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Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

In everything from climate to criminal justice, China is playing by its own rules.

The mother of all hangovers on 1 January 2010 has nothing to do with alcohol. From London to Washington DC it’s the result of waking up to find that the world’s most populated country, in whose economy we are inextricably entwined, doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. From deciding the fate of civilisation’s climate, to the judicial killing of mentally ill people, China, bluntly, is going its own way. But world leaders or newspaper columnists pompously taking the moral high ground against such a disdainful dictatorship is quite futile. The shape of the current global economic realignment has a momentum and trajectory shaped by centuries of geopolitics. It also has a direction that we, having created and gloried in the consumerist model, are actively still encouraging. Only last August Tony Blair defended a tripling of traffic in China over the next decade.

Unless these dynamics are understood, no amount of hand-wringing at United Nations’ climate conferences or on national news will make the slightest difference.

The great economic historian Paul Bairoch pointed how, up until the middle of the 18th century, the average standard of living in Europe was probably lower than that of the rest of the world. In 1700 China’s share of world GDP was estimated to be just under a quarter, on a par with Europe and India. By the middle of the 20th century, two and a half centuries later, Europe’s share had risen to nearly a third while China’s had fallen to 5%, and India’s to under 4%. Was this the result of the internal brilliance, creativity and liberating power of the free market? On the contrary, it was more to do with the fact that their competition was, “forcibly dismantled by war, invasion, opium and (in the case of Britain) a Lancashire-imposed system of one-way tariffs,” according to historian Mike Davis.

History does not excuse China playing hardball with the environmental future of humanity (not to mention human rights and democracy), but it certainly goes a long way to explaining their dismissive attitude to the exhortations of the international community. India’s approach to climate negotiations can fall into a similar category.

We are in a trap of our own making, both historically and in the way that China’s current economic development is premised on rising consumption in places like Europe and North America, where people already over-consume.

It’s not only to do with climate change and the use of fossil fuels. Whether its rare minerals and timber from Africa, or farmland elsewhere in Asia, China is scouring the world to feed its export-led development strategy. In September last year, scientists reported in the journal Nature that globally we have already crossed the safe planetary boundaries of three out of nine critical environmental life support systems. Growing aggregate world consumption and waste production cannot be further sustained.

But China follows a simple logic. Rather than the flawed model that defeated so many developing countries, by integrating into the world and trading more on its own terms, all China is doing, ironically, is to emulate what worked for Britain and the US in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Now, with just 83 months to go before it is no longer “likely”, to use the IPCC definition of climate change risk, that we will stay below the critical 2 degree temperature rise, our options are limited. Rich countries have no choice but to lead by example in setting a different, less destructive model for economic success, that does not rely on endless growth in consumption. This has barely begun. They also have to realise that the hollow annual charade at meetings of the G8 or G20, which endorses greater global economic equality but then ignores the mechanics of its delivery will have to end. With relatively painless innovations like the financial transactions tax, it easily could.

We have seven years to turn things around until the end of 2016. The power of seven: the number of sins, the hills upon which Rome was built and the ages of man. Perhaps more important now is the notion of the seventh generation, to consider what will be the impact of decisions made today on seven generations hence. You could call it the “responsibility of the long now,’ an approach used by many indigenous people that forces us to connect across time to those you could not possibly know. A greater sense of history may help us negotiate more effectively with China. A greater sensitivity to the future may enable us to live better with ourselves. Happy new year, and make every month count …

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

Image from Andrzeg Krause/New Scientist

Image from Andrzeg Krause/New Scientist

A recent poll suggests that the majority of people around the world think that governments should be doing more to tackle climate change. The survey, carried out by, asked 18,578 people  in 18 countries – representing 60% of the world’s population – about government priorities on climate, as well as the attitudes of their fellow citizens.

Earlier this week, Jeremy Williams pointed out that in the UK, people are far more concerned about the effects of recession that they are about any environmental issue. And while this won’t come as a surprise to any environmentalist, it can be disheartening to see the wide disparity between concern about economy and concern about environment. Especially given that, as Herman Daly once said, “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse.”

Still, this latest poll might give climate change campaigners some reasons to be cheerful. Asked how much their Government prioritises climate change – on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest priority – UK respondents to the poll answered 5.92.  Asked how much the Government should prioritise climate change, and they answered 8.2. Which means that most of us want the Government to take considerably more action to fix this problem.

The UK was actually among the countries who recommended that Government make climate change a high priority, trumped only by Turkey at 8.34, China at a revealing and impressive 8.86, and finally Mexico with a whopping 9.09. The fact that Chinese people are this concerned should be cause for hope.

But China’s ascendency to superpower status in no way diminuishes the importance of American attitudes which are, unfortunately, lacklustre in comparison. 4.71 out of 10 is the priority which, according to Americans, their Government should place on climate change. And while this figure does show that people believe that Obama and co. should being doing more on climate – Americans believe that global warming is currently prioritised at 3.84 out of 10 by Government – the number is still the lowest level of concern out of all the nations surveyed, including those who, like Iraq, have arguably more immediate things to worry about.

