Dominic Lawson: As they tackle climate change, governments are starving the people they set out to help

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The Independent Online

The law of unintended consequences has claimed many millions of victims over the centuries; the first decade of the 21st century is now demonstrating that governments have not lost the knack of destroying the livelihoods of the very people they purport to help.

On a brief visit to Britain, the head of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) yesterday told us of his desperate concern over rising food prices, especially in the developing world. Antonio Guterres singled out for special blame the biofuels business, which he said was having an, "unexpected very negative impact on the availability of food".

Unexpected? How could it not have been anticipated that the turning over of millions of acres of farmland to the production of fuel for cars rather than humans would not have had this effect? To be fair to Mr Guterres, the governments of the developed world showed no outward signs of anticipating this inevitable consequence, so seduced were they by the idea of a "renewable" alternative to fossil fuels; it would, they claimed, simultaneously reduce our political dependency on Middle Eastern oil and save the lives of millions in the Third World who would otherwise perish through climate change.

The first part of that equation was especially attractive to President George W Bush. Following the collapse of his policy to "democratise" the Middle East, he promulgated laws which mandated the turning over of about a third of the US corn belt into the production of ethanol. Since ethanol is dramatically less efficient than dead dinosaurs as a way of powering engines, this has also involved vast subsidies – as much as $25bn a year, according to some estimates.

Don't, by the way, expect this to change after Bush leaves the White House. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain all support this grotesque policy – as they have taken great care to point out when electioneering in Iowa, the Saudi Arabia of ethanol production.

They, rather more than Mr Bush, have tended to justify this monumental bribe as part of a policy to "reduce climate change". In this they are much closer to the governments of the European Union, which is collectively committed to a mad plan to generate a third of our fuel from crops, as part of its attempt to conform to Kyoto treaty obligations. It is especially mad, because recent research has suggested that most biofuel production, especially when it involves the uprooting of vast tracts of forest, is much more environmentally damaging than the burning of fossil fuels.

Gordon Brown has now called for a review of the consequences of this policy for world food production and distribution, to the irritation of the President of the European Commission, who (somewhat bizarrely) sticks to the view that it has no significant consequences for food prices.

Yet one can also understand Jose Manuel Barroso's feelings: it makes the EU look ridiculous to say that it will examine the consequences of a policy – after rather than before the member governments agreed to implement it.

Barroso is obviously right in thinking that the switch to biofuels is not the only influence driving up food prices in the developing world. Increasing demand for agricultural products also plays its part.

In this respect, the developing world can do something to help itself, even against the background of bizarre policies by Western governments.

As the World Bank has pointed out, Sub-Saharan countries impose an average tax of 34 per cent on food traded within their own region, money which comes straight out of the pockets of their own people to fund who knows what. In India, agricultural imports face a tariff of over 60 per cent.

So it's not just the United States which punishes its consumers in order to keep indigenous landowners happy.

Nevertheless, there is something revolting in the West's claims to be acting in the interests of the Southern Hemisphere – the alleged future victims of climate change – while the chosen policy itself threatens to starve millions of the very same people. What other conclusion can one come to, when even African countries are being urged by Europe to turn scarce farmland over to biofuel production?

The advocates of this policy can only justify it – or at least attempt to do so – by falling back on the mantra that the planet is imminently at risk as a result of man-made climate change. But is it, really? You don't have to be a so-called "climate change denier" to find this claim preposterous.

Listen, for example, to Professor Mike Hulme, the immensely respected founder of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and a linchpin of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In a debate on BBC radio earlier this week he said: "There are many people – including some scientists – who present climate change as an existential threat to the planet and to human civilisation. That is not what the science itself is telling us."

Yet it is precisely the claim that man-made climate change is "an existential threat to the planet" which is used to justify such vastly expensive – and possibly murderous – policies as a world-wide switch to "renewable" crop-based fuels.

It is true that many others who hold this view, aware of the terrible consequences of biofuel production, argue instead that we should stop driving cars altogether. There are two practical problems with this proposition. First, even if everyone in Britain took the decision to throw away their car keys, it would not have more than a microscopic effect on global temperatures; second, does anyone seriously think that the populations of India and China will be prepared to forgo the pleasures of independent travel and freedom of movement which have been enjoyed for so long in the developed world and which they are only now beginning to realise for themselves?

Above all, the inhabitants of the developing world will rightly have nothing but contempt for us if we continue to pursue a policy of global food destruction and tell them that we are doing it for their own long-term good. John Maynard Keynes once dismissed a policy based on claims of long-term benefits with the sardonic observation that, "In the long term we are all dead".

How much more absurd it is to advance a policy which could see many of its supposed beneficiaries dead – in the short term.

There has been nothing like it since Mao Zedong told the farmers of China to turn over their land to steel production – the so-called Great Leap Forward. That led to the starvation of 30 million people. It was a policy much admired in the West at the time – that is, until its unintended consequences became widely known.

It is democracies which are behind the policy of turning farmland into gas stations. So no one is being forced to do it. It is all being done with bribes – politely described as subsidies, or "tax rebates". That doesn't make it any the less stupid – or wicked.