The Optimist

Not Too Hot to Handle

Why climate doomsayers are selling humanity short.

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.

What about other diseases? Christian Zimmermann at the University of Connecticut and Douglas Gollin at Williams evaluate the likely impact of a 3-degree rise in temperatures on tropical diseases like dengue fever, which causes half a million cases of hemorrhagic fever and 22,000 deaths each year. Most of the vectors for such diseases -- mosquitoes, biting flies, and so on -- do poorly in frost. So if the weather stays warmer, these diseases are likely to spread. At the same time, there are existing tools to prevent or treat most tropical diseases, and Zimmerman and Gollin suggest "rather modest improvements in protection efficacy could compensate for the consequences of climate change." We can deal with this one.

It's the same with agriculture. Global warming will have many negative (and a few positive) impacts on food supply, but it is likely that other impacts -- both positive, including technological change, and negative, like the exhaustion of aquifers-- will have far bigger effects. The 2001 IPCC report suggested that climate change over the long term could reduce agricultural yields by as much as 30 percent. Compare that with the 90 percent increase in rice yields in Indonesia between 1970 and 2006, for example.

Again, while climate change will make extreme weather events and natural disasters like flooding and hurricanes more common, the negative effect on global quality of life will be reduced if economies continue to grow. That's because, as Matthew Kahn from Tufts University has shown, the safest place to suffer a natural disaster is in a rich country. The more money that people and governments have, the more they can both afford and enforce building codes, land use regulations, and public infrastructure like flood defenses that lower death tolls.

Let's also not forget how human psychology works. Too many environmentalists suggest that dealing with climate change will take immediate and radical retooling of the global economy. It won't. It is affordable, practical, and wouldn't take a revolution. Giving out the message that the only path to sustainability will require medieval standards of living only puts everyone else off. And once you've convinced yourself the world is on an inevitable course to disaster if some corner of the U.S. Midwest is fracked once more or India builds another three coal-fueled power plants, the only logical thing to do when the fracking or the building occurs is to sit back, put your Toms shoes on the couch, and drink micro-brewed herbal tea until civilization collapses. Climate change isn't like that -- or at the very least, isn't like that yet.

So, if you're really just looking for a reason to strap on the "end of the world is nigh" placards and go for a walk, you can find better excuses -- like, say, the threat of global thermonuclear war or a rogue asteroid. The fight to curb greenhouse gas emissions is one for the hard-nosed optimist.

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The Optimist

Sharing the Burden

Why Africa doesn't need your white guilt anymore.

It's 113 years since Rudyard Kipling -- poet propagandist for empire -- exhorted Americans, newly ensconced as the colonial power in the Philippines, to "Take up the White Man's burden/The savage wars of peace/Fill full the mouth of Famine/And bid the sickness cease." A century and change later, a new survey suggests people in the rich world have attitudes towards developing countries that would make Kipling proud. And not only are their views completely out of touch with what is going on in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but they are positively harmful to continued progress in the developing and rich worlds alike.

The survey, by Intermedia, looks at popular attitudes towards international development in countries including Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. The good news for harried aid-agency staff fearful of swinging budget cuts is that there are a lot of people in Europe and America who care about global development. Between 31 percent (U.S.) and 50 percent (Britain) of the four rich-country populations surveyed are interested in international development or global health issues and have "participated in social or political engagement" (from donating to volunteering to blogging to tweeting) in the past six months. The report calls them "interested citizens."

But here's the bad news: asked who was primarily responsible for addressing the challenges of developing countries, interested citizens in rich countries suggested outsiders -- as much or more than they did governments in poorer countries. In France, 52 percent felt the primary responsibility fell to rich world governments and international organizations compared to only 26 percent for governments in the developing world. In Britain, the same shares were 27 percent and 50 percent. In the United States, each view had an equal 39 percent support.

At first sight, the fact that a considerable proportion of the citizens of the rich world believe rich governments have to do all of the heavy lifting to get poor countries to develop might seem like a good thing for aid agencies and charities. But before popping the champagne bottles, those agencies might want to look at what underlies that belief -- a sense that people and governments in the developing world are completely useless at helping themselves.

