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Lives and Money: ‘The Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet’

Posted on Sep 27, 2012
Climate Vulnerable Forum

A landmark report published this week by the Climate Vulnerable Forum links neglect of global warming to 5 million deaths and a loss of more than $1 trillion annually.

The Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2012 is the second edition of an assessment of the current and future human and economic costs of the climate crisis put out by a global society of countries that are most susceptible to its ravages. The report draws on the latest scientific research to assess 34 aspects of global warming and the carbon economy within the subjects of environmental disaster, habitat destruction, health impacts and stress placed upon industries. Before it was published, the study was reviewed by more than “50 leading scientists, economists and policy experts, including former heads of government.”

Among other findings, the assessment reports that 400,000 climate-related deaths occur each year due to hunger and diseases made worse by climate change, while 4.5 million people die mainly as a result of air pollution. Economically as well as health-wise, the least developed nations suffer the most. Eleven percent of their GDP will be lost by 2030. China can expect to lose more than $1.2 trillion in that time, while the U.S. economy will contract by more than 2 percent.

And here’s the stupidest part: According to the report, the cost of mitigating climate change—if such a thing is possible—would be nothing compared to those losses. Emissions could be brought down to tolerable levels for half a percent of global GDP over the next decade, a minimum of $150 billion per year for all vulnerable, developing countries.

One of the most painful aspects of reports such as these is the optimistic tone in which the experts who comment on the findings are forced to speak. “It is our hope [the report] will help redirect efforts to effectively address the harms being done to today’s economy,” Bangladesh Prime Minister and Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, Sheikh Hasina, said in a press release announcing the report. “We continue to work with all governments and other stakeholders to bring about a fair and just outcome to the negotiations.”

What evidence does Hasina have that any of the major countries involved in climate negotiations have ever intended to “bring about a fair and just outcome” to any climate talk? She’s not lacking in precedents. Climate conferences have convened on an annual basis since 1995. Two years later, the United States was the only signatory country that refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement that asked nations to reduce their carbon emissions by just over 5 percent within 15 years. In the intervening period, American leaders have blocked every effort to adopt meaningful climate policy at domestic and international levels. They hijacked negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, drawing up a secret, nonbinding deal with a handful of other nations that the hundreds of remaining U.N. member states could either take or leave.

But as Hasina’s statement reveals, the smaller, poorer countries have to play along. They’re forced to keep up the pretense that they believe the world’s bully nations want to find an international solution to the crisis. If the powerless said what is obvious—that the leaders of China, the United States and many of the major European countries have no intention of restructuring their economies to give island nations like the Maldives a chance to remain above water in this century—then those key countries would throw up their hands and walk away. They would claim they were being attacked, and use the resulting atmosphere of bad will to drop their own pretense of good-faith negotiations. I know this because a delegate of the Alliance of Small Island States told me so at the U.N. Climate Change Conference of 2010 in Cancun.

Consider that very few leaders of the world’s least powerful nations feel able to express these most urgent concerns as you read through the report’s myriad horrors.

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