Cure Worse than the Disease II


In a post earlier this week, I cautioned that climate-change policy could harm U.S. national-security interests more than the physical impacts of climate change itself.

Al Gore might reply, “Nonsense, if half the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets broke up and fell into the sea, sea levels would rise 20 feet. More than 100 million people would be displaced. Economies would be shattered. Millions would starve. Evacuation and rescue would become the full-time job of the U.S. military.”

Gore’s doomsday scenario is implausible, though: the great ice sheets are in no danger of collapse (see here and here). The IPCC (Fourth Assessment Report, Summary for Policymakers, p. 13) forecasts that, in the 21st century, sea levels will rise 0.18 to 0.59 meters, or seven to 23 inches. The mean forecast is 14 inches — about as much as sea levels rose since the mid-19th century. Something else rose much faster — real estate values for beachfront property.

Even 14 inches may be an overestimate. The IPCC forecast is partly based on past trends. The IPCC says (p. 5) global average sea level rose 1.8 mm per year from 1961 to 2003, accelerating to 3.1 mm per year during the past decade (1993 to 2003). However, a recent study finds that sea level rose 1.48 mm per year from 1955 to 2003, with no acceleration over the past five decades. That trend translates into a 21st-century sea level rise of 14.8 centimeters — less than six inches.

But suppose sea level rise accelerates beyond the IPCC’s high-end projection, and the oceans are one meter higher in 2100. Many experts say this would be devastating to low-lying countries like Bangladesh. In 2000, the World Bank estimated that a one-meter rise in sea level would cut Bangladesh’s rice production in half and force 70 million people to move (see pp. 99–100 of this report).

A more recent (February 2007) World Bank report presents a less dire picture. Figures 5c, 5d, and 5f on pp. 37–38 indicate that a one-meter sea-level rise would impact less than 1 percent of Bangladesh’s population, GDP, and agriculture.

But for the sake of argument let’s assume the World Bank’s earlier assessment is correct, and one-meter of sea-level rise would displace 70 million Bangladeshis. A scenario in which this crisis destroys world peace is easily imagined: (1) Millions of “climate refugees” pour into mostly Hindu India from Muslim Bangladesh; (2) chaos, instability, and border clashes ensue; (3) China, exploiting the situation, arms insurgents in India and, finally, invades.

Of course, it’s also possible that by 2050 or 2070, China will be prosperous, democratic, and peace-loving. All such threat assessments are speculation at best. Besides, the scenario assumes Bangladesh does nothing between now and 2100 to protect itself from sea level rise. Yet, according to Reuters, Bangladesh has already created a fund to address climate-change impacts, allocating $44 million for that purpose in its current fiscal budget. In addition, Bangladesh has proposed the creation of an international fund (a.k.a. foreign aid) to help South Asian nations cope with climate change.

Billions of dollars may ultimately be needed to protect Bangladesh, but that’s another reason why it is foolish to ignore the risks of climate policy. If emission-reduction measures are too costly, they can reduce a society’s capacity to protect itself from sea level rise and other potentially harmful impacts of climate change.

Reason science correspondent Ronald Bailey flagged this issue in a column on the UK Government’s “Stern Review” of climate-change economics. In 2006, Bailey observes, Bangladesh’s economy was $55 billion and growing at 6 percent a year. At that rate, its economy will be $1 trillion in 2050 and $18.5 trillion in 2100. But now assume that Bangladesh, threatened by carbon tariffs, adopts a carbon tax, or Kyoto II puts the brakes on the global economy, and Bangladesh’s economic growth rate declines by just one percentage point, to 5 percent a year. In that case, the Bangladesh economy will be only $630 billion in 2050 and $7.2 trillion in 2100.

Small reductions in annual economic growth compound into big long-term differences in national wealth. A poorer Bangladesh will have fewer resources to invest in health care, education, and, yes, protection from sea-level rise. Bangladesh could actually lose more land to sea-level rise in a poorer cooler world than in a warmer richer world.

If policymakers are going to examine global warming through the lens of national security, then they should be aware that Kyoto-style measures, by disrupting trade, increasing energy costs, and slowing global economic growth, could make developing countries more vulnerable to persistent, underlying problems — such as hunger, malaria, and coastal flooding — that climate change might exacerbate.


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