Monday, June 29, 2009

Chinese Reaction to ACES (American Clean Energy and Security Act)

Last week, China’s top climate change official Xie Zhenhua welcomed the passage of ACES by the US House of Representatives calling it “a big step forward”. However, China’s state run news agency Xinhua editorialized against ACES criticizing its adoption of 2005 as the baseline year for emission accounting. Earlier in June, bilateral negotiations on climate change between the two countries endedwithout any new agreement.

Desertification Speads to Southern Europe

Today, an Italian environmental group Legambiente published a report outlining how climate change and irresponsible water usage are spreading desertification across and around the Mediterranean to even the French Riveria. Potentially 74 million acres of land could be rendered infertile through desertification and salt water from the oceans leaking into groundwater. This could lead to the northern Mediterranean facing many of the same problems – like food insecurity – that the countries of the Southern Mediterranean face.

Friday, June 26, 2009

EU-China Climate Change Cooperation

A few weeks ago, at a Senate Foreign Relations hearing, Ken Lieberthal, an expert on China's domestic policy, cited demonstration projects on carbon capture and sequestration(CCS) as a way for the US and China to develop a stronger bilateral relationship on climate change.

Well, the EU beat the US to the punch. The AFP reports:

The European Commission announced Wednesday that it would provide financing up to 50 million euros (70 million dollars) to help China build a coal-fired power plant equipped with new technology to give it near-zero emissions

The total cost of a single plant to be built and operated over 25 years is estimated by the European Commission to be between 330-550 million euros. This €50 million investment is a substantial investment. The European Commission's press release even announces that:

The Commission will work closely with China, Member States, other European Economic Area (EEA) countries and industry to secure the additional financing required...This investment scheme could serve as a model for other technology cooperation activities between developed countries and emerging/developing countries in the context of a post-2012 climate change agreement. (italics mine)

Clearly, the EU is seeking to take a leadership role in developing CCS technology internationally giving it greater power to shape international norms as well as provide a breakthroughs into a new potential market. The US Department of Commerce has a report back in 2007 that says:

In light of predicted increases in coal use for electricity production worldwide between 2003 and 2030, as well as overall U.S. competitiveness in emissions abatement equipment and advanced coal-fired power plants, China, India, and South Korea present the greatest value of U.S. exports of CCT in this study, representing approximately $26 billion, $3.5 billion, and $3.2 billion, respectively.

In an effort to halt climate change as well as improve economic relations, the EU, China and India are all taking advantage of climate change as an economic and political opportunity to make profit developing and eventually exporting green technology. This agreement is just another example of states looking at climate change as an incentive for new economic growth and cooperation rather than a zero sum game.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Russia's Arctic Intentions

As the Arctic warms we’re seeing a new area of strategic studies open. Some are predicting wars, some see it as a new area for strategic confrontation, and others see it as a power vacuum needing new and updated institutions. However, it seems that the governments in the Arctic would be happy to govern the region the way the have for decades, before anyone started to pay attention. Recently, the Arctic States (Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, Iceland and Denmark via Greenland) declared that there will be no "new 'Cold War' scrambles linked to climate change"

Just saying that, however, doesn’t make it true. There are several scenarios where conflict over a thawing Arctic could play out.

With an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil underneath the Arctic Sea, states seeking energy security such as the United States and EU, or national economies driven by energy exports like Russia seek to secure rights to as much as possible. It is important to note that the technology is not yet proven to be able to survive in the extreme conditions of the Arctic Sea, but oil companies are beginning to try. The article cites a US Geologic Survey study on the location of oil and natural gas reserves in the Arctic and concludes:
"Undiscovered natural gas is three times more abundant than oil in the Arctic and is largely concentrated in Russia.”
Russia needs the resources in the Arctic to make up for declining fossil fuel production elsewhere in the country. Currently, the UN's Law of Seas Treaty allows for a country to claim all natural resources in the ocean floor 200 miles from its shoreline and an additional 350 miles if it can prove that the area is part of its continental shelf. Russia just submitted its territorial claim under the UNCLOS earlier this year. Obviously, Russia is trying to prove a large part of the Arctic is part of its continental shelf.

Russia, from its Cold War days, has several nuclear powered submarines and half a dozen icebreakers to plow through and explore the Arctic. Already, it has planted flags on the seafloor in a publicity stunt. Regardless, Russia's military activities in the region indicate the region's strategic importance to them.