A recent study in Britain suggested that the dominant image of developing countries remains "malnutrition and pot-bellied young children desperate for help with flies on their faces." Perhaps that's not surprising when a survey by journalist Marlon Miller looking at ten years of Africa coverage by major U.S. print media found the most common topic of articles was conflict, corruption, and crime. Or when well-intentioned efforts to mobilize support for famine relief or bringing war criminals to justice in Africa tend to emphasize the worst of the continent and play up the role of outsiders.

But the stereotype of Africa's helplessness at the hands of its violent and kleptocratic governments is a real problem -- not least for those trying to help. To be somewhat simplistic, it suggests that the continent is locked in a dark-age hell-hole. There's close to "a universal feeling that efforts have long been made to combat poverty in places like Africa and yet little has changed" suggests a British study. And there's a common explanation for why that's the case, according to Intermedia. Only between 16 percent (in France) and 29 percent (in Britain) of interested citizens in rich countries disagreed with the statement that "most financial aid to developing countries [is] wasted." Between 44 percent (in the United States) and 66 percent (France) agreed.

Other surveys point in the same direction -- and suggest that this cynicism has an impact on support for foreign aid. Between September 2008 and February 2010, while the percentage of people in the United Kingdom suggesting that corruption in poor country governments makes it pointless to give money climbed from 44 percent to 57 percent, support for increased government action to reduce global poverty slipped from 49 percent to 35 percent. In the United States, meanwhile, the median respondent suggests that 60 percent of U.S. aid money ends up in the hands of corrupt government officials -- which might help to explain why so few Americans support increasing budgets for foreign aid.

Even people of goodwill in the West are stuck with a bad case of the white man's burden complex, then: We must help, because they are so helpless. That attitude leads to bad aid -- the type run out of donor-country capitals with little involvement of beneficiary governments or citizens on the ground -- with the irony that reams-worth of evaluation studies suggest it is exactly this aid that is some of the most likely to fail. It also leads to aid fatigue: "What? They're still helpless after all our help?" Worse, it surely depresses other powerful forms of engagement between North and South -- like private investment, trade, and travel. Who would think of setting up a factory or going on holiday to a region supposedly engulfed in war, run by crooks and psychopaths, and starving to the last man?

As it happens, the white man's burden complex is also a completely inaccurate view of the world. The quality of life across the planet is higher than it has ever been. Incomes are rising -- the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day worldwide has been more than but in half since 1990. Mortality is falling -- about two million children born this year will live to their fifth birthday who would have died were mortality rates unchanged from 10 years ago. And education rates are climbing across every developing region -- with more than three quarters of primary school children actually in school in the "basket case" of sub-Saharan Africa, for example. And on the subject of Africa, eight economies in the region ended the last decade twice the size they'd started it.

Furthermore, the overwhelming reason for all of this change isn't charitable giving by the people and governments of rich countries, it's the efforts of the people and governments of the developing world themselves. Compared to how small aid flows are in relation to the size of most recipient economies, development assistance has had an outsized role -- successes such as the eradication of smallpox and rinderpest depended crucially on aid, for example. Nonetheless, such assistance accounts for an average of about 1 percent of the GDP of recipient countries. Assume for the sake of argument (and not based on any evidence) that aid is a tenfold more powerful tool for development than local incomes, that still means the development story is 90 percent about the domestic activities of the developing world and only 10 percent about outsiders.

That's a message charities and aid agencies themselves should be hammering home at every opportunity, not just because it is right, but out of self interest. Because it is the immense progress that we've seen in the developing world that provides the best evidence that aid can play a role in support of change. After all, if there hadn't been any change, there wouldn't be anything to take credit for. As it is, there's enough good news around that aid agencies taking only partial credit can still claim spectacular returns to their investments.

Focus groups among interested citizens in the West carried out by Intermedia suggest that important "triggers to engagement" when it came to activities like donating or volunteering were an emotional response to something they saw or heard, evidence that development efforts could have positive outcomes and a sense of empowerment -- that they could make a difference. But the trick for aid organizations that want to sustain commitment and work effectively with the developing world is to ensure that the sense of empowerment among their supporters doesn't involve a feeling that aid recipients are powerless. The message -- and the truth -- is that aid works when it supports people in the developing world in their immense, ongoing, and incredibly successful efforts to make their own lives better.

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