anti-modern green discourse resides the fear of losing our modernity.

What is that supposed to mean? The reason the poor are more vulnerable is because…they’re poor? Nordhaus and Shellenberger get so twisted up trying to construct a paradox that they end up restating the obvious.


5 Comments so far
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I’m not sure that I understand your point. I read Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger as saying that industrialization is dirty business and continued globalization can make poorer countries richer and therefore better able to cope with climate change because they have more resources at their disposal. Certainly, they overstate their case, but it’s not as obtuse as you imply. Or maybe I am misreading it.

Comment by Patrick Appel

Well, put it this way: who could ever have possibly thought anything other than that “it is their poverty, not rising carbon-dioxide levels, that makes them more vulnerable than the rest of us”? Might someone have thought that CO2 levels will rise more for poor people than for others? Obviously poor people are more vulnerable to the threats CO2 intensifies because they are poor.

I didn’t clearly elaborate what I find so ridiculous about the rest of the paragraph, but I will now. There are two problems. The first is the straw-man problem of “the kind of apocalyptic global-warming scenarios that have been invoked in recent years…” What scenarios are they talking about? Because the global-warming scenarios I have seen imply, in fact, that rich people will be able to adapt, while poor people won’t. This is why they have predicted more severe consequences for poor people. Which is exactly what N+S are talking about here; we’re back to a tautology which they’ve tried to turn upside-down, and failed.

But finally, my real objection is simply that N+S are wrong. Poor people suffer more from hurricanes that swamp their cities than rich people do. There was a pretty good demonstration of this dynamic on CNN a few years ago as I recall. And there is a rather sordid moral dimension to the way N+S attempt to argue the opposite. What they are saying, in effect, is that all those poor people in New Orleans were already living squalid lives, “vulnerable” to all kinds of stuff — disease, accidents, etc. — so for them Katrina was no big deal. More of the same, really. The people who really suffered were the rich folks who had their nice homes wiped out. On a global scale, yes, people in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta are a lot poorer than people in Miami Beach. But when their rice fields salt up due to rising sea levels and then slowly cave into the water until ultimately all the land they’ve owned, their only earthly possession, is gone and they’re destitute on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, they really have suffered a lot more from global warming than somebody in Miami Beach who loses their expensive beachfront home as Florida goes under, and is forced to rely on the insurance systems and public emergency assistance of the richest country in the world. The attitude towards poor people this implies — that they don’t really suffer because what’s the difference between having a thatched-roof house, two rice fields and a buffalo, or being a beggar living on the streets — is pretty ugly.

Comment by mattsteinglass

Your second paragraph seems to be reinforcing everything N+S were saying; not sure where the disagreement actually is!

I’m not sure if N+S make their point very effectively here, but it seems as they are making the often-made, but often-ignored claim in hazards research that natural disasters are never “natural”, but created from the social context in which they occur. They seem to be arguing against the claim that we should address climate change because it will hurt the poor. Instead, for many the issue is the opposite: we should address poverty because climate change is coming. I think N+S would agree with you when you say “poor people suffer more from hurricanes that swamp their cities than rich people do”. That is precisely the point!

One big criticism leveled against the Western “climate change” crowd from the third world is that it has become another way to dictate to the global South how to manage their affairs. They are lectured about reducing their emissions, but it is not their emissions that make them vulnerable, but their poverty, but if they reduce emissions, we can’t get out of poverty – this whole thing is the fault of U.S and Europe anyway, so why can’t YOU get your act together. Or so the argument goes anyway. Its debatable, but there’s something there.

Comment by musa

Well, it all depends which variable one sets as controllable, right? If anyone has any idea how to “address poverty” in sub-Saharan Africa in a fashion that has a reasonable chance of making them rich enough to adapt to climate change…

I don’t think my second paragraph agrees with N+S at all. They argue that it is “the richest humans who have the most to fear” from “apocalyptic global-warming scenarios”. But all the “apocalyptic global-warming scenarios” I have seen explicitly argue that the poor have the most to fear, which makes it difficult to understand what N+S mean when they say that “actually’ the rich have the most to fear in these same scenarios that explicitly argue the poor have the most the fear. Then N+S go on to explain a bit of what they mean when they say the rich have the most to fear, and it seems to me to amount to “oh, those poor people are always dying of flood or famine anyway, what difference could a little more make?”

Comment by mattsteinglass

I don’t think what they say and what you say are mutually exclusive. Poor people can be the hardest hit by the effects of climate change (a point that both of you agree on), but that doesn’t mean it is their biggest fear. I think their point is that it is hard for someone to get worked up about a global warming scenario that may or may not happen, when your more immediate worry is getting enough to eat, or not getting dysentery etc.

Comment by musa

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