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March 31, 2014 4:38 pm

Bogus prophecies of doom will not fix the climate

Climate change demands action but not just on emissions, writes Richard Tol

Humans are a tough and adaptable species. People live on the equator and in the Arctic, in the desert and in the rainforest. We survived the ice ages with primitive technologies. The idea that climate change poses an existential threat to humankind is laughable.

Climate change will have consequences, of course. Since different plants and animals thrive in different climates, it will affect natural ecosystems and agriculture. Warmer and wetter weather will advance the spread of tropical diseases. Seas will rise, putting pressure on all that lives on the coast. These impacts sound alarming but they need to be put in perspective before we draw conclusions about policy.

According to Monday’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a further warming of 2C could cause losses equivalent to 0.2-2 per cent of world gross domestic product. On current trends, that level of warming would happen some time in the second half of the 21st century. In other words, half a century of climate change is about as bad as losing one year of economic growth.

Since the start of the crisis in the eurozone, the income of the average Greek has fallen more than 20 per cent. Climate change is not, then, the biggest problem facing humankind. It is not even its biggest environmental problem. The World Health Organisation estimates that about 7m people are now dying each year as a result of air pollution. Even on the most pessimistic estimates, climate change is not expected to cause loss of life on that scale for another 100 years.

Rising temperatures may even be beneficial at first. Many more people die in unusually cold winters than in unusually hot summers. Carbon dioxide helps plants grow, and higher ambient concentrations make them less thirsty. These benefits are rapidly outweighed by the harm that occurs as warming becomes more pronounced, and are probably gone with a 2C rise. Incremental impacts turn negative once temperatures rise by about 1C – a level that seems unavoidable regardless of what we do with greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change is complex and its impacts more so. We have limited knowledge of the consequences of the modest change that has occurred in the past. There is even more uncertainty about the effects of the rapid change expected in the future.

Poorer countries – which are more dependent on agriculture and tend to be in hotter places – are much more vulnerable to climate change. If Britain’s climate becomes more like Spain’s, it can copy that country’s regime of siestas, late dinners and houses that keep the heat out. But hotter places will need to invent new coping mechanisms from scratch. They are also likely to have fewer resources, and may not have access to the needed technologies.

To protect London against the rising sea, the Thames Barrier will need to be replaced. This is expensive but it will be done. Bangladesh is also vulnerable to a rise in the sea level; it has a hard time coping even with current floods. However, it is about as poor as another low-lying, densely populated country was a century and a half ago when it started its first big flood-safety programme – the Netherlands. It did so because it had a strong government capable of decisive action. As long as that is lacking in Bangladesh, the country will be vulnerable to climate change. But its core problem is political.

Malaria is another example. It was once endemic in Europe and North America. But clouds of pesticide killed the mosquitoes, and draining of inland wetlands reduced their habitat. Today malaria is confined to poor countries. Climate change will make the disease worse. Economic growth will make it go away.

In the worst case, climate change could cut crop yields in Africa in half. Yet yields would increase tenfold – in the same climate, on the same soil – if subsistence farmers started using crops and techniques pioneered on experimental farms. Climate change may be a big issue in Africa. But it is not nearly as important as lack of tenure, poor roads, roving warlords and so on.

Cutting emissions is not the only way to reduce the impacts of climate change. Adaptation and development are alternatives. But these trade-offs are rarely discussed. More than 15 per cent of all development aid is now spent on attempts to prevent climate change. Is that the best way to help the intended beneficiaries? Or does it reflect the donors’ priorities?

None of this is to say that climate change is not a problem that needs to be solved. We cannot let the planet grow warmer and warmer. It will take decades at least before carbon-neutral technologies saturate the market. We had better start now.

But emissions reduction is not the only way to keep the impacts of climate change in check. Yesterday’s IPCC report – repeating its prophecies of doom if emissions are not curbed – missed an opportunity to advise policy makers on how to improve lives.

The writer is a professor at the University of Sussex and Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, and has served on the IPCC since 1994…

This article appeared in the Financial Times yesterday and I feel that it is not actually facing the reality of global warming. Unfortunately the effects of global warming are already evident in large parts of Africa. Take Zimbabwe. The settlers worked extremely hard, using scientific methods to produce food, tobacco and cattle on a wide scale, enough to feed everyone in the country and to export outside Rhodesia. This kind of expertise is simply no longer there, although Robert Mugabe's wife has actually started a world class dairy farm there. Luckily the lemon and orange tree groves planted in the past are still producing but require huge amounts of water, which is running out. In the southern part of the country the use of irrigation has provided sugar cane plantations. This is all highly technical farming and unfortunately the water table is being lowered to bring the water to the surface, so it is probably unsustainable in the long run. Exceptionally high temperatures are already having a bad effect on population and the life expectancy is no longer what it used to be but around 40 years for the majority of the population.