The United States is schizophrenic in its attitudes to science and science policy. It tends to be very pro-technology in some areas, and then baulks at stem cell research. It produces some of the best scientific research anywhere in the world, and is home to top-class universities and experts, and yet its populace remain so susceptible to the dishonest peddlars of creationism and climate change denial. The existence of such double standards and contrary attitudes can be baffling to external observers, and yet, when given the chance to see how the American media covers these issues, you begin to understand why.

The following story is a case in point. Anthony Watts is a meteorologist weather reporter at a Californian radio station owned by Fox News, and host to the usual line-up of right-wing cronies, including Michael Savage and Sean Hannity. Watts wanted to pick some holes in the climate change argument, which he did by challenging the accuracy of many of the thousands of weather stations dotted across the USA. Many of these stations, Watts argued, were in locations where microclimates created by machinery, by concrete or by other human infrastructure were skewing the data, and creating the false impression of temperature rise. Of course, climate scientists, unlike most of American talk radio, do not devote their attentions to the particularities of one country alone. The dubious accuracy of American weather stations would have little bearing on the overall science of climate change. But, anyway, Watts was actually completely mistaken. The handful of ‘good’ weather stations which he selected out of thousands, still show the same basic pattern of warming over recent decades.

While Watts’ claims got him plenty of coverage in the American media, he wasn’t willing to share the limelight with a man who challenged his conclusions. Peter Sinclair, who produces an online video series called “Climate Denial Crock of the Week”, turned his attentions to Watts, pointing out the problems with the weather station argument. Watts tried to silence his critic, not by making a well-argued response, but by trying to claim that Sinclair infringed his copyright. Fortunately, Watts’ knowledge about copyright law is as poor as his grasp of climate science, and so the video is back online. Watch it triumphantly, but also consider it a reminder of what we’re up against when crooks like Watts can sound so convincing to the American public.

Perhaps Mexico could offer some sort of educational programme?

Bookmark and ShareVeronika Thiel is a researcher and project manager on nef’s Access to Finance team.

unbalanced-scalesWestern countries have long been accused of being glib about economic matters, and now we’re facing the consequences of our hubris. Our ceaseless insistence that our our economic system is stable and that everyone should aspire to copy us makes us look really stupid now in the eyes of the many other countries which did not or could not do what we did – live on credit.

Many transition economies and developing countries will suffer as a consequence of the credit crunch. In a globalised world in recession, globalised trade will suffer, and export-dependent countries will feel the pinch acutely.

So, in a way, I can’t blame the leaders of China and Russia for scolding the West. The greed and blind faith in funny money have caused most of the trouble. But there is another side of the story, namely that of the balance of trade. A balance of trade is the difference between the value of goods exported to one country, and the value of goods imported from the same country. So, if country A exports goods worth $100bn to country B, but only imports goods worth $40bn, then the balance of trade is positive for country A, as it exports more. For country B, on the other hand, the balance is negative. So, country B depends strongly on country A to provide it with the goods and services that country B cannot or does not produce. If country A stops producing these goods, then things don’t look good for country B. It will either have to go without, find another country where it can buy these goods from, possibly at a much higher price, or start producing the goods themselves – but that can’t be done overnight. Country A on the other hand is also interested in country B continuing to buy its goods. If they suddenly stop buying, then it has to find another market – but there might not be one, so its economy can also be hit by a sudden drop in exports.

So, overly skewed balances of trade are not good for either party. And this is where China’s remarks on America’s greed become interesting.

For the US, the balance of trade with China has long been negative, i.e. the US imported far more goods from there than it exported to China, as these figures on the balance of trade between the two countries show. In 2008, the US imported nearly 4 times more from China than it exported there. And we’re not talking peanuts. We’re talking goods imported from China to the tune of US$312bn, while the US only exported goods worth US$66bn. The US trade deficit: $246bn in 2008 alone. There is something ironic in the biggest capitalist economy on the globe relying so much on the last major surviving communist power player (both politically and economic) in the world.

In the olden days, this dependency was considered dangerous for the US. What if there was a revolution in China, or their economy collapsed, or their goods became more expensive? The US would suddenly be unable to rely on the cheap imports that helped sustain their economy over the last decade.

But as it turns out, it was the US economy that collapsed, leaving China exposed to massively reduced demand for its goods and services, resulting in a slow-down in production and economic growth (note that this of course also applies for all the goods and services China exports to the EU).

This is bad news for China, and their premier is right to be demanding more of a say in the world economy. On the other hand, I’m assuming that China realised that its dependency on exports may come to haunt it at some point, and that its growth was partially fuelled by the Western greed that Premier Wen Jiabao rightly blames for the mess we’re in.

But we all, including China, have to realise that we all massively benefitted from the cheap credit that allowed us to buy houses, holidays, and other stuff. Never mind it was always clear it would not last. Never mind it was always clear it was unsustainable. But most of us have profited one way or another from it. I’m all for finger-pointing and blaming myself, but only as long as we remember that our credit bubble also was responsible for much of the economic boom we saw in many countries – growth that is now leaking out of the cracked bubble like gas from a leaky balloon. I don’t think that a player the size of China can pretend not to have realised that this is a bubble and will end sooner or later. Otherwise, they were just as blind to it as our Western economic soothsayers. And that would be really scary.

P.S.: The same argument goes for Russia, by the way- but there is only so much space in a blog.


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.