The Optimist

Not Too Hot to Handle

Why climate doomsayers are selling humanity short.

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

It’s a great time to be depressed about the fate of the planet. The last United Nations confab on climate change, a November meeting in Durban, South Africa, suggested we’re unlikely to see any new deal on greenhouse gasses having an impact before 2020. And it was over less than a day before Canada withdrew from what is the only current legally binding treaty on climate change — the Kyoto Protocol, which expires at the end of this year. The United States never signed up for Kyoto in the first place, of course — and Barack Obama’s administration has hardly been leading the charge for a replacement.

Meanwhile, we’re less than three months away from the next big environmental summit, Rio+20, the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, and it would be fair to say expectations for the event are modest. Which is to say climate change was off the table before the table was set up, and even the idea of changing the name of the United Nations Environment Program to the United Nations Environment Organization was considered too ambitious by negotiators.

But for all international diplomats appear desperate to affirm the self-worth of pessimists and doomsayers worldwide, it is important to put climate change in a broader context. It is a vital global issue — one that threatens to slow the worldwide march toward improved quality of life. Climate change is already responsible for more extreme weather and an accelerating rate of species extinction — and may ultimately kill off as many as 40 percent of all living species. But it is also a problem that we know how to tackle, and one to which we have some time to respond before it is likely to completely derail progress. And that’s good news, because the fact that it’s manageable is the best reason to try to tackle it rather than abandon all hope like a steerage class passenger in the bowels of the Titanic.

Start with the economy. The Stern Review, led by the distinguished British economist Nicholas Stern, is the most comprehensive look to date at the economics of climate change. It suggests that, in terms of income, greenhouse gasses are a threat to global growth, but hardly an immediate or catastrophic one. Take the impact of climate change on the developing world. The most depressing forecast in terms of developing country growth in Stern’s paper is the "A2 scenario" — one of a series of economic and greenhouse gas emissions forecasts created for the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It’s a model that predicts slow global growth and income convergence (poor countries catching up to rich countries). But even under this model, Afghanistan’s GDP per capita climbs sixfold over the next 90 years, India and China ninefold, and Ethiopia’s income increases by a factor of 10. Knock off a third for the most pessimistic simulation of the economic impact of climate change suggested by the Stern report, and people in those countries are still markedly better off — four times as rich for Afghanistan, a little more than six times as rich for Ethiopia.

It’s worth emphasizing that the Stern report suggests that the costs of dramatically reducing greenhouse-gas emissions is closer to 1 (or maybe 2) percent of world GDP — in the region of $600 billion to $1.2 trillion today. The economic case for responding to climate change by pricing carbon and investing in alternate energy sources is a slam dunk. But for all the likelihood that the world will be a poorer, denuded place than it would be if we responded rapidly to reduce greenhouse gases, the global economy is probably not going to collapse over the next century even if we are idiotic enough to delay our response to climate change by a few years. For all the flooding, the drought, and the skyrocketing bills for air conditioning, the economy would keep on expanding, according to the data that Stern uses.

And what about the impact on global health? Suggestions that malaria has already spread as a result of climate change and that malaria deaths will expand dramatically as a result of warming in the future don’t fit the evidence of declining deaths and reduced malarial spread over the last century. The authors of a recent study published in the journal Nature conclude that the forecasted future effects of rising temperatures on malaria "are at least one order of magnitude smaller than the changes observed since about 1900 and about two orders of magnitude smaller than those that can be achieved by the effective scale-up of key control measures." In other words, climate change is and will likely remain a small factor in the toll of malaria deaths into the foreseeable future.

What about other diseases? Christian Zimmermann at the University of Connecticut and Douglas Gollin at Williams evaluate the likely impact of a 3-degree rise in temperatures on tropical diseases like dengue fever, which causes half a million cases of hemorrhagic fever and 22,000 deaths each year. Most of the vectors for such diseases — mosquitoes, biting flies, and so on — do poorly in frost. So if the weather stays warmer, these diseases are likely to spread. At the same time, there are existing tools to prevent or treat most tropical diseases, and Zimmerman and Gollin suggest "rather modest improvements in protection efficacy could compensate for the consequences of climate change." We can deal with this one.

It’s the same with agriculture. Global warming will have many negative (and a few positive) impacts on food supply, but it is likely that other impacts — both positive, including technological change, and negative, like the exhaustion of aquifers– will have far bigger effects. The 2001 IPCC report suggested that climate change over the long term could reduce agricultural yields by as much as 30 percent. Compare that with the 90 percent increase in rice yields in Indonesia between 1970 and 2006, for example.

Again, while climate change will make extreme weather events and natural disasters like flooding and hurricanes more common, the negative effect on global quality of life will be reduced if economies continue to grow. That’s because, as Matthew Kahn from Tufts University has shown, the safest place to suffer a natural disaster is in a rich country. The more money that people and governments have, the more they can both afford and enforce building codes, land use regulations, and public infrastructure like flood defenses that lower death tolls.

Let’s also not forget how human psychology works. Too many environmentalists suggest that dealing with climate change will take immediate and radical retooling of the global economy. It won’t. It is affordable, practical, and wouldn’t take a revolution. Giving out the message that the only path to sustainability will require medieval standards of living only puts everyone else off. And once you’ve convinced yourself the world is on an inevitable course to disaster if some corner of the U.S. Midwest is fracked once more or India builds another three coal-fueled power plants, the only logical thing to do when the fracking or the building occurs is to sit back, put your Toms shoes on the couch, and drink micro-brewed herbal tea until civilization collapses. Climate change isn’t like that — or at the very least, isn’t like that yet.

So, if you’re really just looking for a reason to strap on the "end of the world is nigh" placards and go for a walk, you can find better excuses — like, say, the threat of global thermonuclear war or a rogue asteroid. The fight to curb greenhouse gas emissions is one for the hard-nosed optimist.

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