GMOs in Happyville

In a paper published in 1992, Paul R. Portney told a nice story about a fictitious town called Happyville. In that story, the director of a local environmental protection authority faces an uneasy task: he has to make a decision about whether to treat water to remove a natural contaminant Happyville’s residents believe to cause cancer. However, according to experts, it is highly unlikely that the contaminant has any adverse health effects–which the residents refuse to accept. Water treatment imposes costs. Eventually, it is the science-denying residents who would pay them. But the director knows that this would be irrational. What should he do, then? Refuse following the irrationality of the public? Or accept people’s will despite knowing that they are effectively harming themselves? There is no simple answer to that. And, obviously, Portney’s story is not just a nice gedankenexperiment, as it has, e.g., obvious relevance for policies related to genetically engineered food crops. Continue reading

Want to Save the World? Start in China

Within a few days, Yale e360 published two extremely interesting analyses of China’s recent environmental and social problems: China’s Great Dam Boom by Charlton Lewis and China at Crossroads by Ed Grumbine. Both fascinating in their own right, these articles show that if you want to save the world from a looming environmental catastrophe, you have to start in China. Continue reading

The Yasuní-ITT Failure

The Yasuní-ITT Initative was a project I have felt deeply connected with. I wrote my quite successful master’s thesis about this Ecuadorian rainforest. I still find the underlying idea of integrating environmental protection, (implicit) biodiversity valuation, development aid and support of indigenous poples great. Alas, the international community wasn’t convinced, obviously. Ecuador’s unique biodiversity hotspot and home to still uncontacted indigenous tribes has lost another battle against disinterest, parochialism, the economic crises of the present and short-sightedness on the side of developed-world decision makers (particularly the German minister for development cooperation, Dirk Niebel). Continue reading

Lessons from Doha

Last week, the 18th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Doha, Qatar went to an end. Similar to most of the COPs held since 1994, when the Kyoto Protocol was signed, it was not successful – unless you count as success the fact that it did not end in disaster. As a Polish commentator put it, the COP18 saved the international community’s honour, but it did not save the climate. Continue reading

It’s deliberative democracy, stupid!

There is a common foundation of most, maybe even all problems I deal with in this blog. The foundation is a somewhat metaphysical one and regards the ethical categories “right” and “wrong”. Indeed, what we do about climate change, whether we engage in genetic engineering, whether and how we should achieve sustainability – all these questions boil down to “What is right?” and the way this basic question can and should be answered. Continue reading

Yasuní – A Model for the Future?

How much is a pristine ecosystem worth to us? And a stable climate? These are questions that are very controversial among many environmentalists, as I recently discussed. However, economic valuation of Nature and its “services” is not just a theoretical possibility, it is a fact. A particularly interesting example of an (implicit) valuation of an ecosystem is the Ecuadorian Yasuní-ITT Initiative. Continue reading

Rio+20 Sum-Up

The much awaited (though recently rather with a lot of pessimism) Rio+20 “Earth Summit” came to an end. Instead of commenting myself on all the things which went wrong (and the few that weren’t as bad), I would like to provide links to commentaries made before, during and after the Summit that give a fair account of what happened and how to interpret the failures of the international community to commit to saving our planet. Also, they provide an outlook on what developments we may expect in the near future.

Elinor Ostrom Green from the Grassroots

Sunita Narain Beyond Rio+20

Jagdish Bhagwati Rio’s Unsustainable Nonsense

Kristen Sheeran From Top-Down to Bottom-Up: New Directions for Climate at Rio+20

George Monbiot Rio+20 draft text is 283 paragraphes of fluff

From now on, you can use “Rio+20” as a synonym for “failure”.

Welfare State, “Parasites” and Bureaucracy

Recently, the German minister of labour Ursula von der Leyen has been criticised for her reform of the pension supplement system (through which low pensions are supplemented by payments from the government budget). The critics accused her of having built into the system a lot of bureaucratic hurdles – as a result, so the critics, the group of people eligible to the system’s services would be very narrow and the criteria of exclusion are very hard to defend from an ethical and practical standpoint. While von der Leyen’s critics are probably right, there is another problem here that gained less attention: the efficacy of bureaucratic screening that is supposed to minimise cheating. Continue reading

Time for New Forms of Democratic Decision-Making

Democracy is in a crisis, at least in the so-called developed world. Peoples lose connection to their elected governments, and vice-versa. Elected representatives – the main institutional feature of modern parliamentary democracy – repeatedly show that they are unable to properly fulfill their duties. As a result, authoritarian and populist movements gain ground – Hungary is only the tip of the iceberg. So, maybe it is time to think about what democracy really is and whether the current institutional framework is still up to the needs of our time. Continue reading

