The Quality of Life for the World’s Poorest Can Be Advanced Farther, Faster, Cheaper and More Surely Through Adaptation than Through Zero-Carbon Technologies
Guest Post By Indur M. Goklany
A few days ago, Tom Nelson had a link to a blog posted by Mr. Bill Gates titled, Recommended Reading on Climate Change, in which he claims that the risk of “serious warming” from anthropogenic climate change is large enough to justify action. Mr. Gates adds,
“I agree, especially because even moderate warming could cause mass starvation and have other very negative effects on the world’s poorest 2 billion people. This is one of the reasons why I’ve gotten very interested in new energy technologies that could move us toward zero carbon emissions. As I said at TED, my dream is to create zero-carbon technologies that will be cheaper than coal or oil. That way, even climate skeptics will want to adopt them, and more of the world’s poorest people will be able to benefit from the services and the improved quality of life that energy makes possible.”
Over the years I have been very impressed by Mr. Gates’ desire and efforts to improve the quality of life for the world’s poorest people and to literally put his money where his mouth is, but the notion that “even moderate warming could cause mass starvation and have other very negative effects on the world’s poorest 2 billion people” is fundamentally flawed. And there are far better and more effective methods of improving their quality of life than through squandering money on zero-carbon technologies.
So, to make these points, I fashioned a response to Mr. Gates’ post, but was frustrated in my efforts to post it either on the specific thread or via the General Inquiry form at his website. Accordingly, I decided to write Mr. Gates an open letter to convey my thoughts. The letter follows.
I thank Mr. Watts for publishing it on his invaluable blog.
Dear Mr. Gates,
For a long time I had admired your perspicacity and acumen in trying to address some of the world’s truly important problems (such as malaria and hunger) rather than signing on to the latest chic causes (e.g., global warming). But having read your entry, “Recommended Reading on Climate Change” at http://www.thegatesnotes.com/Learning/article.aspx?ID=127, on the Gates Notes, I fear my admiration may have been premature.
First, the analytical basis for the notion that “even moderate warming could cause mass starvation and have other very negative effects on the world’s poorest 2 billion people” is, to put it mildly, weak. Virtually all analyses of the future impacts of global warming impose the hypothetical climate of tomorrow (often for the year 2100 and 2200) on the world of yesterday (most use a baseline of 1990). That is, they assume that future populations’ capacity to cope with or adapt to climate change (also known as “adaptive capacity”) will be little changed from what it was in 1990!
Specifically, they fail to consider that future populations, particularly in today’s developing countries, will be far wealthier than they were in the baseline year (1990), per the IPCC’s own emissions scenarios. In fact, as shown in Figure 1, under the warmest IPCC scenario, by 2100 the average inhabitant of developing countries would be more than twice as wealthy as the average US inhabitant in 2006, even if one reduces GDP per capita to account fully for the loss in GDP from global warming. Thus, developing countries’ adaptive capacity should by 2100 substantially exceed the US’s adaptive capacity today.
Figure 1: Net GDP per capita, 1990-2200, after accounting for losses due to global warming for four major IPCC emission and climate scenarios. The net GDP per capita estimates are extremely conservative since the losses from global warming are based on the Stern Review’s 95th percentile estimates. For 2100 and 2200, the scenarios are arranged from the warmest (A1FI) on the left to the coolest (B1) on the right. The average global temperature increase from 1990 to 2085 for the scenarios are as follows: 4°C for AIFI, 3.3°C for A2, 2.4°C for B2, and 2.1°C for B1. For context, in 2006, GDP per capita for industrialized countries was $19,300; the United States, $30,100; and developing countries, $1,500. Source: Goklany, Discounting the Future, Regulation 32: 36-40 (Spring 2009).
And Figure 1 does not even consider secular technological change, which over the next 100 years would further increase adaptive capacity. [Since you have been in the forefront of technological change for quite some time now, you probably appreciate better than I that no confidence should be placed on the results of any analyses that assume little or no technological change over a period of decades.] For instance, the analyses of food production and hunger ignore the future potential of genetically-modified crops and precision agriculture to reduce hunger, regardless of cause. These technologies should not only be much more advanced in 2100 (or 2200) than they are today, but they should also be a lot more affordable even in the developing world because they will be wealthier (see Figure 1) while the technologies should also become more cost-effective.
