It's a great time to be depressed about the fate of the planet. The last United Nations confab on climate change, a November meeting in Durban, South Africa, suggested we're unlikely to see any new deal on greenhouse gasses having an impact before 2020. And it was over less than a day before Canada withdrew from what is the only current legally binding treaty on climate change -- the Kyoto Protocol, which expires at the end of this year. The United States never signed up for Kyoto in the first place, of course -- and Barack Obama's administration has hardly been leading the charge for a replacement.
Meanwhile, we're less than three months away from the next big environmental summit, Rio+20, the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, and it would be fair to say expectations for the event are modest. Which is to say climate change was off the table before the table was set up, and even the idea of changing the name of the United Nations Environment Program to the United Nations Environment Organization was considered too ambitious by negotiators.
But for all international diplomats appear desperate to affirm the self-worth of pessimists and doomsayers worldwide, it is important to put climate change in a broader context. It is a vital global issue -- one that threatens to slow the worldwide march toward improved quality of life. Climate change is already responsible for more extreme weather and an accelerating rate of species extinction -- and may ultimately kill off as many as 40 percent of all living species. But it is also a problem that we know how to tackle, and one to which we have some time to respond before it is likely to completely derail progress. And that's good news, because the fact that it's manageable is the best reason to try to tackle it rather than abandon all hope like a steerage class passenger in the bowels of the Titanic.
Start with the economy. The Stern Review, led by the distinguished British economist Nicholas Stern, is the most comprehensive look to date at the economics of climate change. It suggests that, in terms of income, greenhouse gasses are a threat to global growth, but hardly an immediate or catastrophic one. Take the impact of climate change on the developing world. The most depressing forecast in terms of developing country growth in Stern's paper is the "A2 scenario" -- one of a series of economic and greenhouse gas emissions forecasts created for the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It's a model that predicts slow global growth and income convergence (poor countries catching up to rich countries). But even under this model, Afghanistan's GDP per capita climbs sixfold over the next 90 years, India and China ninefold, and Ethiopia's income increases by a factor of 10. Knock off a third for the most pessimistic simulation of the economic impact of climate change suggested by the Stern report, and people in those countries are still markedly better off -- four times as rich for Afghanistan, a little more than six times as rich for Ethiopia.
It's worth emphasizing that the Stern report suggests that the costs of dramatically reducing greenhouse-gas emissions is closer to 1 (or maybe 2) percent of world GDP -- in the region of $600 billion to $1.2 trillion today. The economic case for responding to climate change by pricing carbon and investing in alternate energy sources is a slam dunk. But for all the likelihood that the world will be a poorer, denuded place than it would be if we responded rapidly to reduce greenhouse gases, the global economy is probably not going to collapse over the next century even if we are idiotic enough to delay our response to climate change by a few years. For all the flooding, the drought, and the skyrocketing bills for air conditioning, the economy would keep on expanding, according to the data that Stern uses.
And what about the impact on global health? Suggestions that malaria has already spread as a result of climate change and that malaria deaths will expand dramatically as a result of warming in the future don't fit the evidence of declining deaths and reduced malarial spread over the last century. The authors of a recent study published in the journal Nature conclude that the forecasted future effects of rising temperatures on malaria "are at least one order of magnitude smaller than the changes observed since about 1900 and about two orders of magnitude smaller than those that can be achieved by the effective scale-up of key control measures." In other words, climate change is and will likely remain a small factor in the toll of malaria deaths into the foreseeable future.