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The old yin and yang
This time on climate
Delegates to the COP27 climate summit in Egypt recently agreed to establish a fund for compensating countries damaged by climate change. The agreement is a matter of principle: countries that have done the most to change the climate will pay for losses and damages incurred by those countries suffering the most. It’s also an agreement in principle: details of who will pay how much to whom remain to be decided.
And to be enforced. Noteworthy in all the climate agreements so far is that they are voluntary. The delegates to the COP27 conference took pains to say that justice, not charity, was what motivated the agreement; yet the agreement is very much like charity in that it is given at the discretion of the givers. If governments in any of the countries whose delegates agreed to pay into the fund have a change of heart—or a change of personnel—no other government or entity can compel them to make good on their pledges. Skeptics have noted that previous commitments by governments on climate change have more often gone unfulfilled than been met.
All this is another example of the age-old human problem of balancing two fundamental values: liberty and security. Everyone wants to be free; everyone wants to be secure. But we can never be entirely both. We get more of one by accepting less of the other.
Governments provide security, but they do so at the expense of liberty. The defining characteristic of government is its authority to coerce: to curtail liberty in the pursuit of collective goals. Societies shape their governments to achieve the optimal balance—for them—between liberty and security.
Some societies, prizing liberty, grant government little ability to coerce. One reason the Indian nations in what became the United States failed to prevent seizure of their territory by Euro-Americans is that most had little or no tradition of coercive government. Decision-making among the Comanches, Apaches and many other indigenous peoples was by consensus; bands that didn’t share the consensus were free to go their own way. This approach had served them well for many generations when the enemies they faced were equally individualistic; but against the regimented ranks of U.S. government troops, the Indians were overmatched. Occasional efforts at alliances, as by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, proved too little and too late.
Other societies so prize security as to leave little room for liberty. China exists because the peoples constituting it banded together during thousands of years against outside threats, fending them off one after the other. China was ruled by a succession of emperors and associated elites who were able to impose their will on the rest of the Chinese people; China is still ruled that way today. To some extent the Chinese people had scant choice in the matter; the emperors and elites controlled the levers of power. Yet no small degree of acquiescence was involved as well; individualism has never demonstrated a broad hold on the Chinese imagination.
The tension between liberty and security appears plainly in the debate over climate change. In countries like the United States, the driver of carbon emissions is the desire of millions of individuals for autonomy in transport and consumption. Americans cherish the freedom their cars provide them; they value their freedom to jet where they want and to purchase and use things they can afford to buy. People in some other countries are less attached to cars than Americans, largely because other modes of transport there are better developed; but wherever people have spending power they seek to exercise it. And in the exercise they create externalities—greenhouse gases and their consequences—that other people have to endure.
So far no government has taken serious steps to curtail this exercise of individual liberty. Numerous governments have launched programs to provide technical workarounds, subsidizing electric vehicles to replace those powered by gasoline or diesel, and underwriting wind farms and solar cells. The evident goal is to make the reduction of carbon emissions as painless as possible.
But not costless. Subsidies have to be paid for, by the present generation through taxes or by future generations through borrowing. Either way, people are compelled to pay. Their liberty is thereby infringed.
This is unavoidable, and it’s in keeping with the perfectly reasonable idea that people should compensate others for damage inflicted. If residents of island nations lose their homes because of the actions of people elsewhere, those other people ought to pay up. In an ideal world they would volunteer to do so.
In fact, that is exactly what happened in Egypt. The rich countries volunteered to pay the poorer countries.
Except that the people of the volunteering countries didn’t volunteer; their resources were volunteered for them, by their governments.
The people of the paying countries could volunteer to fix the climate problem: by not driving cars, not flying in planes, not buying new houses, phones and other gadgets. Some do take such actions.
But not enough do. Hence the volunteered coercion by their governments.
Yet the people will have the final say, at least in some countries. Where governments are democratically chosen, people will determine whether those 2022 pledges given in Egypt get carried out.
Which is why applause should be withheld regarding the COP27 agreement. Are voters in America, Britain, India and other democratic countries going tax or otherwise inconvenience themselves for the benefit of people in other countries? They’ve shown little willingness to do so yet. And if they don’t, will autocrats in places like China court the displeasure of their publics in the service of such altruism?
Perhaps by then the costs of climate change will be hitting home in all countries. Maybe the infringement on liberty will be seen as essential to everyone’s security, and the governments will act accordingly.
The other alternative is the emergence of some international body with the authority to coerce individuals over the heads of their national governments. This happened on a national scale when the framers of the U.S. constitution of 1787 overruled the Articles of Confederation and reached past the state governments to give coercive powers to America’s national government; and the states ratified their own derogation.
Historically, individuals have ceded liberty to government in exchange for security against a threat they experienced collectively. Will the threat from climate change rise to a level where peoples around the world are willing to cede liberty to a world government?
An even bigger maybe.
Actually, there is a third alternative, which at the moment seems the likeliest: We keep spewing carbon and the planet keeps getting hotter.
Until one of the two options above appears preferable.