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Climate Change Is Hurting Poor Countries Right Now. Why Won't Rich Countries Act?


“All politics is local,” Tip O’Neill, the legendary Capitol Hill pol, used to say. He wasn’t talking about the politics of climate change, but he might as well have been. Powerful governments around the world have failed to act in a significant way to fight climate change, and it’s pretty clear why: Their constituents don’t feel in any real sense that climate change is affecting them locally.

This is the fundamental inconvenient truth that advocates of tougher climate action face, and it’s underscored in a new report issued this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, a collection of thousands of scientists that stands as the conventional wisdom on the causes and effects of global warming. The report seeks to rally policies that will slash carbon-dioxide emissions by as much as 70 percent, in large part by phasing out the use of fossil fuels. To do so, it musters various scary descriptions about the havoc that global warming already has begun to, and might increasingly in the future, bring the planet. But it equivocates on how climate change will affect specific places at specific times.

That’s as it should be; climate science today can’t make many finely localized predictions. But here’s the thing: Until science can do that, people, and thus governments, aren’t likely to be willing to do the heavy lifting required to curb carbon emissions as much as the IPCC wants.

History is filled with examples of places that solved local environmental problems. Cleveland, where pollution from local factories caused the Cuyahoga River to catch fire in 1969, cleaned it up. Los Angeles, beset with a notorious smog problem that for decades after World War II yellowed its skies and clogged its residents’ lungs, cleaned it up. The U.S. Midwest, showered through the 1980s with acid rain largely from coal-fired power plants, largely cleaned it up. On a grander scale, multiple countries came together in 1989 and approved the Montreal Protocol, a treaty to phase out the use of chemicals that had caused a hole in the planet’s ozone layer. They were persuaded that the ozone hole was jeopardizing their citizens’ health.

Climate change is different. For one thing, the fossil fuels that the new IPCC report says are “extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-twentieth century” are the substances on which much of modern life depends. They’re systemically important in a way that the chemicals that burned a hole in the ozone layer were not. For another, the effects of climate change thus far don’t strike most people as critical to solve. The most dramatic consequences are affecting critters other than humans, and we, like most species, tend to be most concerned about ourselves. The effects that threaten humans, meanwhile, tend not to incite visceral fear, either because they’re likely to play out first in faraway places or because they will take a long time to play out at all.

This dynamic underlines the IPCC report itself. The report certainly sounds apocalyptic. Global warming “is unequivocal.” Many of the changes seen since the 1950s “are unprecedented over decades to millennia.” A “large fraction” of species “faces increased extinction risk” due to climate change over the next century and beyond. Over the past few decades, “changes in climate impact have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans.” And indeed, many of the climate effects projected by the report could make life less pleasant for humans. Among them: more-frequent heat waves, more-intense rains, and lower yields of fish, wheat, rice, and maize. Hot areas, particularly those in the tropics, are particularly at risk, the report says, notably for a shortage of water and for various follow-on problems a water shortage would cause.

Between the document’s lines, though, the authors end up explaining quite eloquently why the world’s political powers are unlikely to treat climate change as an existential crisis. The most intense effects of climate change, the report says, are likely to be felt most acutely by the poorest—that is, the least politically potent—people and places. Global warming will increase the risk from storms, landslides, air pollution, and other problems mostly “for those lacking essential infrastructure and services or living in exposed areas,” the report says. Throughout this century, “climate change is expected to lead to increases in ill-health in many regions and especially in developing countries with low income.” Certain parts of the world could face “very high impacts” from climate change, impacts that could slash “several percentage points of GDP.” What are those places? “Some low-lying countries and small island states.” This raises a fundamental equity issue, of course, since the developing countries likeliest to feel the early effects of climate change haven’t been the major emitters of carbon dioxide and typically don’t have the money to adapt to these ill effects. But global inequity tends by itself not to motivate political action.

To be sure, rich and powerful countries, notably the United States and many in Europe, have begun to face certain unpleasant events that the IPCC report suggests are related to global warming. But even these effects are unlikely to motivate major change. Often they’re not acute enough to make people really uncomfortable. And often, even when they’re acute, it’s unclear whether they’re really the result of global warming.

The report says, for instance, that heavy precipitation is likely increasing across North America and Europe. But there’s only “medium confidence that anthropogenic forcing has contributed to a global-scale intensification of heavy precipitation.” Similarly, climate activists have cited heavy floods, notably in the United States and Europe, as evidence of climate change. However, the IPCC says, invoking a scale of scientific certainty that it uses throughout the report, there’s “low confidence” that human-induced climate change has increased flooding globally. “Moreover, floods are strongly influenced by many human activities” that reduce water runoff—say, building more beach houses and shopping malls. That makes “the attribution of detected changes to climate change difficult.”

In announcing the IPCC’s new report, Rajendra Pachauri, the group’s chairman, expressed the wish that the science would speak for itself. “All we need is the will to change,” he said, “which we trust will be motivated by knowledge and an understanding of the science of climate change.” In truth, there’s little to suggest climate science will spark a revolution. Just days before the IPCC released its report, international climate negotiators meeting in Bonn failed to shake loose billions of dollars in climate aid from rich countries that agreed five years ago to provide it to poorer countries. This politicking will continue over the coming year and beyond, as negotiators jet around to more meetings intended to fight global warming, armed with the latest climate-science reports.