Sunday, April 1, 2007

"Catastrophes are not democratic"

As we get closer to the release of the IPCC report and some of its findings are leaking out, we find - not surprisingly - that richer countries, who contribute unproportionately to greenhouse gases, are spending increasing amounts of money on mitigating the effects of climate change within their borders, and skimping on support to help poor countries mitigate their local risk.

This NY Times article (registration required) tells us that

...Africa accounts for less than 3 percent of the global emissions of carbon dioxide from fuel burning since 1900, yet its 840 million people face some of the biggest risks from drought and disrupted water supplies...
Not much justice in those figures.
“Like the sinking of the Titanic, catastrophes are not democratic,” said Henry I. Miller, a fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “A much higher fraction of passengers from the cheaper decks were lost. We’ll see the same phenomenon with global warming.”
Africa Takes the Brunt

One of the effects of climate change that's becoming clear even now is that precipitation is increasing toward the poles and decreasing at the equator. Crop yields my increase tremendously in Canada while central Africa suffers drought spreading to areas that are currently covered in jungle. Water shortages in Africa and India won't be relieved by massive desalination plants as are being planned for Texas, California and Australia. Sea level areas like Bangladesh won't have the advantage of engineering design and construction that will help protect the European lowlands.

Technology as Defense

In terms of farming support, the term "resilience" is being used to decribe technologically-driven adaptation to deal with the risk of drought, including new genetic hybrids and new mechanized planting techniques. These kinds of benefits are not being delivered to poor countries who appear to be shit-out-o' luck.
Robert O. Mendelsohn, an economist at Yale focused on climate, said that in the face of warming, it might be necessary to abandon the longstanding notion that all places might someday feed themselves. Poor regions reliant on unpredictable rainfall, he said, should be encouraged to shift people out of farming and into urban areas and import their food from northern countries.
Worry Not for The Rich

Rich countries are just beginning to cop to the reality of the rising risk to their own. And like the upper crust passengers on the Titanic, they're looking to save themselves first. Hopefully, once they (we) feel satisfied that risks have been mitigated sufficiently, they will contribute money and expertise to saving the lives of the countless millions in poor countries. Not that I'd bet on this happening. Like the rich Titanic passengers, wealthy governments may not want to endanger their own safety by letting more people into the lifeboats. It's up to those of us with a conscience to change such attitudes.

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