By now, it is quite clear that both industrialized countries and emerging economies must act to mitigate climate change. China is already the world’s largest emitter of carbon and the gap between China and the United States grows every year. If India and other large emerging economies continue to grow at current or higher rates, their share will also grow rapidly over time. Accordingly to great new research from Berkeley, the effect of economic growth in developing countries on energy demand may be much larger than previously thought.

Although the economic and environmental gains from North-South climate cooperation would be large, our progress is not impressive. Industrialized countries insist on more action by emerging economies, citing China’s ravenous appetite for coal. Emerging economies retort with statistics showing that hundreds of millions continue to live in abject poverty within their borders.

These disagreements are both about distributional conflict and about values. Given the costs associated with climate change mitigation, the government of each country wants others to make more concessions. At the same time, industrialized countries accuse the elites in emerging economies of hiding behind the poor. In emerging economies, such accusations are dismissed as flagrant neo-colonialism.

Is there any hope of breaking the gridlock? My own sense is that this would require, first and foremost, a moral transformation in industrialized countries. We need to recognize that the case for emissions reductions is much stronger among the wealthy than among the poor. The true cost of reducing emissions among the lucky is limited to slightly higher energy prices, while overly aggressive emissions targets for the developing world would prevent the poor from gaining access to the modern services that we take as a given. Life without a fridge and other basic technologies is hard.

At the same time, we must not throw the baby out of the bathwater. Energy poverty is a compelling rationale for industrialized country leadership, but it is a dangerous message if it is used to justify inaction in the global South without an equally strong emphasis on industrialized country action. In a robust strategy, energy consumption levels would increase rapidly among the poor in developing countries while wealthier countries would invest in energy conservation and decarbonization. We, the wealthy, must accept our responsibility for creating the problem and our ability to solve it. Campaigns to prevent the poorest from using more energy are troubling. But so are campaigns to advocate greater use of fossil fuels for economic development without a strategy of climate change mitigation.

What I am proposing here is an idealist’s approach. I understand that the odds are long. Still, I would say that any approach to our global energy problems must both contribute to the eradication of poverty and mitigate climate change. If we choose to drop either one of the two goals, then we should just withdraw from the world since we are really not doing anything useful.

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