Russia does not also seem very serious about cutting carbon emissions as Noah Buhayar of the Wall Street Journal's Environmental Capital blog points out. These two aspects of Russian policy are related.

Geo-engineering: Implications for International Stability

The security and climate community must plan for the prospect of unilateral geo-engineering. As the consensus that climate change is real grows, geo-engineering has recently emerged as a possible policy option. Foreign Affairs last month has an excellent article detailing the projected costs of geo-engineering that states:

“…just one kilogram of sulfur well placed in the stratosphere would roughly offset the warming effect of several hundred thousand kilograms of carbon dioxide…there is general agreement that the strategies are cheap; the total expense of the most cost-effective options would amount to perhaps as little as a few billion dollars, just one percent (or less) of the cost of dramatically cutting emissions.”

From the view of that state, geo-engineering c
ould be the rational and affordable choice if global carbon emissions continue to grow. Countries like the US have the infrastructure to withstand severe storm damage or disease outbreak. Most of Africa does not. Last year, the Council on Foreign Relations published a report discussing this scenario. Key passage:

“A nation that has not done much to prepare, either in reducing its contributions to global emissions or in building adaptive capacity, might conclude that the consequences of climate change had become sufficiently severe that it was going to unilaterally engage in geoengineering – imposing large negative externalities on the rest of the world in order to reduce its own impacts.”

If climate change continues largely unabated, what’s to stop a country facing monsoon after monsoon from unilaterally trying to cool the Earth? For “$25 billion and $50 billion a year a country could repeatedly emit sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to keep reflecting solar radiation despite the acid rain and unpredictable effects on plant growth for the rest of the world

The disparity between which states have the highest emissions and are the most able to adapt to climate change and the states who have low emissions but are the most vulnerable raises the prospect of rogue geo-engineering or attempts by states vulnerable to climate change to persuade more developed states who can afford it.

China or Russia are better equipped to develop geo-engineering technology and could do it with less fear of international sanction. Coincidentally, these countries have been resistant to cut back their emissions. Russia’s vulnerable economy benefits from high demand for natural gas and oil; China’s government has experimented with geo-engineering for decades. Cooling the planet is also much cheaper than cutting carbon emissions, which require large scale changes in transportation, energy and manufacturing. Regardless of which country is geo-engineering, there is no way for geo-engineering’s effects to be restricted. There are inevitable externalities that may cause global conflict and tension.

Hence, large scale research and development of geo-engineering technologies must coincide with effective international governance to prevent the possibility of “rogue” geo-engineering. Even better, making necessary cuts in carbon emissions would preclude the need to riskily geo-engineer.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Geo-Engineering: Worst Case Options

Recently, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal published two Op-eds advocating for funding and research into geo-engineering or intentionally cooling down the Earth to combat climate change. Proposals range from spraying mist into clouds over the oceans which makes them more reflective, to putting iron into oceans so plankton can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and carry it to the bottom of the ocean. All of these proposals are not scientifically proven to cut temperatures on a large scale and the unintended consequences of tinkering with the climate have not been thoroughly examined. While controversial, geo-engineering has been looked at as a policy option, according to John Holdren, the Obama administration’s science advisor.

Doubts remain over if and how much governments should invest in geo-engineering for fear that doing so would prevent any action to actually cut carbon emissions and even seemingly benign geo-engineering options, such as spraying sulfur dioxide particles into the air (in the same way volcanic eruptions do) to reflect solar radiation, could lead to widespread acid rain. More drastic and technologically speculative options like putting large mirrors into space to reflect sunlight could cause famine for example in Africa. Geo-engineering options that merely reflect sunlight but don’t actually lower the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere face a significant drawback: the projects have to be continued in definitely. Emitting sulfur to reflect solar radiation would have to be done annually for example.

Ultimately, geo-engineering is a worst case policy option that may arise if the international community could not cut carbon emissions fast enough before extreme climate change occurs. Next, why geo-engineering research and possible usage needs to be strictly internationally regulated.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Public Health is a Security Issue

Often climate change is framed in terms of its impact on temperatures, sea levels, and ice caps; its impact on public health is often overlooked. A degradation of public health is a clear security risk. Yesterday, Paul Epstein, the Associate Director at the Center for Health and the Global Environment with Harvard’s Medical School and Amanda Staudt, a climate scientist with the National Wildlife Federation spoke at the Wilson Center on the potentially dramatic public health effects of climate change.

