Filed Under (Environmental Policy) by Don Fullerton on Jun 10, 2011
The usual argument against unilateral U.S. effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce climate change is that we’d impose significant costs on ourselves, with most benefits going to other countries. Thus, we should wait for an international agreement. By the way, an international agreement is not going to happen. Meanwhile we wait, which means more global warming, sea level rise, and increased extreme weather events like floods, droughts, and hurricanes. That argument may also include the claim that U.S. agricultural productivity might increase from a little global warming, and the U.S. is rich enough to protect itself against sea level rise.
According to that logic, we can’t worry too much about damages to other countries, as we can’t take care of the whole world by ourselves.
The problem with that logic is that those costs to other countries will unavoidably become costs on us! Take two examples. First, a Reuters article points out that “a third of Bangladesh’s coastline could be flooded if the sea rises one meter in the next 50 years, creating an additional 20 million Bangladeshis displaced from their homes and farms.” Some large percentage of the nation could disappear under water. And that’s only one such nation. Global warming and sea level rise could displace hundreds of millions of poor people. The U.S. will find itself unable to turn its back on such a disaster, for humanitarian reasons. Moreover, the costs would come back to haunt us in other ways, through increased wars and other political disruptions of great danger to the U.S. itself.
A second example appears in a recent NY Times article about the effects of global warming on agricultural productivity. It starts by describing terrific recent technological advances: “Forty years ago, a third of the population in the developing world was undernourished. By the tail end of the Green Revolution, in the mid-1990s, the share had fallen below 20 percent, and the absolute number of hungry people dipped below 800 million for the first time in modern history.” But those technological advances have leveled off, while growing demands have reflected huge growth in worldwide population and incomes. The resulting grain price spikes have contributed to the largest increases in world hunger in decades, perhaps 925 million last year (see screen-shot).
What is the role of human-induced climate change? The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has already increased by 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution. We are on course to double or triple this level within a hundred years. This climate change contributes to extreme weather events. “Many of the failed harvests of the past decade were a consequence of weather disasters, like floods in the United States, drought in Australia and blistering heat waves in Europe and Russia. Scientists believe some, though not all, of those events were caused or worsened by human-induced global warming. … In 2007 and 2008, with grain stockpiles low, prices doubled and in some cases tripled. Whole countries began hoarding food, and panic buying ensued in some markets, notably for rice. Food riots broke out in more than 30 countries.”
The world’s population was less than 3 billion in 1950. It is now about 7 billion, and is expected to grow to 10 billion by the year 2100. “Unlike in the past, that demand must somehow be met on a planet where little new land is available for farming, where water supplies are tightening, where the temperature is rising, where the weather has become erratic and where the food system is already showing serious signs of instability.”
Suppose the U.S. is only to look out only for itself. Forget altruism. Forget unilateral efforts to save the world. Wouldn’t we merely be protecting ourselves by doing something now to reduce worldwide political instability that could result from a hundred million refugees and famines of that magnitude?