Global warming’s misunderstood victims

Media organizations in wealthy countries regularly send forth reporters to find “victims of global warming.” In dispatches from the Pacific Islands, Bangladesh, or Ethiopia, journalists warn of impending calamity. Global warming is the most horrific challenge facing these regions, we are told. Its resolution is vital.

Media organizations in wealthy countries regularly send forth reporters to find “victims of global warming.” In dispatches from the Pacific Islands, Bangladesh, or Ethiopia, journalists warn of impending calamity. Global warming is the most horrific challenge facing these regions, we are told. Its resolution is vital.

But seldom do we hear from the local people who are said to be in danger. These people are not voiceless; we just pay no attention to what they say.

The Copenhagen Consensus Center set out to ask people in global-warming hot spots about their fears and hopes. In Mojo, central Ethiopia, our researchers met Tadese Denkue, a 68-year-old former soldier with no regular income.

“I never know when I will be able to buy myself some food,” he said. “I only know that I suffer a lot. This is not a decent life.”

Tadese has never heard of global warming. When it is explained to him, he is dismissive. He has more immediate concerns: “The first thing I need is food, and then a job.”

Tadese is suffering from his second bout of malaria this year. He has lost count of how many times he has contracted the disease. Our researcher accompanies him to a free clinic.

The electricity is not working. A doctor admits that most patients are sent home without testing or treatment: the clinic has run out of medicine.

The threat of more malaria has been used to argue for drastic carbon cuts. Warmer, wetter weather will improve conditions for the malaria parasite.

Most estimates suggest that global warming will put 3percent more of the earth’s population at risk of catching malaria by 2100.

The most efficient, global carbon cuts – designed to keep temperature increases under two degrees Celsius – would cost $40 trillion a year by 2100, according to research by Richard Tol for the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

In the best-case scenario, this expenditure would reduce the at-risk population by only 3percent.

In comparison, spending $3 billion annually on mosquito nets, environmentally safe indoor DDT sprays, and subsidies for effective new combination therapies could halve the total number of those infected within one decade.

For the money it takes to save one life with carbon cuts, smarter policies could save 78,000 lives.

Campaigners across Europe and the US use the threat of starvation to argue for drastic carbon cuts. For most regions, weather changes will increase agricultural productivity. Cruelly, this is not the case for parts of Africa that are already suffering from hunger.

But, as with malaria, all of the evidence shows that direct policies are much more effective than carbon cuts. One effective, under-appreciated intervention is providing micro-nutrients to those who lack them.

Providing Vitamin A and zinc to 80% of the 140 million or so undernourished children in the world would require a commitment of just $60 million annually.

For $286 million, we could get iron and iodine to more than 2.5 billion people. The choice is stark: for a few hundred million dollars, we could help almost half of humanity now.

Compare this to the investments to tackle climate change – $40 trillion annually by the end of the century – which would save a hundred times fewer starving people (and in 90 years!). For every person saved from malnutrition through climate policies, the same money could have saved half a million people from micronutrient malnut.

Bjørn Lomborg is the author of ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It’, head of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, and adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School

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