The “Cui Bono?” of Climate Change

by Val Germann

As regular readers of Star Phoenix Base know, the evidence for rapid climate change is pouring in from all directions and the idea is “gaining traction” rapidly, along with calls for action from many elements of the world community. But what action might be effective, and at what cost, to whom? These are the questions, the Roman “Cui Bono?” (Who benefits?), that will make or break humanity’s response to this crisis, if indeed there actually is a crisis.

That is, one big problem is that no one, no expert nor group of experts, actually “knows,” for sure and exactly, what is happening with the climate. No matter how convincing, a vote for climate change is an estimate, based on evidence and probabilities. In addition, the effects of any climactic variation will undoubtedly be felt unevenly across our planet and may actually improve conditions in some locales. However, anything done in mitigation will have real costs, in the near future, to real people and their vital material interests, sometimes in places not hurting at all! It’s simply human nature to view “climate change” in the light of any prospective effects on one’s human material interests, and to take the appropriate steps.

It’s for this reason that we’ve seen the energy companies lining up in opposition to the very idea of human-induced “global warming” or “climate change.” They resent being cast as the heavies in this drama and have been fighting back. Whole nations have resisted the idea as well, in some cases viewing the concept as just another plot by the First World to force an economic strait jacket onto the Third.

You won’t get much of a hearing for climate change in China, for instance, where fossil fuel consumption is galloping ahead, driving double-digit annual economic growth. The same situation obtains for India and many other “developing” nations who believe that they are finally reaching that brass ring and have no intention of cutting back on their economic growth.

With this as background let’s turn to a recent article on the cost-benefit analysis of climate change from the International Business Times website. The quote below will get our discussion moving:

Will the spending needed to prevent global warming cost the world more than just sitting back, or even enjoying the possible financial benefits of a hotter planet?

Here is where the rubber and the road are coming together: Exactly who will be bearing the real cost of any prospective climate change, and who might actually benefit from it? Also, just exactly who is “the world” in this context? It seems to this writer that our planet features a polyglot assemblage of nations, all with varying and conflicting material interests, and not any kind of “world” at all. But let’s continue with another quote from the article:

Robert Mendelsohn, professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, argues that such negative costs may still be less than the benefits. He sees a net global warming bonus in the near-term, as higher farming yields in northern countries offsets damage elsewhere, especially in Africa. “In that sense it doesn’t make sense to spend money right now,” Mendelsohn said, adding that beyond 2050 and a 2 degrees Celsius rise the damage and need for action grows.

This writer does not think Dr. Mebdeksohn has consulted with the unfortunate denizens of Africa about the lack of “sense” in trying to head off potential disaster there. The same is true about those poor unfortunates living on some of the smaller islands scattered around the world:

Richard Tol, Senior Research Officer at Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute, has a similar stance. “(My damage estimate) does hide some things that some people will get very upset about,” Tol said. “From an economic perspective small island states are so tiny and people are moving out of there anyway.” As an example Tol estimates the welfare loss of the Maldives submerging at three times the inhabitants’ annual salaries, in addition to the 100 percent loss of the country’s GDP.

Luckily, the residents of the Maldives do not possess nuclear weapons and so cannot truly express their particular views on the loss of “100 percent of the country’s GDP.” But are Americans or Europeans going to cut back on their prosperity for the possibility of saving the Maldives? This writer does not think so.

What American politician could possibly advocate trading major recession or even depression in the U.S. for the possibility of saving some distant island group? None, especially when most estimates show those islands as doomed already.

It’s an unfortunate fact that getting some kind of “world agreement” on the reality of “climate change” is only the first step, and likely the easiest one, in the long and potentially impossible process of getting something positive done planet wide. Note the last sentence of our feature article which demonstrates some of the difficulty:

Britain’s Stern will present his findings to ministers in Mexico next week, a month before countries start talks – expected to last years – on a successor to take the Kyoto protocol beyond 2012.

That’s right, the “world” will be taking years and years simply to get a follow-on to the dead letter Kyoto treaty. What chance does meaningful world wide action on climate change have, given this? Not much, it would seem.

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About Val

I am a long-time teacher of science and astronomy with a strong interest in resource conservation and the environment.
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