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Stop the on climate change: The concern for future generations is misplaced, as they "not only will be better off, they will have at their disposal better and more effective technologies to address not just climate change, but any other sources of adversity.".


THE STATE-OF-THE-ART British-sponsored fast-track assessment (F/A) of the global impacts of climate change, whose authors include leading contributors to the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), indicates that, through the year 2100, the effect of climate change on human health and environmental threats generally will be overshadowed by factors not related to global warming. Hence, climate change is unlikely to be the world's most important environmental problem of the 21st century.

Analysis using the much-heralded Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, which also drew on the FTA, reveals that, notwithstanding global warming, for the foreseeable future, human and environmental well-being will be highest under the "richest-but-warmest" scenario and lowest for the "poorest-but-coolest" scenario. In addition, the developing world's future well-being should exceed present levels by several-fold under each scenario, even exceeding present well-being in today's developed world under all but the poorest scenario. Accordingly, equity-based arguments, which hold that present generations should divert scarce resources from today's urgent problems to solve the potential dilemmas of tomorrow's wealthier generations, are unpersuasive.

Halting global warming would reduce cumulative mortality from various climate-sensitive threats, namely, hunger, malaria, and coastal flooding, by four to 10% in 2085, while increasing populations-at-risk from water stress and possibly worsening matters for biodiversity. Yet, according to cost information from the United Nations Millennium Project and the IPCC, measures focused specifically on reducing present vulnerability to these threats would reduce cumulative mortality from these risks by 50-75% at a fraction of the cost of reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs). Simultaneously, such measures would reduce major hurdles to the developing world's sustainable economic development, a lack of which is why they are most vulnerable to climate change.

The world best can combat global warming and advance well-being, particularly of its most at-risk populations, by reducing present-day vulnerabilities to climate-sensitive problems that could be exacerbated by climate change and broadly advancing their economic and technological development rather than through overly aggressive GHG reductions.

Economic and technological development can, on the one hand, improve human and environmental well-being by making better health care and environmental quality more affordable. On the other hand, it can increase greenhouse gas emissions, which can reduce well-being. Because of this tension, it is appropriate to ask whether, despite any economic growth, future well-being would be Lower in richer-but-warmer worlds than in poorer-but-cooler worlds and whether climate change will make future generations worse off than current generations.

Proponents of aggressive greenhouse gas controls would answer both questions in the affirmative. Many world leaders--including former Pres. Bill Clinton and his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac--maintain that climate change is the most important environmental issue of this century, while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls it the defining issue of this generation. Yet, do analyses of the future impacts of global warming support these dire claims?

The Stern Review estimated that unmitigated climate change will reduce welfare by an amount equivalent to a reduction in consumption per capita of five to 20% "now and forever" if one accounts for market impacts, nonmarket (i.e., health and environmental) impacts, and the risk of catastrophe. It also suggests that, by the year 2200, the 95th percentile of the equivalent losses could rise to 35.2%. Many economists believe that these losses are overestimated. The IPCC, for instance, suggests that losses could be as high as a mere five percent.

Nevertheless, if one adjusts gross domestic product per capita used in the IPCC's richest-and-warmest scenario downward by 35.2% in 2100 (rather than 2200), which overestimates the equivalent loss of welfare due to climate change per even the Stern Review's upperbound estimate, net welfare per capita is found to be higher in 2100 than it was in 1990. The same result holds for the other (poorer) scenarios, assuming that the welfare losses due to climate change vary with the square of the average global temperature increase from 1990 to 2085 estimated for the scenario in question. Remarkably, despite overestimating the welfare losses due to climate change, net welfare in developing countries per capita should be higher in 2100 than it was for developed countries in 1990 for all but the poorest scenario.

These results call into question the basic premise underlying arguments that present generations morally are bound to take aggressive actions now to mitigate climate change because future generations' well-being otherwise will be worse off. Future generations not only will be better off, they will have at their disposal better and more effective technologies to address not just climate change, but any other sources of adversity.

Equally striking, however, is the fact that, although global temperature would increase by 4[degrees]C (7.2[degrees]F) between 1990-2085, net well-being in 2100 should be highest for the richest-but-warmest IPCC scenario and lowest for the poorest-but-coolest scenario. These findings were reached despite the tendency of impact analyses to overestimate net adverse impacts of warming, especially for wealthier societies, because they do not account fully for the ability of wealthier and more technologically advanced societies to adapt to climate change. This increase in adaptive capacity can be evidenced, for instance, in the remarkable 20th century declines (99% or greater) in mortality and morbidity rates in the U.S. for various water-related diseases--typhoid, paratyphoid, dysentery, malaria, and various gastrointestinal maladies, and the concurrent many-fold increases in agricultural yields. However, few, if any, impacts analyses allow for increases in adaptive capacity with wealth and the passage of time.

