Living with Global Warming

Studies | Global Warming

No. 278
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
by Indur M. Goklany

Conclusion: Solving Today's Problems without Ignoring Tomorrow's

"Sustainable economic development would benefit societies now, as well as in the future."

Many scientists and politicians have declared that global warming is the most important environmental challenge facing the globe.41 British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac in a joint declaration proclaimed that “Climate change is the world’s greatest environmental challenge.”42 Contrary to these claims, the magnitude of the problems caused by unmitigated climate change is generally smaller than the magnitude of the problems due to non-climate-change related factors over the foreseeable future; and where it is not, as in the case of coastal flooding, adaptation is a more economical remedy. Therefore, global warming is unlikely to be the most important environmental problem facing the world, at least for most of the remainder of this century.

For the next several decades, any mitigation scheme, whether it is as modest in its effect as the Kyoto Protocol or as ambitious as stabilizing CO2 concentrations, would expend scarce resources without commensurate improvements in global well-being. Despite the claim that mitigation would help developing nations in particular, it would not cost-effectively reduce the enormous present-day risks to the health and well-being of their populations that climate change could exacerbate. On the other hand, increasing adaptive capacity is likely to reduce these risks faster, more cost-effectively and by a greater amount. Equally important, various indicators of human well-being that aren’t sensitive to climate change would also be advanced much further, faster and more economically by advancing sustainable development and/or reducing current vulnerabilities to urgent climate-sensitive problems. These measures would, incidentally, also contribute to mitigation and to an increase in mitigative capacity.

Some have argued for some mitigation as an insurance policy. But enhancing adaptive capacity is better than a climate insurance policy. By addressing urgent and larger baseline problems, it will pay handsome dividends whether or not climate changes. And if climate does change, it will help reduce attendant risks much more contemporaneously with incurred costs than is possible through mitigation.

Assuming it takes 50 years to replace the energy infrastructure, we have at least 30 years (2085 - 50 = 2035) before deciding on targets and timetables for emission cuts. In the meantime, we should focus on increasing adaptive capacity over all time horizons. This could raise the level at which greenhouse gas concentrations could become “dangerous” and/or allow mitigation to be postponed. Simultaneously, we should strive to make mitigation more cost-effective so that, if or when mitigation becomes necessary, net costs would be lower even if emission reductions have to be more drastic.

"Developing the economies of poor countries is the best insurance against climate change."

Accordingly, we should first and foremost pursue a broad adaptive strategy based on advancing sustainable development. Second, we should take measures to reduce vulnerability to today’s urgent climate-sensitive risks — hunger, malaria, water shortages, coastal flooding, and pressures on biodiversity — that warming could exacerbate. Together, these efforts would improve human well-being and enhance adaptive capacity of vulnerable developing countries. This can be accomplished while incidentally advancing sequestration and enhancing mitigative capacity more broadly by augmenting economic resources and human capital.

Third, we should implement “no-regret” mitigation measures — for example, eliminating subsidies for energy consumption, land conversion and agricultural overproduction in developed countries — while constantly expanding the universe of such measures through R&D designed to improve their cost-effectiveness. Finally, we should continue to advance knowledge of climate change science, economics and responses to better evaluate and determine trade-offs and synergies between adaptation and mitigation. Meanwhile, we should continue to monitor trends to provide advance warning should the adverse impacts of warming occur faster, or threaten to be more severe or more likely than is currently projected.43

Such a climate policy would solve some of the most critical problems facing the world today and tomorrow while preparing it to address the uncertain problems of the day after tomorrow, of which climate change is but one among many.

NOTE: Nothing written here should be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the National Center for Policy Analysis or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress.

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