By Caleb Stewart Rossiter, School of International Service and Department of Mathematics and Statistics, American University.
Primum non nocere — above all, do no harm, says the medical maxim. In public policy, where every action has different effects on different people, the maxim becomes “above all, do no net harm.” That means that the benefits of a policy should outweigh its costs. For example, it’s all well and good for the government to start a jobs program, but we also have to estimate how many other jobs would never exist because raising taxes to pay for the program reduces private investment and consumption. What, we properly ask, will be the net effect of the program on employment?
Consider the Obama administration’s efforts to avoid fossil-fueled climate catastrophes. While well-intentioned, these efforts to reduce industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse” gasses did a lot of net harm to the people of the formerly colonized countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Indeed, Obama’s policies were reminiscent of colonialism’s attempt to make these regions producers of raw materials rather than industrial competitors. Obama’s climate alarmists discouraged poor countries from building power plants and modern transmission grids, and instead offered foreign aid to help them stay “off the grid” with small-scale wind and solar projects. The administration also drove up the price of food in poor countries by diverting crops to meet “green” fuels quotas, and stood by while the European Union punished these countries for exporting “carbon-intensive” products. The moral issue here is that the costs of the predicted climate catastrophes are hypothetical, meager, and in the distant future, while the health and economic benefits of fossil-fueled growth for poor countries are real, massive, and available right now.
In terms of health, people need reliable power in their homes, factories, and offices. If they cannot get it from electricity they will get it by burning wood, dung, and charcoal and firing up their personal diesel generators. In Africa, where only 25 percent of homes have reliable electricity and most factories and office suffer from frequent black-outs, the particulate matter emitted by these inefficient energy sources pose a constant crisis in respiratory disease. In terms of economic growth and the increase in life expectancy that it creates, we can simply note that since embracing fossil-fueled capitalism with a vengeance China has nearly eliminated its 20-year gap with the 80-year life expectancy of developed countries, while Africa lags at 59 years.
Here are five steps President Trump can take to stop us from doing harm, and maybe even start us doing some good, in the developing world’s quest for the better and longer life that reliable electric power can bring.
Generate Power: Instruct U.S. representatives at the World Bank and the regional development banks, as well as officials of the Agency for International Development (the State Department’s foreign aid office) to support rather than oppose, as we currently do, loans and grants for power plants that rely on coal, gas, or oil. By helping countries build modern, efficient plants outfitted with “scrubbers” we can dramatically cut emissions of sulfur dioxide and other particulates. Unlike carbon dioxide, which is a beneficial trace gas that increases crop yields as a fertilizer, these are real pollutants, and need to be controlled.
Support the Grid: The Obama administration’s Power Africa campaign is biased in favor of “off-grid” solutions such as small-scale, local wind and solar farms. This is colonialist to the core in a continent that is still “under-developing” by exporting raw materials to its former masters in return for imports of finished goods. Africa needs to have consistent power for factories and offices, or it will never be able to compete in the global economy. The only way to have consistent power is with a modern grid. Period. The grid can develop slowly, so that it can be maintained, but in the long run, as the success of China shows, you can’t get there without it.
Aid only sustainable infrastructure projects: Developing countries, and African ones in particular, are littered with abandoned “White Elephants” – high-technology factories, dams, processing plants, wells, and tractors provided by well-meaning foreign aid donors. They fell into disuse because recipient governments lacked the political will and the economic environment needed to sustain them.
Bringing technology in from a different country that is at a different stage of economic development is tricky in the best of circumstances. It is a waste of money and time if the recipient government is undemocratic, corrupt, or repressive. American diplomats and foreign aid officials need to be rewarded rather than punished, as they inevitably are in the foreign aid game, for properly assessing the likelihood of sustainability and cancelling projects. Most economic development comes when the local conditions permit it. Foreign aid can do little when dictatorship and corruption prevail, as they do in most African countries.
End biofuel requirements: “Biofuel starvation” is what Africans call it when companies from developed countries take over villages’ crop lands so they can make a profit meeting “green” fuel requirements. The Trump administration should drop our own ethanol minimums, and make it a principal point of trade and diplomacy talks with European countries to get them to drop theirs.
Oppose “carbon-content” rules: In their never-ending quest to find phony “carbon off-sets” that allow them to claim reductions in carbon dioxide without closing their own power plants, European countries have made a mess out of the simple act of importing goods from developing countries. Flowers from Kenya, for example, pay a carbon tax because they are transported on airplanes, which use more fossil-fuel per flower than a slower ship. As part of an international consortium on air travel, the United States can object to and reverse such rules, leading to more trade, and jobs, in developing countries. Congress enacted legislation in 2011 that blocked the consortium’s scheme to place a carbon tax on all air travel. As we protect our travel rights we should also look out for those of exporters in developing countries.