Let’s (just for a minute) say we accept the prognosis of the saner activists regarding the impacts of climate change through 2100. So let’s say that sea level rise will be between 26 and 98 cm. Let’s say that 0.23% of currently inhabited land is lost to this happening. Let’s say that global average temperatures will rise by 3C. Let’s imagine that drought-prone lands get more droughts and flood plains get more floods. Let’s take as a given that even if storms are not more frequent they get more intense. Let’s say that conflicts increase and that we must deal with tens of millions of climate refugees. Let’s say that the economic cost is 5% of GDP and that lives are disrupted around the planet.
We could just say ‘welcome to the 40s and 50s’, a period in the 20th Century that saw similar numbers of conflicts, refugees, economic turmoil, disease and poverty. But that’s a bit too easy.
What could be worse that what is outlined above? I would argue that the case is surprisingly easy to make. For billions in the developing world, their present is worse than the scenario depicted above.
The present today is worse than the future predicted due to climate change for all too many. We pray that development will be as good for them as it was for so many of us, precisely because their present day condition is so miserable. If our prayers are answered they will have the resources to join us in whatever needs to be done to address climate change long before its impacts reach the levels described above.
The millions who have left Syria would perhaps smile if you told them that conflicts would get worse due to climate change, that the number of refugees would increase. What they see today is worse than forecast for climate change. There are 60 million refugees today, none of them due to climate change. Surely they suffer as much or more than will refugees of a richer future?
Those living at the water’s edge in the Philippines, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh are playing a seasonal lottery today with storms and storm surge. Those who die each year don’t care what tomorrow’s climate will bring.
Climate change may disrupt agriculture in many parts of the world–but don’t tell the 3.1 million children who die due to hunger every year now. Malaria may spread due to changing climate conditions–but that’s not at all important to the 438,000 who died from malaria last year. The same is true for the 374,000 who died from flooding between 1999 and 2009 and those who have died since.
If we address the needs of those who are suffering today, they will help us address the needs of those who suffer tomorrow. We will learn better ways of dealing with things. If we do not address their needs while mitigating climate change, we are securing the future for ourselves and our descendants at their expense.
It’s not only about deciding whose lives we will try to save.
The Economist reports that the world urgently needs to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure just to address the huge gaps that are retarding development. Spending on that will provide an incredible bang for the buck in terms of improved productivity, better lives, etc. If we were to commit to doing that today, nobody would object to adding a margin on top of that trillion dollars to prepare for climate change. Call it ‘pre-adaptation.’
For a survivor of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, struggling to farm around the army’s depredations and the ongoing struggles with ethnic minorities, describing a world affected by climate change is likely to produce a ‘so what’ response. Asked to choose between the spending agendas put forward in Paris at COP 21 and something based on what I’ve written here, I think there’s little doubt what he or she would choose.
The standard response of the activist community is to say that we could address all of these problems and climate change besides, all at the same time. And certainly we could do more on all fronts.
But the fact is that experience of the past century-plus shows that we focus on the problem getting the most attention, the squeaky wheel. For now, that squeaky wheel is climate change and it has led to horrible damages to the developing world–forests cut down for palm oil plantations, villages forcibly evacuated for other biofuel farms, corn used as fuel instead of food, the refusal of development funds for power plants based on their fuel and more.
The developing world is being harmed today so that we can say we are addressing climate change.
What could be worse than climate change? Ignoring the needs of the developing world while we smugly pat ourselves on the back for making our children (not those of the developing world) safer at the end of the century.