Climate Change and Lost Potential

How much of the impact of anthropogenic climate change will go unnoticed?

When you hear the phrase ‘disastrous impact of climate change’, what comes to mind? Pictures of dying polar bears and bleached coral reefs? CGI images of major cities half submerged under rising seas? Perhaps for some it’s “bleeding-heart liberals over-exaggerating concerns about economic growth”…? I’d wager that if you are strongly concerned one way or another, you have some specific images in your mind about the potential outcomes that our human footprint will have in future. What if, in focusing on these dramatic and catastrophic concerns, environmental advocates are missing the more insidious potential impact of climate change? This is perhaps my biggest concern for the next hundred years; that some of the worst impacts will simply go unnoticed, with long-term changes masked by the pace of social and economic change. Or worse, that not enough people will care.

To elaborate on this point, let’s look at an illustrative example. In 2012, the Dara organisation produced an analysis of the impact of climate change and carbon-related pollution on both human mortality and economies on a country-by-country basis, as well as projected estimates for the year 2050. Their results were the basis of a number of articles at the time arguing that ‘climate change kills more people than terrorism’. Let’s use India, a large, developing country that the report suggests is highly susceptible to climatic effects, as a test case for the potential impact of climate change.

In the data, we learn that at present, 200,000 die every year in India from climate-related deaths, and a further 900,000 from carbon pollution (mostly from smoke from cooking). In 2030, these numbers are anticipated to rise to 350,000 and 1,050,000 respectively (an overall increase of 300,000 per year). But what happens when we compare these numbers with the projected changes in the overall population and life expectancy of India?

The United Nations provides historical population estimates as well as projections of future change. The Indian population in 2010 was 1.231 billion people, and this is projected to grow to 1.513 billion in 2030. The UN also estimates a ‘crude’ death rate of 7.91 per 1000 people per year in 2030 (vs 7.53 in 2010). These numbers are a little meaningless without context, but let’s put the 2030 population together with the estimated death rate: we find that in 2010, 9.3 million died in India (from all causes) and in 2030 this number will be 12 million.

What’s my point? Well, if we compare the fraction of all deaths due to carbon or climate in 2010 (around 11.8%) to the expected fraction in 2030 (c. 11.6%), we see there’s not much change.

If the proportions remain constant, social institutions have no impetus to change in response, at least in terms of the impact on mortality. It might be argued that 2030 is too short a window to really notice the big climate changes. The World Health Organisation can help push these estimates a bit further: they expect 500,000 additional deaths due to climate change every year in 2050. If we again use the UN population estimates though, even this vast number of climate-related deaths ends up being only 0.5% of the estimated deaths per year in 2050.

I would not be surprised if commentators took issue with how I’m interpreting these numbers. I should stress from the outset that I’m not intimating that 500,000 additional deaths is irrelevant or insignificant; these deaths could be prevented, and the cumulative cost is horrifying. My point is that the slow pace of climate change could allow these changes to sneak by relatively unnoticed; at least initially, the climate death toll will not look like the Black Death, with drastic declines in population; based on current projections, the population will still continue to grow, at least through the first half of this century. Or if health outcomes begin to decline, then the range of factors that could cause this change will confound efforts to tie in conclusively to climate change – just look at the fall in life expectancy in the US as the result of Opioid-related deaths for an example where short term effects could easily swamp the slower shifts from climate change.

And this, essentially, is what concerns me; the drawn out nature of the crisis will lead to a loss of potential human life and well-being, that will otherwise be swamped in the otherwise-exponential growth in our society and economy.

The economy itself is another system that policy-makers have historically used to determine the overall progression of nations, and one which we can also use to illustrate the possibility that climate change gets lost in the data.

The economic cost of climate change is a topic of great debate for economists and scientists alike. On top of the increased healthcare costs related to the increased mortality, the increased likelihood of extreme weather events, droughts, famine and further indirect effects could be extremely expensive. The Stern Review in 2006 estimated costs of a business-as-usual regime of more than 5% of global GDP annually, and in the most catastrophic scenarios this could be higher than 20%.

Will we be richer or poorer in absolute terms in the future? Does GDP growth mean that these percentage costs will be absorbed by the increase in the overall economy? Some scientists from Stanford have suggested that in 5-43% of countries (primarily in the developing world), the economy may be worth less than it is today.

However, it’s notable that both the accountancy firm PWC in their projections for 2050 and the OECD in their estimates until 2060 suggest growth is the only trend we should expect in global GDP for the next decades. Some might argue that these reports have underestimated the potential economic risk, but these agencies are well-established and trusted by policy-makers in a broad range of settings, so there are at least some serious suggestions that any major economic impact of climate change will come later than 2050, or that it will be absorbed by economic growth.

Moreover, since negative effects of climate change will disproportionately impact developing countries in the global south, the economic impacts may be even more strongly masked in the short term. Some developing countries will benefit from an effect known by economists as ‘Convergence’, whereby their economic growth is faster than developed states, in part due to the increased availability of existing technologies. Thus, their potential to absorb negative economic effects of climate change while still growing as an economy may reduce potential civil unrest and limit political will to act on environmental issues. Where this convergence is not at work (as has been notably the case in many Sub-Saharan African nations), the lack of global power and media interest may similarly limit the attention that climate change in such settings generates.

Even as the United States experienced the most expensive year of natural disasters in national history, the economy continued to grow; in fact, some government officials took the position that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma would not have any long-lasting effect on the economy. The record-breaking storms this year actually highlight two factors; first, that even under a dramatically increased amount of climate-related disasters, large developed economies may be able to absorb much of the damage. Much more concerning is that developing countries that only receive marginal media attention may suffer much more significantly; the impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico meant that it is one of only 4 countries where GDP is forecast by the Economist to shrink in 2018 (the others are Venezuela, North Korea, and Equatorial Guinea). It’s all too easy to envisage a future where developed countries turn a blind eye to increasing climate-related disasters in the global south as long as their economic growth is maintained.

None of this is to say that truly disastrous effects will not occur. As pointed out above, climate change is already leading to thousands if not millions of extra deaths each year, and this is only likely to increase. The point is that there are conceivable scenarios where these slow moving changes get masked by the ‘march of human progress’, until it becomes too late. The changes in the physical environment that can result from climate change aren’t all linear, and there are possibilities of ‘surprise’ events that we won’t be prepared for like rapid decline of agriculture due to desertification, or collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Such critical events would be impossible to absorb into economic growth. What if ‘progress’ allows us to ignore climate change for long enough that we reach these tipping points?

Even if these critical thresholds are never crossed, at some point in the future, let’s say 2100, we will be able to compare the projections for population growth we made in 2010 with the actual outcomes. Will we see the lost potential?

More than likely, we’ll see it if we look beyond GDP and life expectancy. The coral reefs will more than likely have entirely disappeared; mass extinction of species in many environments is probable; glaciers will have receded across the globe, and the inequality of impacts from climate change might well still mean rampant poverty in some developing countries. In this disparity between the dispassionate numbers and the very real negative outcomes for human well-being there lies a nugget of a solution.

If instead of GDP and bulk health outcomes we choose different metrics by which to judge our success (or at least to judge the impact of climate change), we may see the effects appear more clearly. Ecological richness, measures of inequality (at multiple scales) and the more intangible measurements of well-being (and even happiness) might better capture these changes, and I would argue strongly that policy should increasingly be guided by these metrics, rather than the prevailing inclination to focus on GDP. Even economists point out the inadequacy of the measure: let’s aim to do better.

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