If future well-being is measured by per capita income adjusted for welfare losses due to climate change, the surprisingly conclusion using the Stern Review's own estimates is that, under all scenarios, future generations will be better off than current ones notwithstanding any climate change, and they will be best off in the richest-but-warmest world. This suggests that, if protecting future well-being is the objective of public policy, governmental intervention to address climate change ought to be aimed at maximizing wealth creation, not minimizing [CO.sub.2] emissions.

A review paper in Nature claims that global warming may have been responsible for about 170,000 deaths worldwide in 2000. Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that 55,800,000 people died that year. Thus, climate change contributes less than 0.3% of global mortality. In fact, it does not make the list of top 10 global health risk factors related to food, nutrition, and environmental and occupational exposure. Specifically, WHO attributes 1,120,000 deaths in 2001 to malaria; 3,240,000 to malnutrition; 1,730,000 to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and hygiene; 1,620,000 to indoor air pollution from heating and cooking with wood, coal, and dung; 800,000 to urban air pollution; and 230,000 to lead exposure.

Climate change clearly is not the most important environmental, let alone public, health problem facing the world today. Yet, is it possible that, in the foreseeable future, the impact of global warming on public health could outweigh that of other factors? To shed light on that question, let us examine the future contribution of climate change to specific climate-related risk factors such as hunger, malaria, and so forth.

The FTA study on hunger shows that, under every scenario, despite any increase in population, notwithstanding any climate change, fewer people would suffer from hunger in 2085 than in 1990. This mainly is because, at the global scale, any future declines in yield due to poorer climatic conditions would be more than offset by increases in agricultural yields due to a combination of higher atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and greater access to existing yield-enhancing technologies in a wealthier world.

The contribution of climate change to the total population at risk from hunger in 2085 would be largest under the warmest scenario. Although that contribution (at 21%) is substantial, it results from a small (two percent) warming-related drop in future global food production between 1990-2085--meaning unmitigated warming would reduce the annual growth in food productivity from 0.84% per year to 0.82% per annum, that is, an annual reduction of 0.02%. This suggests two things. First, a small decline in the rate of productivity growth--perhaps "forced" by the study's assumption that no new technologies will develop autonomously to adapt to climate change-would lead to disproportionately large effects in terms of the population at risk from hunger. Second, a small boost in annual productivity of the food and agricultural sector could go a long way toward ensuring that hunger does not increase in the future.

The most recent FTA analysis for malaria does not provide estimates for the contribution of climate change to the total future global population at risk of that disease. For that, one has to use the results from an earlier version of the FTA, which utilized a "business-as-usual" scenario developed for the 1995 IPCC Assessment. The UK Meteorological Office's Had-CM2 model projected that, under this scenario, average global temperature would increase by 3.2[degrees]C between 1990-2085. That study indicates that, in 2085, the global population at risk of malaria in the absence of climate change would double from 4,410,000 in 1990 to 8,820,000 while climate change would add between 256-323,000,000 people to this population at risk. so, global warming would contribute only a small portion (no greater than 3.5%) of the total population at risk for malaria in 2085.

Note that the current range of malaria is dictated less by climate than by human adaptability. Despite any global warming that might have occurred so far, malaria has been eradicated in richer countries although it once was prevalent there and, in earlier centuries, when it was cooler worldwide, it sometimes extended into Canada and even as far north as the Arctic Circle. This is because wealthier societies have better nutrition and general health as well as greater access to public health measures and technologies targeted at controlling diseases in general and malaria in particular. That the disease is a significant health risk only in the poorest of countries reaffirms the importance of incorporating adaptive capacity into impact assessments.

Let us translate the future populations at risk estimated by the FTA for hunger, coastal flooding, and malaria into mortality projections, assuming that the mortality from each risk factor scales linearly with population at risk between 1990-2085, and there was no change in mortality for these threats between 1990-2001. For each scenario, the contribution of climate change to the total mortality burden in 2085 from malaria, hunger, and coastal flooding is substantially smaller than that due to other factors. The contribution of climate change varies from 3.6% to 10.3%. Thus, if global warming were frozen (forgive that turn of phrase) at its 1990 level, it would reduce the mortality burden from these three factors by, at most, 10.3% (under the richest-but-warmest scenario) in 2085, which corresponds to 237,000 deaths out of a possible 2,304,000.

More heat means more water

The FTA also indicates that, in 2085, climate change would, in fact, reduce the net population at risk of water stress. This occurs because additional warming would increase the average amount of global precipitation and, although some areas may receive less precipitation, other, more populated regions, would receive more.

