When It Comes to Climate Change, Wealth Equals Adaptation

In the headline, “Time is running out to avoid a harrowing future, climate panel warns” was featured on the frontpage. The New York Times earlier this week. The Washington PostThe headline on the front page of the newspaper reads, “Humanity faces a short and quickly closing window to prevent a hotter, more deadly future,” U.N. climate report states. Both newspapers are citing claims and data from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) new report Climate Change 2022: Impact, adaptation, and vulnerability. Antonio Guterres (United Nations Secretary-General) called the report “an atlas of suffering human beings and an indictment against failed climate leadership.” He added, “Delay means death.”

Are the headlines a bit too dire for humanity?

“The scientific evidence has been overwhelming: Climate change is a danger to human well being and planetary health,” warns the IPCC Adaptation Report. This report is almost 3,700 pages long, and it follows the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report on Climate Change (AR6). Base in Physical ScienceReport issued in August. The AR6 Report on Climate Change Mitigation will be released in April.

We must be honest: Man-made climate changes are happening. Humanity is adapting and will have to continue doing so. Largely as the result of the rising atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, global average temperature has increased by about 1.1°C (about 2°F) since the late 19th century. Heatwaves in land and oceans are becoming more severe and frequent. Downpours are more frequent and increasing in frequency.

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A surprising finding in the report was that worsening and severe weather are the most dangerous for those living under corrupt kleptocratic regimes. The Summary for Policymakers notes that vulnerability is greater in areas with poverty and governance problems, limited access to basic resources and services, violence, and high levels climate-sensitive livelihoods (e.g. smallholder farmers and pastoralists, fishermen communities).

A Summary observes that floods, droughts, storms killed 15 more people in less developed regions in 2010 than those in richer areas. The report compares the weather deaths in Mozambique (450 GDP per capita), Somalia (3100), Nigeria (2100), Afghanistan (509), and Haiti (1177), with the U.K. (40.284), Australia (41.1822), Canada (43.2241) and Sweden (51.292). People die when poor weather is combined with extreme poverty.

But, the IPCC Report does mention in depth the incredible 2019 study. Global Environmental Change by two European researchers that found “a clear decreasing trend in both human and economic vulnerability, with global average mortality and economic loss rates that have dropped by 6.5 and nearly 5 times, respectively, from 1980–1989 to 2007–2016.” You should remember that both economic losses and mortality fell as more people built stuff.

In addition, the researchers found that poor countries have seen their economic loss and mortality decline faster as they become wealther. They note that this has resulted in a convergence of vulnerability between countries with higher incomes. Even though the rapid and dramatic decline in income, vulnerable regions are still more at risk from weather disasters.

His 2020 article is here Technological Forecasting & Social ChangeBjorn Lomborg, founder of Copenhagen Consensus Center noted that “global deaths from extreme weather have fallen 99% in the past 100 years” and that global costs for the same period has dropped 26%. Simply put, people around the globe have successfully and quickly adapted to changing weather conditions.

Coastline inundation, which is caused by rising sea levels due to melting glaciers/thermal expansion, is the biggest concern. According to a 2018 study, coastal flooding damages would exceed $14 trillion per year if there were no adaptation efforts to rising sea levels. People will not allow higher seas to sweep away their homes and property. They will adjust.

The projections of rising oceans, how many people will live close to the coasts and the amount of construction they make along the coastlines all have a significant impact on estimates of the cost of rising sea levels. An analysis for 2021 Climatic ChangeThe costs for building, maintaining, and maintaining coastal protections such as seawalls and dikes ranged between 0.03 and 0.18 percent of the global GDP. The 2019 World Bank analysis of the worst and best-case sea-level rises found that coastal defense costs would vary in inflation adjusted dollars, between $2.9 to $18.2 trillion by 20100. If we assume a modest 2.5% annual growth rate in global economics, the annual global GDP would rise to $94 trillion today and $440 trillion by 2025. This suggests that more technologically skilled generations will be better able to adjust to rising sea levels.

