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Governance, Force, and Climate Change: Eco-colonialism at an Impasse

The U.S., British, and French plunge into the Libyan civil war is another sign of the rise of a new, humanitarian, version of an old concept, colonialism. The concepts new rationale rests on claims that the world as a whole will gain from limiting the poverty and violence rampant in the most benighted and backward states. President Obamas UN Ambassador, Susan E. Rice, has written a book on this subject, and she is reportedly a strong supporter of the Libyan venture.

In the past, Ambassador Rice has also advocated stretching this new global paternalism to cover climate change. She argues that climate change will become a leading cause of Third World poverty and violence. The U.S., in her view, must, therefore, lead efforts to counter its effects.

In her book, Ambassador Rice urges the U.S. to curb emissions of global warming gases. And it is true that future climate change might exacerbate some of the problems that afflict poor tropical countries; still, even were climate change altogether halted, most of those countries problems would persist. In any case, without the active help of other countries, U.S. emission curbs could have only very modest impact on climate. And many key countries, e.g. China and India, have made it plain that they will not incur the high costs of effective emission controls. Despite the Obama administrations best efforts, it has found no trace of the global consensus without which U.S. abatement efforts are futile.

Directly attacking the problems that stunt the economic growth of poor tropical states might seem to offer a better route to the Administrations goals. This approach could in theory address a fuller range and scope of these states major problems; Dr. Rices book also calls for this kind of action, and the Obama Administration has pledged to take part in a $100 billion a year aid program designed to help poor countries adapt to climate change.

This proposal, in effect, turns the response to climate change into yet another version of old efforts to spark economic development through aid. Over the last sixty-five years, we have tried countless variants on that theme. Most have been dismal failures, and none has provided a dependable formula for success.

This experience has shown that many of the governments of the poorest states are, themselves, a prime cause of their citizens poverty; worse, development aid can further empower these governments to flout their taxpayers interests; by dong so, aid has often made things worse instead of better.

Of course, one might propose to use force to remove such governments. That, after all, is the ultimate logic of the new colonialism. Recent history, though, proves that building good governments is many times harder than toppling bad ones. And with that lesson fresh in the national mind, the U.S. is clearly in no mood to go into the wholesale regime change business in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Climate change eco-colonialism is thus only likely to work if it is backed by armed force. Absent the will to use force to change regimes, programs to help poor countries adapt to climate change are likely to end up all too much like other large scale plans to transform poor and backward countries.

In large measure, the old version of colonialism failed because the colonial powers ceased to believe that its rewards to them justified the costs of deploying the force needed to maintain the system. Climate eco-colonialism suffers from the same fatal flaw. Because it does, it is vulnerable to the same fate.

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