In any case, because future increases in adaptive capacity are largely ignored, future impact estimates are grossly exaggerated, including any findings that claim there will be “mass starvation” from “even moderate warming”.
Second, even if one uses these flawed analyses that grossly exaggerate global warming impacts, one finds that the contribution of global warming to major problems like cumulative mortality from hunger, malaria and extreme events should be relatively small through the foreseeable future, compared to the contribution of non-global warming related factors. See Figure 2.
Figure 2: Deaths in 2085 Due to Hunger, Malaria and Extreme Events, with and without Global Warming (GW). Only upper bound estimates are shown for mortality due to global warming. Average global temperature increase from 1990-2085 for each scenario is shown below the relevant bar. Source: Goklany, Global public health: Global warming in perspective, Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons 14 (3): 69-75 (2009).
Figure 2 also tells us that eliminating global warming, even if possible, would reduce mortality in 2085 by, at most, 13% (under the warmest, A1FI, scenario). On the other hand, there are adaptive approaches that could address 100% of the mortality problem (including the contribution of global warming to that problem).
The first such approach is focused adaptation, i.e., adaptive measures focused specifically on reducing vulnerability to climate sensitive threats. The rationale behind focused adaptation is that the technologies, practices and systems that would reduce the problems of, say, malaria or hunger, from non-global warming related causes would also help reduce the problems of malaria and hunger due to global warming. See “Climate Change and Malaria”.
The second adaptive approach is to remove barriers to and stimulate broad economic development. This would reduce vulnerability to virtually all problems, climate-sensitive or not. That this approach would work is suggested by the fact that, by and large, wealthier countries have lower (age-related) mortalities regardless of the cause (and, therefore, higher life expectancies).
The fundamental principle behind these adaptive approaches is that since global warming mainly exacerbates existing problems rather than creates new ones. If we solve or reduce vulnerability to the underlying problem — think malaria, hunger or extreme events for “focused adaptation” and the general lack of adaptive capacity for “broad economic development” — then we would also be reducing vulnerability to the contribution of global warming to that problem.
As shown in Table 1, human well-being would be advanced lot more cost-effectively through either of the two adaptive approaches than by curbing global warming.
Table 1: Comparing costs and benefits of advancing well-being via emission reductions (mitigation), focused adaptation, and broad economic development. MDGs = Millennium Development Goals. Entries in red indicate a worsening of human or environmental well-being. Source: Goklany, Is Climate Change the “Defining Challenge of Our Age”? Energy & Environment 20(3): 279-302 (2009).
So, if you want to advance the well-being of the poorest countries, you could advance it farther, more surely and more cheaply through adaptive approaches than through zero-carbon technologies. Adaptive approaches would also advance well-being more rapidly, since curbing warming is necessarily a slow process because of the inertia of the climate system.
I also note from your blog posting that you appreciate that quality of life is dependent on energy use. Given this, I would argue that for developing countries, increasing energy use should have a much higher priority than whether it is based on non-zero carbon technologies.
Finally, following this letter, I have listed recommended readings on climate change that elaborate on the points I have striven to make.
REFERENCES (in which the ideas advanced in this letter are more fully developed)
1. Deaths and Death Rates from Extreme Weather Events: 1900-2008. Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons 14 (4): 102-09 (2009).
2. Climate change is not the biggest health threat. Lancet 374: 973-75 (2009).
3. Global public health: Global warming in perspective. Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons 14 (3): 69-75 (2009).
4. Discounting the Future, Regulation 32: 36-40 (Spring 2009).
5. Is Climate Change the “Defining Challenge of Our Age”? Energy & Environment 20(3): 279-302 (2009).
6. What to Do about Global Warming, Policy Analysis, Number 609, Cato Institute, Washington, DC, 5 February 2008.
7. Climate Change and Malaria. Letter. Science 306: 55-57 (2004).