April 14, 2010

Events from Around Town: Climate Change and Mild Disasters at the Elliot School

The Elliot School at George Washington University featured a discussion under the superfluous title of Responding to Threats of Climate Change Mega-Catastrophes, which while evoking images of disasters such as the Dust Bowl, the Great Chicago fire and Hot Tub Time Machine, felt as if it could have been better titled as “Cool Graphs and Uncertain Assumptions with Climate Projections.”

The event featured a discussion with Michael Toman, Research Manager with the World Bank’s Energy and Environment Team and Lead Economist in the Development Research Group.

Most of the lecture rested on the idea that climate change projections do not carry equal implications across the globe; that each country could feature different types of climate changes, in varying degrees of severity. Furthermore, variations in intensity of the environmental changes and their potential effects would likely be seen within individual countries—a point that cannot be stressed enough to those assuming climate change means a global heat wave.

While it was an engaging discussion, there were several points made that concerned me. My main concern was with his argument that the poor would be fairly well off in the face of global climate change; that they would naturally adapt to climate change by altering their farming practices. The problem I have is that this seems to be based on two rather unrealistic assumptions: first, that most of the world’s poor are farmers to begin with, something that may come as a pleasant surprise to countless non-agricultural slum inhabitants, when they discover they are in fact Slumdog Millionaires; and second, that regardless of the availability of alternative agricultural products (e.g., heat-resistant seed varietals), the poor of the world would have the wherewithal to invest in new farming techniques to adapt to climate change.

When asked how the poor would be more easily able to adapt to climate change than their weathier, larger farming counterparts - considering share cropping among the poor - Toman admitted that he had not considered that.

Regardles, Toman provided good insight into areas that could often be overlooked, including the need to adapt when it makes sense. For example, it would be ill advised to alter ones entire crop to a more heat-resistant strain before temperatures actually rise. The new crop would likely fail, reducing local yields and potentially worsening food security. Furthermore, he noted that building higher walls to protect against flooding will prove to exacerbate issues further downstream…literally, as the deferred water will have to go somewhere.

Perhaps the most compelling argument I was able to glean from his talk was that supporting development in developing countries is in and of itself a form of adaptation; by supporting state efforts to grow and become less dependent on climate sensitive resources, such as agriculture.

While I may have preferred a discussion on climate mitigation and adaptation in a post-apocalyptic world, given the “mega-catastrophes” in the title of the event, the loose projections on how climate change may affect the world proved to be a valuable experience and some interesting food for thought.