Climate change will increase the reach of disease. For example, the melting glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro will expose a greater population to malaria-causing mosquitoes. Without previous exposure, they are extremely vulnerable to the disease. Droughts lead to unsanitary water storage which spreads dysentery and dengue fever. Hurricanes flood low-lying areas and destroy infrastructure, which can leave refugees living in unsanitary conditions.

Climate change exposes the delicate interconnections between health and the surrounding climate. By exposing this complex relationship, Epstein explained how factors that threaten state stability, refugees, migrations, and resource scarcity, have roots often times in a public health crisis.

One key area for cooperation between developed and developing nations is on adaptation to increased disease risks caused by climate change. Climate change will increase the risk of diseases like malaria, but economic development, and public health investments can counteract these risks. Climate adaptation funding can help in these areas. At the end of his talk, Epstein said that successful adaptation to climate change will require economic development.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Climate Change and Security - Related News

There was a number of news reports today about the security-related aspects of climate change.

As Iraq runs dry, a plague of snakes is unleashed
The Independent reports that the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers are flowing through Iraq at significantly reduced levels since the war began, causing poisonous snakes to attack people and livestock. They report that "The total water reserves behind all Iraqi dams at the beginning of May was only 11 billion cubic metres, compared to over 40 billion three years ago." Unfortunately, the Independent misses the story -- that Iraqi agriculture is being desperately harmed by a lack of irrigation -- and focuses on snakes instead. This shortage is a symptom of a long-running dispute between Turkey and Iraq over the amount of water sent down these two rivers into what was once the Fertile Crescent.

Making the Case for Climate as a Migration Driver
The New York Times reports on a report from the United Nations, CARE International and Columbia University about how climate change will drive migration. The report focuses on areas like South Asia, Mexico, and Central Asia as potential sources of 'climate migrants.' According to the article, the report had originally referred to them as 'climate refugees', but that term was rejected because of legal imperatives to protect refugees. The report acknowledges that it is almost impossible to quantify who is a 'climate migrant' but does begin to put some numbers to the task.

UN warns of 'megadisasters' linked to climate change
UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said that rapidly growing urban areas in the developing world combined with climate change creates a risk of 'megadisasters' stemming from floods, droughts, or storms. This statement was made at the release of the Red Cross' annual World Disaster Report. The report underscored that early warning of disasters is vital to saving lives. It went on to claim that climate change is "offering us the ultimate early warning" and that “The rising dangers of climate change require a response from governments equivalent to the one made to address the global financial crisis.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

New Report on the Effects of Climate Change on the US

Today, the Obama Administration released a new report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program on the effects of climate change on the United States. This report was released at 1:30 this afternoon with a news conference featuring John Holdren of the White House Office of Science and Jane Lubchenco, the Administrator of NOAA at the White House.

I watched part of this event, and I thought it was well presented and thorough. Too often, these events get too deep into the issues -- which is great for us wonks, but can undercut their use to the general public. The Obama team, however, knows PR and they rolled this out with a strong presentation. Here is a link to the report, and the PowerPoint can be found here.

Both Joe Romm at ClimateProgress and Bradford Plummer at The Vine have excellent summaries of the finding of the report. I won't try to replicate their analysis, but I would say the most compelling sections of the report lay out the direct consequences of climate change on the US. Too often, when talking about the security effects of climate change, we focus only on unstable regions in the developing world. This report makes clear in direct language that major portions of the United States' infrastructure is at risk from climate-induced sea change rises, including downtown New York, pictured at left.

This report doesn't contain any new science, but if it is handled and promoted correctly, it could become as important to US policymakers as the IPCC reports have become. This report should be given directly to every Member of Congress by Dr. Holdren. It is a strong report, with important language, but it must communicated correctly, or it will be lost among the many other reports.

Uganda - The Forefront of Climate Change

Yesterday, the AFP vividly describes how climate change is dramatically changing Uganda’s climate and ecosystems. Key passage:

‘Goretti Kitutu, a climate change specialist at NEMA, said people might soon be competing for water as well.
The snow cap provides a steady trickle of water to the neighbouring communities and feeds the Nile river basin, which includes Lake George and Lake Albert.
"Once this ice disappears we shall have serious problems in the hydrology of the area. We will see reduced water in the lakes and that will impact the Nile basin," Kitutu explained.
"There are plenty of countries that depend on that water," she said. "You could easily have communities that will be fighting over water," she added.’

