Entries tagged with “mitigation”.


Niall Ferguson is talking about climate change, which means somebody needs to explain why you shouldn’t be listening to him. This is pretty easy, because if you subject his argument to even the most gentle scrutiny, it becomes clear that Ferguson has no idea what he is talking about, or even that he knows how to productively think about climate change and its potential impacts. The giveaway is Ferguson’s enthusiasm for Bjorn Lomborg, whose economic arguments about climate change are persistently and willfully misleading. To quote Ferguson:

Subsidies to renewable energy have a cost. Cutting CO2 emissions has a cost. Those costs in terms of forgone growth could exceed the costs of climate damage if we over-reach in the way that, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal would. The key point, as Lomborg says, is that vastly more people die as a consequence of poverty each year than die as a consequence of global warming. A CO2 emissions target is not the optimal target if meeting it would trap millions in poverty, not to mention ignorance and ill health.

The argument here is attractive at first glance because it seems simple and logical enough – the costs of reducing CO2 might reduce economic growth, trapping people in poverty, which kills more people than climate change, so we’d actually be making things worse by reducing emissions. But whenever someone gives you simple logic for a complicated problem engaging multiple complex systems (the global climate, the global economy, etc.), beware.

First, there is Ferguson’s willful efforts to mislead the reader. Of course subsidies have costs. Ferguson’s framing, however, willfully ignores the spectacular costs of the subsidies to fossil fuels that long reduced their direct consumer costs and thus made them more attractive than renewables. Further, this shabby line of argument elides the fact that even in the face of subsidies to fossil fuels, many forms of renewable energy are becoming economically efficient choices. And of course cutting emissions will have costs. What Ferguson ignores in this statement is that emissions also have costs. The amount of these costs, while debated, never come in cheap – its just a question of how expensive these costs are (for example, here, here, and here). So Ferguson’s implicit suggestion that we have a choice to make between incurring costs and not incurring costs is false. Our choice is between which costs we want to pay – those to mitigate and adapt to climate change and its impacts, or those to respond to those escalating impacts into the future. Whether talking about the cost of subsidies to clean energy, or the cost of cutting emissions in general, Ferguson offers a terribly disingenuous argument, and one I cannot believe he does not fully understand.

Second, it appears the Ferguson understands little about poverty, climate change impacts, or most crltically the relationship between the two. Ferguson’s argument about poverty and mortality (borrowed from Lomborg) is a bit odd, if you think about it a little. Poverty is a descriptive term for a human condition of lack – whether of needed assets, resources, or opportunities. Those lacks result in conditions in which people can and do die – for example, those who lack adequate housing are at risk for death from exposure, while those who lack access to adequate nutritious food are at risk for death from malnutrition. As these examples illustrate, poverty is not the agent of death. Poverty is the condition under which agents, such as weather conditions, can lead to death.

This is more than a pedantic point about poverty – it has everything to do with why Ferguson’s/Lomborg’s zero-sum argument about poverty versus climate change mitigation is garbage. This argument assumes that poverty and climate change are unrelated causes of death that can be measured against one another. However, it is extraordinarily well-established that the outcomes of climate change, from acute stresses produced by climate extremes to chronic impacts produced by long-term changes in temperature and precipitation, tend to exacerbate existing inequalities in whatever society they are found. Thus, climate change impacts will exacerbate poverty, the conditions under which people encounter higher rates of mortality. Put another way, it is not a choice between investment in anti-poverty efforts and investment in climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. Investments in anti-poverty work that pay no attention to climate change are likely to be less effective than those that do not. These are NOT INDEPENDENT VARIABLES.

Lomborg knows this, and has had this screamed at him, for something like a decade. The fact he continues to argue otherwise is just bad faith. Ferguson, on the other hand, likely has no idea what he is talking about and is just grabbing on to a narrative he likes. It’s pathetic when Harvard and Stanford give positions to someone willing to make misleading arguments about concepts he does not really understand to put forth an opinion that is not only demonstrably wrong, but just a rehashed, boring version of previous demonstrably wrong framings of climate change, its impacts, and the need for action. And it is tragic that the Boston Globe, a paper I otherwise respect, gave him the column inches to offer that opinion.

I’ve been going on quite a bit about how we envision the relationship between aid and development – or perhaps more appropriately, how we do not really envision that transition, but assume that it simply happens – quite a bit lately.  But pressing on my mind during my work life is the relationship between climate change and development – how do mitigation and adaptation efforts relate to development?  The answer, of course, is that they relate to development in many different ways.  For example, mitigation efforts include things like land use, which can impact existing agricultural practices, and constrain (or sometimes enable) the options available to the designers of agricultural development projects.  Adaptation efforts emphasize the prevention of negative outcomes, a form of coping, but unless this relationship is explicitly considered they do not necessarily rhyme with development projects that seek to build on existing resources and capacity to improve people’s situations.

(I confess that I am deeply concerned that development is rapidly being subsumed under adaptation in some quarters, which is a real problem as they have two different missions.  To refocus development projects on adaptation is to shift from an effort to improve someone’s situation to an effort to help them hang on to what little they might have.  But this is a post for a different day.)