With respect to ecological impacts, the FTA shows that, in 2100, the amount of habitat diverted to cropland, which currently is the greatest threat to species existence and terrestrial biodiversity, would be least under the IPCC's richest-but-warmest scenario. This is because higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and economic development, which translates into greater access to more productive technologies, would increase crop yields, thereby reducing demand for cropland.

The FTA notes that, under all scenarios, the contribution of sea level rise to global wetland loss between 1990-2085 will be substantially outweighed by factors other than climate change (such as development or subsidence due to extraction of water and other natural resources).

These results indicate that the effect of nonclimate-change-related factors generally outweighs the effect of climate change with respect to either human or environmental well-being. Therefore, climate change is unlikely to be the most important environmental problem confronting human or environmental well-being, at least through the foreseeable future.

The two most common methods of addressing global warming are mitigation (which entails reducing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases through either emission reductions or carbon sequestration) and adaptation (either by coping with its adverse impacts or taking advantage of any positive effects).

With respect to mitigation, the FTA results show that halting climate change at its 1990 level would reduce the total mortality from hunger, malaria, and coastal flooding in 2085 by, at most, 10.3% (under the richest-but-warmest scenario). By contrast, the less ambitious Kyoto Protocol would reduce climate change in 2085 by less than 10%. Consequently, it would reduce mortality from these risk factors by less than one percent. The cost of halting climate change would, however, be astronomical compared to that of the Protocol, which is estimated to cost $165,000,000,000 annually.

A more effective approach to reducing mortality would be to look beyond mitigation by focusing on reducing not just the portion of the mortality due to climate change alone, but the entire 100%, regardless of its cause.

The UN Millennium Project estimates that malaria could be reduced by 75% at an annual cost of $3,000,000,000. We will assume triple this cost to allow for a more-than-doubling in the future population at risk. The Project also estimates that hunger could be reduced by 50% at an annual cost of $12-$15,000,000,000 by 2015. Moreover, according to estimates in the latest (2007) IPCC report, the annual cost of protecting against a sea level rise of about 0.66 meters in 2100 would vary from $2,600,000,000-$10,000,000,000 during the 21st century. We will assume $10,000,000,000 for our purposes. Notably, the IPCC estimates that sea levels may rise this century from 0.18 to 0.59 meters. Combining the above estimates, it figures that the global death toll from hunger, malaria, and coastal flooding could be reduced by a cumulative 64% at a cost of $34,000,000,000 per year through adaptations focused on reducing current vulnerabilities to these specific risk factors.

With respect to malaria, such "focused adaptation" measures include those targeted specifically at malaria as well as measures that generally would enhance the capacity to respond to public health problems and deliver public health services more effectively and efficiently. Malaria-specific measures include indoor residual (home) spraying with insecticides, insecticide-treated bed nets, improved case management, more comprehensive antenatal care, and development of safe, effective, and inexpensive vaccines and therapies.

As for hunger, specific measures could include investment in agricultural research and development targeted toward solving developing countries' current food and agricultural problems that might be exacerbated by warming. Such investments should raise productivity sufficiently to more than compensate for the estimated 0.02% annual shortfall in productivity caused by climate change.

Current agricultural problems that could be exacerbated by warming--and should be the focus of vulnerability-reduction measures---include growing crops in poor climatic or soil conditions (low-moisture soil in some areas, too much water in others, or soils with high salinity, alkalinity, or acidity). Because of warming, such conditions could become more prevalent and agriculture might have to expand into areas with poorer soils. Thus, actions focused on increasing agricultural productivity under current marginal conditions likewise would alleviate hunger in the future whether or not the climate changes.

Moreover, because C[O.sub.2] and temperatures will increase, crop varieties should be developed to take advantage of such conditions. Progress on these approaches does not depend on improving our skill in forecasting location-specific details of climate change impacts. These focused adaptation measures should be complemented by development of higher-yield, lower-impact crop varieties and improved agronomic practices so that more food is produced for every acre of land and drop of water diverted to agriculture. That would help cut back on hunger while reducing pressures on species and biodiversity conservation, and advancing sustainable development.

Focused adaptation measures applicable to coastal flooding include building coastal defenses, developing early warning systems, evacuation plans, and improved building codes. Governments could, moreover, discourage maladaptation by refusing to subsidize insurance or protective measures that allow individuals to offload private risks to the broader public.

Although the FTA indicates that climate change could reduce the total population at risk of water shortage, there are many measures that would help societies cope with present and future water stress regardless of their causes. Among them are institutional reforms to treat water as an economic commodity by allowing market pricing and transferable property rights. Such reforms should stimulate widespread adoption of existing--but underused--conservation technologies and lead to more private-sector investment in R&D, which would reduce the demand for water by all sectors. For example, new or improved crops and techniques for more efficient use of water in agriculture could enhance agricultural productivity. That would provide numerous ancillary benefits, including reductions in the risk of hunger and pressures on freshwater biodiversity while also enhancing the opportunity for other in-stream uses (like recreation). Notably, diversion of water to agricultural uses might be the largest current threat to freshwater biodiversity.