The Adaptation report states that “Climate changes will intensify pressure on food production, access and availability.” In fact, the report asserts, “Human-induced warming has slowed growth of agricultural productivity over the past 50 years in mid- and low-latitudes.” The claims are based on new research, which shows what crop yields would have been if there was no climate change. The global average yield per hectare of cereals has increased nearly 300% since 1961 when it was 1,428 kilograms. It rose to 4,070 kilograms by 2018. Global cereal production increased four-fold between 744 million tonnes in 1961 and nearly 3 billion in 2018.

As the result of greatly improved agricultural productivity, the share of the world’s population suffering from undernourishment has fallen from about one-third in 1960 to around about 9 percent today. Farmers around the globe are able, in general, to weather any negative effects from climate change.

How about the future? Plant breeders are already developing crops that can withstand higher temperatures, drought, and can grow in salty soils. New biotechnology tools such as genome edits will make it easier to identify and develop new crops that can adapt better to the changing climate. In addition, crop and livestock production is likely to be disrupted by novel food technologies such as alternative proteins, vat-grown meat, yeast-fermented milk, and vertical farming, which will have concomitant benefits of reducing the emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases.

The AdaptationReport further states that “Climate sensitive food-borne, vector-borne, disease risks are projected increase under all levels climate change without adaptation.” This report specifically mentions the possibility of dengue fever spreading rapidly to more people before the end the century.

Of course there’ll be one.Additional adaptation to disease risks. The main “adaptations” for communicable disease have been vaccines and sanitation since the early 19th-century development of the germ theory. While the report makes no attempt to predict climate change-driven epidemics but does mention vaccines as an “effective adaption option”. A quick snapshot shows that the annual death rate from food-borne or water-borne diseases has fallen by half in just a few years. Global deaths from communicable diseases accounted for more than 34 percent in 1990. That number had decreased to just 18% by 2019. Access to water and sanitation closely tracks per capita GDP.

The good news about vector-borne diseases is that there has been a steady decline in the annual number of deaths from malaria-related causes (mostly among children) over the last 15 years. A vaccine to combat the parasite has been approved last year for the first-time. Other versions are currently in development. The new vaccine is being hailed as “a game-changer” and, when used in conjunction with other measures to control malaria, can reduce the number of deaths from this disease by 70%.

Was there any mosquito-borne dengue? Progress is still being made towards developing a vaccine to significantly lower the risk of death and hospitalization from the disease. There is still research underway to create more efficient dengue vaccines. Controlling the mosquitoes is another way to protect people against vector-borne diseases. For example, mosquitoes could be genetically modified so that their populations crash or they themselves become immune to the disease organisms.

The Adaptation report offers a worst-case projection that high man-made temperature increase exceeding 5°C could result in the extinction nearly half of all land-dwelling species; in the best case where temperature is reined in at 1.5°C perhaps only 3 percent will die out.

Given the extremely poor record to mass extinction predictions, these projections should be taken with a grain of salt. R. Alexander Pyron, a George Washington University biologist has stated that even if the predictions of mass extinction are correct, “both humanity and the planet can survive or thrive” in a world where there is fewer species. He stated, “Developed human society can coexist with different natural communities. Even if they are more diverse than the ones before us.”

However, there are positive signs that the trend toward higher agricultural productivity, dematerialization and urbanization will lead to a greater amount of land and sea for nature.

Roger Pielke Jr. from the University of Colorado is a climate change researcher. He points out how many of the most extreme-case predictions in the news are actually based on the University of Colorado’s Climate Change Policy. AdaptationThese reports are based upon highly unlikely scenarios where humanity could burn enough oil and coal to triple the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere before the end of the century. In fact, Pielke and his colleagues argue that instead of heading toward a global average temperature of around 4°C by 2100, the world is on a more moderate track where temperatures would be around 2.2°C by 2100. It is obvious that a higher temperature trajectory will be easier for humans to adapt to climate changes.

To address the climate crisis caused by man-made global warming, adaptation and low-carbon energy generation technology development will be essential. While the climate is predicted to heat up, humanity has plenty of time to prevent a catastrophic future.

People die when poverty meets bad weather. Continued economic growth is key to adapting successfully to climate change.