Climate change will not be the century’s most urgent environmental problem

Cato scholar counsels adaptation, not mitigation

February 5, 2008

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WASHINGTON — Climate change is expected to exacerbate a variety of environmental and human health problems. Does this mean we should make sacrifices now to prevent it?  In the Cato Institute policy analysis “What to Do about Climate Change,” Indur Goklany, author of The Improving State of the World, argues that other, non-climate factors will have a much greater impact on human well-being. Therefore our best option is to address these problems directly and promote the economic growth that will allow us to adapt to them in the future.

Using these projections, Goklany shows that human health and environmental quality will be better in a richer, warmer world than in a poorer, cooler one. “That’s primarily because wealth creation, human capital, and new or improved technologies often reduce the extent of the human health and environmental ‘bads’ associated with climate change more than temperature increases exacerbate them,” Goklany says.

Goklany’s data come from the U.K. Department of Environment’s “fast-track assessment” and the famous Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.

Three of the major problems expected to be worsened by climate change are malaria, hunger, and coastal flooding. Holding atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at 1990 levels would cost more than $165 billion annually, yet address just 4-10% of the mortality associated with these threats. In contrast, Goklany says, “At a cost of less than $34 billion per year, focused adaptation would deliver far greater benefits than would even halting climate change. Moreover, it would do so at one fifth the cost of the ineffectual Kyoto Protocol.”

“In light of the benefits associated with focused adaptation and sustainable development, the most cost-effective and comprehensive policies to address climate change in the near-to-medium term will eschew direct greenhouse gas emission controls,” Goklany concludes. “Instead, policymakers should work to enhance adaptation and promote economic development.”