Improvements in water conservation following such reforms are likely to be most pronounced for the agricultural sector, which is responsible for 85% of global water consumption. A reduction of 18% in agricultural water consumption would, on average, double the amount of water available for all other uses.

Remember, though, that developing countries are most at risk of global warming not because they will experience greater climate change, but because they lack the adaptive capacity to cope with its impacts. Hence, another approach to addressing climate change would be to enhance the adaptive capacity of developing countries by promoting broad development---economic development and human capital formation, which, of course, is the point of sustainable economic development. Moreover, since the determinants of adaptive and mitigative capacity largely are the same, enhancing the former also should boost the latter. Perhaps more important, advancing economic development and human capital formation also would advance society's ability to cope with all manner of threats, whether climate related or otherwise.

One approach to estimating the costs and benefits of sustainable economic development is to examine the literature on the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were devised to promote sustainable development in Third World countries. The benefits associated with these goals--halving global poverty, hunger, and the lack of access to safe water and sanitation; reducing child and maternal mortality by 66% or more; providing universal primary education; and reversing growth in malaria, AIDS-HIV, and other major diseases--would exceed the benefits flowing from the deepest mitigation. Yet, according to the UN Millennium Project, the additional annual cost to the richest countries of attaining the MDGs by 2015 is pegged at about 0.5% of their GDP (or $165,000,000,000 annually). That is approximately the same cost as that of the ineffectual--but expensive-Kyoto Protocol.

Sustaining the economy

Since focused adaptation only would address the climate-sensitive barriers to sustainable economic development (malaria, hunger, water stress, etc.) without necessarily solving other significant problems (poverty, access to safe water and sanitation, illiteracy, child and maternal mortality, etc.), broad pursuit of sustainable economic development would, not surprisingly, deliver greater benefits and probably cost more than focused adaptation.

It sometimes has been argued that it is only fair that present generations expend resources on mitigation now, instead of leaving future generations with a bigger mess and a larger clean-up bill. However, as the data presented clearly demonstrates thus far, well-being tomorrow is best enhanced by adaptation, or sustainable development, or both--not by mitigation. In light of the benefits associated with focused adaptation and sustainable development, the most cost-effective and comprehensive policies to address climate change in the near-to-medium term will eschew direct greenhouse gas emission controls that go beyond "no-regret" policies--that is, policies that would entail no net costs. Instead, policymakers would be wise to work to enhance adaptation and promote economic development. They should:

* Strengthen or develop the institutions necessary to advance economic growth and reduce barriers to such expansion, human capital, and the propensity for technological change. Doing so would improve adaptive and mitigative capacities, as well as the prospects for sustainable development.

* Implement no-regret mitigation measures now while expanding the range and diversity of future no-regret options. The latter could be advanced by research and development to improve existing--and develop new--technologies that would reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations more cost-effectively than currently possible. Should new information indicate that more aggressive mitigation action is necessary, future emission reductions might then be cheaper, even if they have to be deeper to compensate for a delay in a more aggressive response in the short term.

* Allow the market to run its course in implementing no-regret (no-cost) options. Among other things, that implies reducing subsidies that directly or indirectly increase energy use, land clearance, coastal development, and other activities that contribute to greater greenhouse gas emissions or climate change damages. As part of this effort, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations should reduce, if not eliminate, agricultural subsidies and barriers to trade. Not only are such subsidies and barriers expensive for consumers in these nations, they damage the economies and well-being of many developing countries whose economies and employment are dominated by the agricultural sector. Ironically, one of the arguments advanced for rapid reductions in greenhouse gases is that they would help developing countries that are considered to be least able to cope with climate change because they currently lack the necessary economic and human capital to implement adaptive technologies.

* Develop a more robust understanding of the science, impacts, and policies of global warming in order to develop response strategies that would forestall "dangerous" results while at the same time advancing human well-being.

* Monitor climate change to give advance warning of "dangerous" impacts and, if necessary, to rearrange priorities should these adverse impacts occur faster, threaten to be more severe, or are more likely to occur than currently is projected.

Together, these policies constitute an adaptive management approach to addressing climate change that would help solve today's urgent problems while bolstering our ability to address tomorrow's global warming challenge.

Indur M. Goklany, assistant director of science and technology at the Department of the Interior, represented the U.S. at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and in the negotiations leading to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This article is adapted from a pair of policy papers prepared for the Cato Institute, Washington, D.C.
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Author:Goklany, Indur M.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2008
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