There is a danger, in this era of enhanced attention and funding toward climate change, of using climate change funds to continue doing the same development work as we were doing before, only under a new label (i.e. calling agricultural development “agricultural adaptation”, then using climate change funds to support that program even though nothing about it has really changed).  It is an annoying habit of people in agencies, who are often cash- and personnel-strapped, to try to use new initiatives to support their existing projects.  There is also a danger, in places where climate change has a greater emphasis than development, that development dollars aimed at particular challenges will be repurposed to the end of addressing climate change, thus negatively impacting the original development goal.  A year ago, Bill Gates wrote warned against just such an outcome in his 2010 Annual Letter as co-chair of the Gates Foundation.  On first read, it is a reasonable argument – and one that I largely agree with.  We live in a world of finite donors, and new dollars to address climate change often have to come from some other pot of money funding another project or issue.  These are difficult choices, and Gates has every right to argue that his pet interest, global health, should not lose funding in favor of climate change related efforts.  However, his argument sets up a needless dichotomy between development/aid (in the form of public health funding) and efforts to address the impacts of climate change:

The final communiqué of the Copenhagen Summit, held last December, talks about mobilizing $10 billion per year in the next three years and $100 billion per year by 2020 for developing countries, which is over three quarters of all foreign aid now given by the richest countries.

I am concerned that some of this money will come from reducing other categories of foreign aid, especially health. If just 1 percent of the $100 billion goal came from vaccine funding, then 700,000 more children could die from preventable diseases. In the long run, not spending on health is a bad deal for the environment because improvements in health, including voluntary family planning, lead people to have smaller families, which in turn reduces the strain on the environment.

Well, sort of.  I could make a pretty brutal counterargument – not spending on health, such as HIV/AIDS leads to a lot of deaths in the productive segment of the population pyramid, leaving a lot of fallow land to recover its nonagricultural ecological functions.  This sort of land use change is actually visible in places like Swaziland, but very hard to quantify because the studies aren’t there yet – nobody wants to be seen as potentially supporting this sort of nightmarish conservation argument.  I certainly don’t – but that is not my point.  My point was that Gates’ argument is pretty thin.

In making a political point, Gates is being a bit selective about the relationship between climate change and health.  What he is completely ignoring is the fact that mitigation efforts might limit the future range of disease vectors for any number of illnesses, thus saving tremendous numbers of lives.  This is especially true for diseases, like malaria, where a vaccine has proven elusive.  Further, he ignores the ways in which coherent, participatory adaptation programs might address health issues (by managing everything from nutrition to sanitation) in an effective manner.  While I am not arguing that mitigation and adaptation efforts could completely address the impacts caused by the loss of $1 billion in vaccination funding, his argument for 700,000 extra deaths* rests upon the assumption that nothing in the climate change portfolio will address the causes of such deaths through other means.  He’s creating an either/or that does not exist.

Again, Gates is making a political point here – which is his right.  But that political point sets up a false dichotomy between aid/development and efforts to address climate change that even Bjorn Lomborg has abandoned at this point.  We can argue in the interest of our agencies and organizations all we want, but the problems we are trying to address are deeply interlinked, and in the end creating these false dichotomies, and claiming that one issue is THE issue that must be addressed, shortchanges the very constituencies we claim to be working with and working for.

*I must admit I loathe this sort of quantification – it is always based on horribly fuzzy math that, at best, is grounded in loose correlations between an action and a health outcome.  I raise this issue and take it apart at length in my book . . .

The WWF reports that the upcoming meeting of the REDD+ Partnership issued invitations to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) only a week before the meeting.  The WWF’s Paul Chatterton argues:

“By waiting until the last minute to invite civil society participants to this meeting, the organizers have virtually guaranteed that these invitees will not be able to participate.”

I agree completely – most NGOs operate with very small budgets, and the soaring cost of last-minute international plane tickets will price many NGOs out of the meetings entirely, and greatly curtail the size of the teams other NGOs might otherwise send.  Further, this is not accidental – these meetings are well-orchestrated events, and while it is possible that a single organization, or even a handful, might be accidentally omitted, there is simply no way that the program organizers “forgot” the entire NGO community.  Clearly, someone is trying to minimize the involvement of NGOs, who are the principal voice for the communities who live in and around many of the forest resources likely to be covered under REDD+.

Aside from the underhanded nature of this move, why does this matter?  As I argue in my upcoming book, we are lumbering (no pun intended) slowly toward a global agreement on how to use the protection of threatened forest resources and the reforestation of degraded forest areas as means of offsetting carbon emissions as part of a much larger global carbon market.  This is not a problem, in and of itself.  Cap and trade is not inherently flawed – but its success is completely contingent on its implementation.  And what I am seeing from the private markets (via informal proposals that get passed my way) is a lot of project planning that completely ignores local communities.

Now, think what you will about the rights of communities to the natural resources in and around them – I know that some argue that these rights have to be curtailed for the greater good of humanity.  I happen to disagree, as I feel that this stance makes a small group of people who play little role in the global climate issues that REDD+ is trying to address responsible for bearing the negative impacts of our efforts to deal with these problems – in short, we are outsourcing the pain of mitigation to these communities.  However, whatever your stance might be on this, there is no refuting the fact that people, when forced off of a resource they once could use, have a very high incentive to monkey wrench these projects in an effort to regain access to the resource (there is a large literature on this with regard to how people displaced by protected areas like game reserves respond).  Thus, these proposals, and this odd effort on the part of the REDD+ Partnership, are more or less guaranteeing a high rate of project failure until someone figures out that they will have to take the needs of these local populations quite seriously.