The article goes on to describe in personal terms how climate change concretely has impacted food production, water scarcity, flood risks and even disease control. Developing countries like Uganda are at the front lines of climate change and this just increases the pressure on major emitters, like China, the US and the EU, to agree to a binding international framework on climate change.

Friday, June 12, 2009

What China Really Wants - Technology

The US delegation that recently visited China failed to return with any substantive concessions on the part of either country. Despite its rhetoric that developed countries should cut emissions by 40% from 1990 levels by 2020, in the course of negotiations, it’s clear that China wants easier access to high level US technology. That’s the key demand, an issue of technology and development rather than a claim of fairness based on history.

But the US is hesitant to acquiesce over concerns of intellectual property violations for fear investors would be skittish over pouring money into technology that would be cheaply copied. Specifically, currently non-commercial cleaner energy sources like clean-coal, geothermal, and deep sea floating wind-turbines, all require large upfront capital and R&D costs. These sunk costs would not be borne by a country that copies the technology. It would be difficult, both economically and politically, to give China this kind of technology for free. It could undercut US competitiveness. China – though unlikely to spend them – holds over a trillion dollars worth of US Treasury Bills already; its hard to argue that they can’t afford to invest in this technology themselves.

What China might be trying to do is use climate change as leverage to gain easier access to some of these technologies so they develop faster and at the same time mitigate emissions. Today, US lead negotiator on climate change Todd Stern clarified the US position on China’s obligations stating that “We are expecting China to reduce emissions very considerably compared to where they would otherwise be...[in] a business-as-usual trajectory”. He also said China should establish a timetable for peak years of emissions.

Good idea, but in clarifying these expectations months ahead of the Copenhagen negotiations, is the US weakening its bargaining position? As the Guardian article says “Observers see the 40% demand as unrealistic, suggesting the US move amounts to blinking first in the negotiations”.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

China's Internal Politics on Climate Change

It’s apparent that China’s going to play a pivotal role in international efforts to mitigate climate change. Just based off the travel schedules of Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, James Sensenbrenner, and Todd Stern, US policymakers have gotten the message.

The key for US diplomats and policymakers is to create a US-China relationship that is a win-win for both economics and climate rather than thinking there has to be a tradeoff. If there’s a tradeoff, China will inevitably promote economic growth over the climate. Orvell Schell writes:

“What leaders in Beijing fear is that any strong Chinese effort to limit greenhouse emissions could compromise China’s economy, which could in turn lead to unemployment and social and political instability. So much of the Communist Party’s political legitimacy has come to be based on delivering economic success, that if the choice is between domestic instability and global warming, Party leaders will invariably lean towards the former.”

The Chinese government has faced and continues to face huge demographic and economic pressures. There is a large and aging population with a minimal social safety net supporting them. An estimated 125 million Chinese citizens are moving every year from the countryside to the cities looking for work. If China’s government had not met these challenges, it would have lost support from its citizens but they’ve met them so far with 30 years of unprecedented economic growth that.

However, economic growth, measured by statistics like GDP doesn’t constitute the sole basis for the Communist Party’s legitimacy. It also rests on environmental stability because numerical measurements of economic growth exclude how environmental catastrophes like polluted rivers and dirty air undermine the everyday quality of life in China. Satisfaction with the government rests not just on abstract measurements of growth but on how the government deals with concrete problems such as drought and dust storms.

China’s government appears to recognize this. They’re trying to remain in power for the long term and that means China has to grow sustainably. In order to do that, China’s government is using climate change as an opportunity to remake China’s economy. What’s going to be very interesting in the coming decades is if China’s government’s desire to clean up its environment and cut carbon emissions is going to lead to the kind of political liberalization Pelosi envisions, where she told the Chinese on her trip that “protecting the environment is a human rights issue”.

I’m sure that’s not how the Communist Party thinks of environmental protection but one wonders if that’s what Chinese citizens think. Now, would it be smart for US policymakers concerned with both human rights and climate change to start framing climate change in terms of human rights to put pressure on the Chinese government in the eyes of its citizens?

Japan's Emissions Reductions

Today, Japan announced that it would cut emissions by 15% of 2005 levels by 2020.

Perhaps a measure that this was the right target for PM Aso's government to pick is that no one seems happy with it. The World Wildlife Fund calls it "Far too little, far too late"; China's climate ambassador Yu Qingtai told Reuters: "I do not believe it is a number that is close to what Japan needs to do, should do"; and the cut was denounced by energy intensive industrues as too deep.

