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The Rational Optimist Goes Global

The Rational Optimist Goes Global

Sooner or later, the ubiquitous pessimist will confront the rational optimist with his two trump cards: Africa and climate. It is all very well Asia lifting itself out of poverty, and perhaps Latin America too, but surely, says the pessimist, it is hard to imagine Africa following suit. The continent is doomed by its population boom, its endemic diseases, its tribalism, its corruption, its lack of infrastructure, even — whisper some, more in sorrow than in prejudice — its genes. “It’s blindingly obvious,” says the environmentalist Jonathan Porritt: “completely unsustainable population growth in most of Africa will keep it permanently, hopelessly, stuck in deepest, darkest poverty.”

And in any case, continues the pessimist, Africa cannot hope to boom because climate change will devastate the continent during the coming century before it can prosper. At the time of writing, global warming is by far the most fashionable reason for pessimism. The earth’s atmosphere has warmed, and it seems that the great 100,000-year experiment of human progress is about to be tested against rising sea levels, melting ice caps, droughts, storms, famines, pandemics and floods. Human activity is causing much of this change, especially by the burning of fossil fuels, whose energy has been responsible for raising the living standards of many of the world’s nearly seven billion people, so humankind faces a stark dilemma in the coming century between continuing a carbon-fuelled prosperity until global warming brings it to a calamitous halt, or restricting the use of carbon and risking a steep decline in living standards because of the lack of alternative sources of energy that are cheap enough. Either prospect might be catastrophic.

Africa and climate therefore confront the rational optimist with a challenge, to say the least. For somebody who has spent 300 pages looking on the bright side of human endeavour, arguing along the way that the population explosion is coming to a halt, that energy will not soon run out, that pollution, disease, hunger, war and poverty can all be expected to continue declining if human beings are not impeded from exchanging goods, services and ideas freely — for such a person as your author, African poverty and rapid global warming are indeed acute challenges.

Moreover, the two issues are connected, because the models that predict rapid global warming take as their assumption that the world will prosper mightily, and that the poorest countries on the planet — most of which are African — will by the end of this century be about nine times as rich as they are today. Unless they are, carbon dioxide emissions will be insufficient to cause such rapid warming. And at present there is no way to make Africans as rich as Asians except by them burning more fossil fuels per head. So Africa faces an especially stark dilemma: get rich by burning more carbon and then suffer the climate consequences; or join the rest of the world in taking action against climate change and continue to wallow in poverty.

That is the conventional wisdom. I think it is a false dilemma and that an honest appraisal of the facts leads to the conclusion that by far the most likely outcome of the next nine decades is both that Africa gets rich and that no catastrophic climate change happens.