Breaking the Global-Warming Gridlock

Both sides on the issue of greenhouse gases frame their arguments in terms of science, but each new scientific finding only raises new questions—dooming the debate to be a pointless spiral. It's time, the authors argue, for a radically new approach: if we took practical steps to reduce our vulnerability to today's weather, we would go a long way toward solving the problem of tomorrow's climate
The Other 80 Percent

If predicting how climate will change is difficult and uncertain, predicting how society will be affected by a changing climate—especially at the local, regional, and national levels, where decision-making takes place—is immeasurably more so. And predicting the impact on climate of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions is so uncertain as to be meaningless. What we do know about climate change suggests that there will be winners and losers, with some areas and nations potentially benefiting from, say, longer growing seasons or more rain, and others suffering from more flooding or drought. But politicians have no way to accurately calibrate the effects-human and economic—of global warming, or the benefits of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions.

Imagine yourself a leading policymaker in a poor, overpopulated, undernourished nation with severe environmental problems. What would it take to get you worried about global warming? You would need to know not just that global warming would make the conditions in your country worse but also that any of the scarce resources you applied to reducing carbon-dioxide emissions would lead to more benefits than if they were applied in another area, such as industrial development or housing construction. Such knowledge is simply unavailable. But you do know that investing in industrial development or better housing would lead to concrete political, economic, and social benefits.

More specifically, suppose that many people in your country live in shacks on a river’s floodplain. Floodplains are created and sustained by repeated flooding, so floods are certain to occur in the future, regardless of global warming. Given a choice between building new houses away from the floodplain and converting power plants from cheap local coal to costlier imported fuels, what would you do? New houses would ensure that lives and homes would be saved; a new power plant would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions but leave people vulnerable to floods. In the developing world the carbon-dioxide problem pales alongside immediate environmental and developmental problems. The China Daily reported during the 1997 Kyoto Conference:

The United States ... and other nations made the irresponsible demand ... that the developing countries should make commitments to limiting greenhouse gas emissions.... As a developing country, China has 60 million poverty-stricken people and China’s per capita gas emissions are only one-seventh of the average amount of more developed countries. Ending poverty and developing the economy must still top the agenda of [the] Chinese government.

For the most part, the perspectives of those in the developing world—about 80 percent of the planet’s population—have been left outside the frame of the climate-change discussion. This is hardly surprising, considering that the frame was defined mainly by environmentalists and scientists in affluent nations. Developing nations, meanwhile, have quite reasonably refused to agree to the targets for carbon-dioxide reduction set under the Kyoto Protocol. The result may feel like a moral victory to some environmentalists, who reason that industrialized countries, which caused the problem to begin with, should shoulder the primary responsibility for solving it. But the victory is hollow, because most future emissions increases will come from the developing world. In affluent nations almost everyone already owns a full complement of energy-consuming devices. Beyond a certain point increases in income do not result in proportional increases in energy consumption; people simply trade in the old model for a new and perhaps more efficient one. If present trends continue, emissions from the developing world are likely to exceed those from the industrialized nations within the next decade or so.

Twelve years after carbon dioxide became the central obsession of global environmental science and politics, we face the following two realities:

First, atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels will continue to increase. The Kyoto Protocol, which represents the world’s best attempt to confront the issue, calls for industrialized nations to reduce their emissions below 1990 levels by the end of this decade. Political and technical realities suggest that not even this modest goal will be achieved. To date, although eighty-four nations have signed the Kyoto Protocol, only twenty-two nations—half of them islands, and none of them major carbon-dioxide emitters—have ratified it. The United States Senate, by a vote of 95-0 in July of 1997, indicated that it would not ratify any climate treaty that lacked provisions requiring developing nations to reduce their emissions. The only nations likely to achieve the emissions commitments set under Kyoto are those, like Russia and Ukraine, whose economies are in ruins. And even successful implementation of the treaty would not halt the progressive increase in global carbon-dioxide emissions.

Second, even if greenhouse-gas emissions could somehow be rolled back to pre-industrial levels, the impacts of climate on society and the environment would continue to increase. Climate affects the world not just through phenomena such as hurricanes and droughts but also because of societal and environmental vulnerability to such phenomena. The horrific toll of Hurricane Mitch reflected not an unprecedented climatic event but a level of exposure typical in developing countries where dense and rapidly increasing populations live in environmentally degraded conditions. Similar conditions underlay more-recent disasters in Venezuela and Mozambique.

If these observations are correct, and we believe they are essentially indisputable, then framing the problem of global warming in terms of carbon-dioxide reduction is a political, environmental, and social dead end. We are not suggesting that humanity can with impunity emit billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, or that reducing those emissions is not a good idea. Nor are we making the nihilistic point that since climate undergoes changes for a variety of reasons, there is no need to worry about additional changes imposed by human beings. Rather, we are arguing that environmentalists and scientists, in focusing their own, increasingly congruent interests on carbon-dioxide emissions, have framed the problem of global environmental protection in a way that can offer no realistic prospect of a solution.

Redrawing the Frame

Local weather is the day-to-day manifestation of global climate. Weather is what we experience, and lately there has been plenty to experience. In recent decades human, economic, and environmental losses from disasters related to weather have increased dramatically. Insurance-industry data show that insured losses from weather have been rising steadily. A 1999 study by the German firm Munich Reinsurance Company compared the 1960s with the 1990s and concluded that “the number of great natural catastrophes increased by a factor of three, with economic losses—taking into account the effects of inflation—increasing by a factor of more than eight and insured losses by a factor of no less than sixteen.” And yet scientists have been unable to observe a global increase in the number or the severity of extreme weather events. In 1996 the IPCC concluded, “There is no evidence that extreme weather events, or climate variability, has increased, in a global sense, through the 20th century, although data and analyses are poor and not comprehensive.”

What has unequivocally increased is society’s vulnerability to weather. At the beginning of the twentieth century the earth’s population was about 1.6 billion people; today it is about six billion people. Almost four times as many people are exposed to weather today as were a century ago. And this increase has, of course, been accompanied by enormous increases in economic activity, development, infrastructure, and interdependence. In the past fifty years, for example, Florida’s population rose fivefold; 80 percent of this burgeoning population lives within twenty miles of the coast. The great Miami hurricane of 1926 made landfall over a small, relatively poor community and caused about $76 million worth of damage (in inflation-adjusted dollars). Today a storm of similar magnitude would strike a sprawling, affluent metropolitan area of two million people, and could cause more than $80 billion worth of damage. The increase in vulnerability is far more dramatic in the developing world, where in an average year tens of thousands of people die in weather-related disasters. According to the World Disasters Report 1999, 80 million people were made homeless by weather-related disasters from 1988 to 1997. As the population and vulnerability of the developing world continue to rise, such numbers will continue to rise as well, with or without global warming.

Presented by

Daniel Sarewitz and Roger Pielke Jr.

Daniel Sarewitz is a research scholar at Columbia University's Center for Science, Policy and Outcomes. Roger Pielke Jr. is a scientist with the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. They are the editors, with Radford Byerly Jr., of Prediction: Science, Decision Making, and the Future of Nature (2000).

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