Another massive problem is HIV AIDS which is decimating African populations. I give Zimbabwe as an example of a country which used to cope with dry, harsh areas and now is no longer doing so. Similar effects can be seen throughout Africa. In Somalia for instance drought is devastating the farm land. What people do not realise is that the expertise required to survive in large parts of Africa is now lacking, though local people are trying their best with limited resources. The exodus from Africa into the west will increase exponentially over the coming decades. Sadly Africa's problems will also come our way. Malaria used to be found in southern England and will probably return as temperatures rise. Other diseases will also increase. I am generalising but not that much sadly.
  1. Many posters who warn about exponentiation are pointing to an unpalatable reality. As temperatures rise they will create vast areas where people will simply not be able to survive. And the warning about the methane from the tundra is spot on. We are in deep trouble. Already fires light spontaneously in that area. Technically, the methane would be much better burned than merely released, but any burning of any fossil fuel is going to add to a problem that has not yet been brought under any effective control.


Posts as aegiandyad on NotTheTalk, the successor to Guardian Unlimited Talk
United Kingdom
We are passionate artists and art lovers with wide ranging tastes and interests. Our long range project is the creation of 'aegian' as an aesthetic hermaphrodite, trying to express the many facets of their being.

While his better half prefers to remain mysterious until she has decided how to start our journal, Mr A admits to having a London degree in Botany & Zoology and owning a succession of film and digital cameras. I am the man behind the lens, so there may not be many images of me submitted. We love beauty and I search for it amongst the mundane backgrounds of everyday reality as well as at fabulous gardens like the ones seen in some gallery pictures.

Official DAA Supporter stamp by Dark-Arts-Asylum


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wajdanali Apr 6, 2014  Student Artist
thanks for the llama badge
Lethus1 Apr 5, 2014  Student Writer
Hi aeigan - I've been asked by someone on NTT to, I quote 'pass on my regards, and come back already'. =) Hope you're both well! 
Hi Lethus1, this is Mrs a. It was Mr a who first replied to you. It's really kind of you to come on here and ask how we are. Please thank whoever sent the main message. It's really lovely to feel wanted! Sorry to have been away but things have been really hectic this end. I do miss everyone on NTT and wish them all well. I didn't leave because of guigal, whom I liked, or anything, just because that's how things turned out. Give the person our love and take care. Mrs A.
Lethus1 Apr 6, 2014  Student Writer
Excellent, I shall do! FWIW I can sympathise with Mr A's position. Would you or Mr A mind if I copied and pasted your replies, or would you prefer me to paraphrase? Also, given what he mentioned wrt to encouraging people to visit here, would you want me to link to your profile in the appropriate thread?
On behalf of both us I don't mind your quoting Mrs a* at all. Personally, I don't really want to offend guigal, who should be told that in my [Mr a*'s] reply the term 'people like' should have had 'but not including' added to it. What I'm interested in is making the art available to as wide a public as possible. Viewing is, after all, free. On warm sunny days the 'art' is what we are both doing as often as not. This is our 'Abstractions' folder… which includes at least one (disputed) Martin Wolk and several 'fakes', tributes, etc.
Oh, we haven't exactly done a 'great flounce' or anything. It's just that Mrs a*, your principal correspondent, is devoting a lot of time to the letter/comment pages on the Financial Times where people are beginning to take her seriously, and I spend my time produce the 'art' which appears in our galleries and is taken seriously here. It's not that they didn't take us seriously on NTT, but some people there seemed lacking in self reflection and had fixed ideas that seemed to run on rails, unstoppable and barely even divertable.

There are only so many times we're willing to tell people like guigal that the parody of true religious faith which they attack so vigorously and remorsely is nobbut a strawman, and that the parody of 'science' they seem to 'believe' in is in fact a cult called 'scientism' which holds that the physical sciences can explain everything that needs explaining, an argument we have exploded many times to no avail.

These people should visit us here and see what is really going on. I hope you will encourage them to do so.
KunYKA Apr 5, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
KunYKA Apr 4, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Tigles1Artistry Mar 30, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks so very much for the watch...:hug:
cloistering Mar 24, 2014  Professional General Artist
:fusionrock::fusionrock: :heart: Thank you for the :+fav: on Artifact-Abstraction-

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