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From Cancun to Kyoto
The U.N.’s climate summit is the same thing all over again.


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The poet Edna St. Vincent-Millay is reported to have quipped that “history isn’t one damn thing after another — it’s the same damn thing over and over again.” The world is about to be reminded of this at the current international climate-change summit, which is grinding into its second week in Cancun. It is worth recalling the back story to this increasingly obvious farce.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the cosmopolitan elites were full of talk about something called the “New International Economic Order,” which was facilitated by the “North-South dialogue.” The premise of the New International Economic Order, as explained at the time by West Germany’s socialist chancellor Willy Brandt, was that there needed to be “a large-scale transfer of resources to developing countries” and “a start of some major reforms in the international economic system,” including international regulatory and perhaps even taxing authority.

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Naturally, the United Nations was at the center of this crusade, and the harebrains at Turtle Bay concocted a “North-South Summit” in the fall of 1981 where all the world’s leaders would gather to decide just how much cash the wealthy nations would fork over to less-developed nations. The Wall Street Journal accurately described the meeting as the developing world’s “most spectacular reach for the American wallet.”

The location of that hopeful summit? Cancun.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the U.N.’s wealth redistributionpalooza: Ronaldus Magnus showed up and stomped on the whole thing. President Reagan told the kleptocrats:

There is a propaganda campaign in wide circulation that would have the world believe that capitalist United States is the cause of world hunger and poverty. . . . Others mistake compassion for development and claim massive transfers of wealth somehow miraculously will produce new well-being. And still others confuse development with collectivism.

Reagan went on extol open markets, private enterprise, individual initiative, low taxes, and limited government as the true path to prosperity for the developing world. The fastest-growing nations, Reagan observed, are the ones that provide the most economic freedom to their people. The developing world, Fortune magazine observed, is “accustomed to lectur[ing] others, not to being lectured at themselves.” The news media and diplomats from the developing world immediately pronounced that Reagan had “isolated” himself at Cancun, and blasted American intransigence. But the whole “North-South Dialogue” proceeded to fade away.

The redistributionist impulse is irrepressible, however, and was reborn just a few years later with the coming of the climate campaign. With the collapse last year in Copenhagen of any treaty that caps greenhouse-gas emissions, the U.N. movable feast is left with its old standby — wealth redistribution — as the only remaining item on the agenda for its next meeting, which is why it is fitting the meeting is taking place in Cancun.

The climate campaigners don’t even bother to disguise their main agenda anymore. The German newspaper Neue Zurcher Zeitung observed two weeks ago: “The next world climate summit in Cancun is actually an economy summit during which the distribution of the world’s resources will be negotiated.” What prompted this conclusion was a candid admission from a U.N. official closely involved with the climate negotiations, German economist Ottmar Edenhoffer: “But one must say clearly that we redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy. Obviously, the owners of coal and oil will not be enthusiastic about this. One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy. This has almost nothing to do with environmental policy anymore.”

This Cancun meeting ought to end like the last one, with the kleptocrats sent packing with copies of the Collected Economic Wisdom of the Gipper as the best prescription for dealing with climate change (or any other development problem). Obviously, the Obama administration is congenitally opposed to embracing Reaganomics and is likely to sign on to provide the billions in aid that were pledged tentatively last year in Copenhagen. But does anyone believe, in this age of budget deficits and austerity, both here and in Europe, that the checks will actually get cut? Unlikely, but that’s good news for the climate campaign, because it assures that they’ll meet again somewhere next year, which is the ultimate diplomatic imperative.

— Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an adjunct professor at the John M. Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.



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