It will only meet this 15% target with dramatic investments into new technologies -- including a probable increase in nuclear power -- and with the purchase of overseas 'offsets'. Unlike Europe, Japan has not instituted a domestic mandatory emissions cap to meet its committments, instead it has relied on voluntary reductions and government command and control.

As an island nation, Japan faces serious threats from climate change, including sea level rise and increased damage from more powerful typhoons. However, as a resource-poor nation with few domestic sources of fossil fuel, Japan stands to gain significantly from a push into cleaner energy. Because of its resource scarcity (and consequent high prices), Japan already is one of the most efficient users of energy. By making this commitment, Japan's government clearly shows that it percieves the threats of a warming climate, and are willing to make a politically challenging stance to fight it.

Monday, June 8, 2009

China US Climate Change Cooperation Part 1

China expert Orvell Schell has an article on YaleEnvironment 360 about the US-China conflict over climate policy; its worth reading. He contends that key actors in the US and Chinese government view climate change as an economic and political opportunity for the world.

Developing nations like China and India are seeking to modernize their economies for a green future. Realizing that it’s impossible economically and ecologically to develop just as the United States did, both countries are trying to leap ahead by becoming dominant players in emerging technology markets like solar and clean coal. As last week’s Foreign Relations Hearing demonstrated, China’s government has passed substantial legislation aimed at modernizing its electricity grid, promoting renewable energy, manufacturing electric cars, and building energy efficient buildings.

Now, the United States’ relationship with China is changing in light of the threat of climate change. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and a delegation of Members of Congress, visited China two weeks ago to see China’s efforts first hand. Pelosi, who in 1991 unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square recognizing the massacre in 1989, wrote an Op-ed today calling the climate change crisis “a game-changer in the U.S.-China relationship.” Because the US and China collectively contribute to about 40% of current greenhouse gas emissions, any international treaty on climate change will need both countries on board.

China’s government could have trouble meeting its ambitious goals. at all levels is notoriously plagued with corruption and a lack of transparency at all levels: both symptoms of a totalitarian state. Pelosi thinks China’s attempts at combating climate change will necessitate political, not just economic, liberalization:

“Our governments will have to make difficult decisions that must be based in
science. The challenge of the global climate crisis must be met with openness,
transparency, respect for the rule of law, and the government must be
accountable to the people. The principle of environmental justice must be
upheld, especially when poor people are more adversely affected by drastic
environmental changes than others.”

Elizabeth Economy, at last week’s hearing said the same thing. Unless local officials in China start actually following the environmental policies the national government sets out and stops falsifying data or ignoring the law, China’s emissions will never be reportable, measurable or verifiable and thus it’ll be unable to meet any of its international obligations or actually improve its climate. That’ll only happen if the Chinese government makes itself more accountable and transparent at all levels.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Hearing on US-China Climate Change Cooperation

Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing entitled "Challenges and Opportunities for U.S.-China Cooperation on Climate". The committee heard testimony from Ken Lieberthal, from the Brookings Institute; Elizabeth Economy, from the Council on Foreign Relations; and William Chandler, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Senator Kerry, fresh from a trip to China, stressed how seriously China's government takes climate change and how the United States and China, being responsible for around half of the world's emissions, must cooperate to tackle climate change.

Ken Lieberthal discussed China's current economic and environmental state. The country will continue to increase its carbon emissions in the coming decades because tens of millions of Chinese citizens are rapidly migrating each year from the poorer countryside to the more affluent cities. This migration causes an enormous demand for raw materials like timber, concrete and aluminum that are very carbon intensive. China must continue to expand its urban infrastructure to support approximately 1.25 million people each month. Coal provides about 70% of China's energy, so the US and China can cooperate on developing clean coal technology because both countries have relatively large amounts of it.

Elizabeth Economy emphasized the importance of assisting China in measuring, reporting and verifying its carbon emissions, and its efforts to reduce those. Because many leaders in China's provinces don't know or don’t have the technological training or expertise to implement the central government's environmental goals, often China's laws don't get enforced or data is falsified. For example, the United States can help train Chinese companies and officials to conduct energy audits.

Bill Chandler spoke about how China's government is frustrated that foreign countries don't give the Chinese government credit for its stringent environmental laws and substantial investments into clean energy technology. For example, the US last year invested $88 billion into green technology, jobs, and research but China invested $200 billion in its stimulus package. China seeks to become the leading manufacturer of electric cars and is putting billions into developing smartgrid technology. He believes China wants to work with the US especially in using markets to reach environmental goals.

