It is frequently asserted that climate change could have devastating consequences for poor countries. Indeed, this assertion is used by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other organizations as one of the primary justifications for imposing restrictions on human emissions of greenhouse gases.
But there is an internal contradiction in the IPCC’s own claims. Indeed, the same highly influential report from the IPCC claims both that poor countries will fare terribly and that they will be much better off than they are today. So, which is it? The apparent contradiction arises because of inconsistencies in the way the IPCC assesses impacts. The process begins with various scenarios of future emissions.
These scenarios are themselves predicated on certain assumptions about the rate of economic growth and related technological change. Under the IPCC’s highest growth scenario, by 2100 GDP per capita in poor countries will be double the U.S.’s 2006 level, even taking into account any negative impact of climate change. (By 2200, it will be triple.) Yet that very same scenario is also the one that leads to the greatest rise in temperature—and is the one that has been used to justify all sorts of scare stories about the impact of climate change on the poor. Under this highest growth scenario (known as A1FI), the poor will logically have adopted, adapted and innovated all manner of new technololgies, making them far better able to adapt to the future climate. But these improvements in adaptive capacity are virtually ignored by most global warming impact assessments. Consequently, the IPCC’s “impacts” assessments systematically overestimate the negative impact of global warming, while underestimating the positive impact. Moreover, in these “impacts” assessments, global warming is not expected for the most part to create new problems; rather, it is expected to exacerbate some existing problems of poverty (in particular, hunger, disease, extreme events), while relieving others (such as habitat loss and water shortages in some places).
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which would reduce every warming impact regardless of whether it is good or bad, is but one approach to dealing with the consequences of warming. And it would likely be very costly. In fact, reducing emissions is unlikely to help poorer countries deal with most of the problems they face either today or in the future. With respect to mortality from hunger, malaria and extreme events, for example, global warming is estimated to contribute to only 13% of the problem in 2085.
Another approach to reducing the impact of global warming would be to reduce the climatesensitive problems of poverty through “focused adaptation.” This might involve, for example, major investments in early warning systems, the development of new crop varieties, and public health interventions. Focused adaptation would allow society to capture the benefits of global warming while allowing it to reduce climate-sensitive problems that global warming might worsen. For instance, emission reductions would at most reduce mortality from hunger, malaria and extreme events by only 13%, whereas focused adaptation could essentially eliminate these causes of mortality.
A third approach would be to fix the root cause of why developing countries are deemed to be most at-risk, namely, poverty. Sustained economic growth would, as is evident from the experience of developed countries, address virtually all problems of poverty, not just that portion exacerbated by global warming. It is far more certain that sustainable economic growth will provide greater benefits than emission reductions: while there is no doubt that poverty leads to disease and death, there is substantial doubt regarding the reality and magnitude of the negative impact of global warming. This is especially true as assessments often ignore improvements in adaptive capacity. Of these three approaches, human well-being in poorer countries is likely to be advanced most effectively by sustained economic development and least by emission reductions. In addition, because of the inertia of the climate system, economic development is likely to bear fruit faster than any emission reductions.
For richer countries, too, net GDP per capita in the future is expected to be much higher than it is today despite any climate change. Thus, all countries should focus on generating sustained economic development. This approach would not only address all of the current problems that might get worse in the future but would also enable humanity to address more effectively any other future problems it encounters, whether climate-related or otherwise.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) deems poor countries to be at greater risk from global warming (GW) than rich countries because they are less able to mobilize the resources required to use technologies needed to cope with the impact of GW. That is, their “adaptive capacity” is low.
The IPCC also claims that GW will exacerbate many problems—such as malaria and other vector-borne diseases, hunger, water shortages, vulnerability to extreme weather events and flooding—that the poor currently face and with which they have difficulty coping. Yet aren’t these both basically the same thing and both caused by an underlying lack of economic development?
Building on the notion that the current adaptive capacity of poor countries is low, the IPCC, among others, claims that global warming could also hinder their sustainable development. Others argue that the impact of global warming could overwhelm weak or poor governments, leading to economic and political instability, which, in turn, could breed terrorism and conflict, and precipitate mass migration to richer countries.
This paper seeks to assess whether these assertions are justified. It begins with a discussion that sheds light on the main factors that affect the trends in climate-sensitive indicators of human wellbeing. The discussion recognizes the role of fossil fuels in powering economic and technological development.
Next, it examines the notion—implicit in the view that poor countries will be swamped by the future impact of GW—that their adaptive capacity will remain low in the future. It specifically examines whether this view is justified in light of the economic assumptions built into the IPCC scenarios.
These economic assumptions are among the primary drivers of the IPCC’s climate change projections, which are then used to estimate the likely future impact (including specific damages) from GW. They are, thus, fundamental to estimates of the magnitude and direction of the future impact of GW. The paper then considers the proposition that while higher rates of economic development would lead to greater climate-related impact from GW, it would also result in higher adaptive capacity. This raises the question as to whether or not the economic development and associated technological change assumed by the IPCC scenarios will increase the damage from GW faster than the increases in adaptive capacity and, consequently, hinder sustainable development. Likewise, it raises the question as to whether insufficient economic and technological development would hinder the ability to cope with future GW.
The answers to these questions are crucial in determining which policy is best suited to addressing GW resulting from human activity. Finally, based on the foregoing analysis, the paper outlines policies to help advance human wellbeing in poor countries while enhancing their ability to cope with GW.