Sacrificing Development Needs for Prestige

China, a country where 4 per cent of the population are still living in poverty (following the rather rigorous definition of the World Bank), is about to spend billions of dollars to enable a few Chinese astronauts a flight to the Moon by 2025. There is hardly a tangible benefit to be found in this project – except some kind of international prestige. Meanwhile, the resources (we are talking here about much more than just money, e.g. time, skills etc.) required for its successful carrying out might well be sensibly invested in development projects that would yield a high social return. China’s Moon project seeems to be a particular variation of the positional goods problem described by Fred Hirsch in 1976 – on the national rather than individual level. And it seems to be even more profound than the difficulty originally identified by Hirsch. Continue reading

Durban: The Need-Expect Dichotomy

Five days ago the 17th Conference of Parties (COP17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was launched in Durban, South Africa. 19 years have gone past since the path-breaking United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro where the UNFCCC was created, and 17 years since its parties agreed upon the so-called Kyoto Protocol – a joint effort of developed countries particularly to tackle anthropogenic climate change. Next year the Kyoto Protocol is going to expire. So, it is worth-while to think about what needs to be done – and contrast that with what one can “reasonably” expect from the members of the international community gathered together in Durban these days. Continue reading

Yasuní-ITT vs. Dirk Niebel

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the Yasuní-ITT initiative as an attempt to attach a value to ecosystems. The initiative’s goal is to set up a fund assisting the development of Ecuador in return for the country’s government not exploiting the oil reserves lying under the Yasuní-ITT rainforest. Owing mainly to the refusal of the German development minister Dirk Niebel, the fund has not been set up so far. Thus it was interesting to read his commentary on that subject in a newspaper the day before yesterday. In the following I would like to present his arguments and comment on them. Continue reading

Development Assistance’s Dilemmas

A frequent demand by NGOs that deal with developing countries’ affairs is that rich countries (i.e., mainly the European Union, the US, Canada and Japan) increase the levels of their ODA (=official development assistance). In fact, developed countries commited (40 years ago) to raise their ODA to a level of 0,7% of their respective GDPs. So far, only a handful met this obligation. Meanwhile, there are many arguing that ODA is doomed to failure, so it is a wastage of time and money to engage in development assistance at all. I think that the problem is rather more complex. It is not just about whether and how much to invest in ODA – the matter is, actually, how we do it. And there are many problematic issues in this area. Continue reading

Is Kyoto Dead?

Yvo de Boer, former secretary general of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said in an interview with the German “tageszeitung”:

The spirit of the Kyoto Protocol vanished. The body is still being artificially held alive and maybe some organs can be transplanted. But we must recognize that the Kyoto Protocol is dead.

His proposal is to give up the idea of a “post-Kyoto” and try new ideas instead – for example the establishment of a world climate organization similar to the WTO – one that would formulate standards for economic actors and give the markets more weight in combating climate change. Continue reading

The Problem Is the WTO

Kevin Gallagher from TripleCrisis wrote a very insightful article about the US-China conflict about government support of the latter for its domestic green industry. You can read it here.

Here an excerpt:

    The US claims that such impressive feats have been achieved in part by the establishment of a green fund that helps firms make wind power equipment, with the stipulation that some parts be sourced from Chinese firms. If the WTO finds that China’s green fund targets only specific sectors, that such funds are conditioned on sourcing to local firms, and that the funds are channelled to trade activities that harm US firms and workers, then China may indeed be found in violation of the WTO rules.

    But if that does prove to be the case, China should not be seen as the problem. The problem is the WTO.

Cancún – Success or Failure?

Neither nor. The UN Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico, had an end yesterday. It has achieved surprisingly much when you consider the pessimistic forecasts (success). It has achieved very little when you consider the actual needs (failure). With other words: we have not been dropped back, but we have not come further as well. We are standing still. It is sad that this is considered a success by many. Continue reading

0,7 per cent ODA – Is that Enough?

An often quoted criticism of the rich countries by globalization critics is that they permanently seem unable to meet the goal of spending 0,7 per cent of their GNP on Official Development Assistance – something they committed to in 1970 for the first time. 40 years have gone since, and there are only 5 OECD countries whose ODA lies above the target: Luxemburg, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands and Denmark. Others are far from reaching it. Continue reading

The Quest of Poverty Alleviation

Poverty alleviation is perhaps the most complex, most important and most challenging task humanity ever have tackled. And there are a lot of people who sacrifice their time, skills and more for this quest. Think on the Millennium Development Campaign, the first micro-credit foundations or the many grass roots movements in the so called “Third World”. Continue reading