All three experts emphasized that China takes climate change seriously as an opportunity for economic growth, but also as a threat to its stability. With much of its economic activity on low lying lands like the Yangtze River Delta or the Pearl River Delta, sea level rise poses a real risk to China’s stability. Similarly, glacial melting throughout the Himalayas and the Tibeten plateau would dramatically impact water availability throughout much of China. China's government is faced with the task of maintaining high rates of economic growth because of massive urban migration while at the same time cutting its carbon emissions to prevent even environmental catastrophe. Right now, with a new administration and the Copenhagen conference coming up, all three experts agreed that the US and China have many areas for cooperation. The United States can successfully persuade China to cooperate in international agreements, but it should not be perceived as attempting to limit China’s economic growth under the pretext of fighting climate change.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Link for UN's Webcast

The UN webcast of the assembly's consideration of the resolution regarding climate change's security implications can be found here. It started at 10:15 AM, eastern time.

The General Assembly's consideration of this resolution is important because it recognizes that

Because it was brought by the Pacific Small Islands Development States, specifically the island of Nauru, this debate will focus on questions of soveriegnty and refugees from states that could lose their territory to rising seas. The resolution that will be passed is a compromise that will request a report from the UN Secretary General, not request that the issue be reported to the UN Security Council.

UPDATE: The Representative of Nauru, in introducing the resolution said that her nation is "In danger of ceasing to be a state." Because of climate change, she said, "The survival of whole populations and their lands" is at risk. Although its not contained in the resolution, she said that the Security Council has the responsibility to consider the security effects of climate change.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

UN General Assembly to Consider Resolution on Climate Change and Security

Tomorrow (June 3), the UN General Assembly will take up a resolution on the security implications of climate change, titled "Climate change and its possible security implications". This resolution notes the UN Security Council debate in 2007, led by Great Britain, about the security implications of a warming climate. It goes on to say that the Assembly is "deeply concerned" that climate change, particularly sea level rise, could have security implictions. The resolution -- as most things debated in the UN -- offers non-binding responses, but it does request a report from the Secretary-General about the security implications of climate change.

About the resolution, an article in last week's New York Times says:

The hard-fought resolution, brought by 12 Pacific island states, says that climate change warrants greater attention from the United Nations as a possible source of upheaval worldwide and calls for more intense efforts to combat it.
The resolution was originally brought by small island states, in order to ask the UN Security Council to address the issues of soveriegnty and migration if their land is lost to rising seas. The issue of bringing it to the Security Council was too controversial for some members, and drew opposition. Now that it only asks for a report, it is likely to be accepted by the full Assembly tomorrow.

Even though its a non-binding resolution, actions like this are extremely important in the debate about climate change. Sometimes, government leaders get stuck in thinking about cliamte change in purely cost-benefit terms. Instead, we should look at the potential long-term security effects of a warming climate, then determine the best course of action.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Report on Climate Change's 300,000 Death Toll is not Grounded in Scientific Analysis

Last Friday, the Global Humanitarian Forum, a think tank led by Kofi Annan, released a report alleging that climate change is responsible for 300,000 deaths and $125 billion in economic losses a year. This generated many headlines in major newspapers because someone had finally quantified the “precise” death toll resulting from climate change.

Political scientist Roger Pielke Jr was quoted in the New York Times as calling the report a “methodological embarrassment”. On his blog, Pielke details the many reasons why the “300,000” death toll figure is completely unscientific.

In reading the report, it clearly assumes that climate change is solely responsible for the increase in weather related natural disasters since 1980 and then concludes that the increase in death tolls due to weather related disasters since 1980 to the present must also be the sole result of climate change.

Aside from the New York Times’ DotEarth blog, other newspaper articles on this read like a press release. This is unfortunate, and another example of how the media does not yet have a strong understanding of the problems of climate change: too often they only report what is said, without determining if it is credible or not. They do this with both sides of the debate.

It is true that a changing climate will (and may already have) harmed the quality of life of millions of people in many developing nations – this presents an risk to international stability. However, the way to change public opinion is to make honest and sound arguments; not publishing hyperbolic and ungrounded claims. Reports like this only serve to help deniers of climate change, such as the Telegraph’s James Delingpole, who uses this report to undermine the scientific credibility of other science. He calls climate change a “good scare story”.

Credibility is important, especially when dealing with something as complex as climate change. Oversimplifying the truth just undermines it.