Climate change is (mostly) a development problem

Tonight, I will be making my weekly radio column on CHOI Radio X on the issue of Canada withdrawing from the Kyoto protocol and how that might not be such a terrible outcome. I know this may sound outrageous, but there are costs and benefits to mitigating climate change and we should only mitigate to the extent that it yields net positive results. As for the rest, adaptation might be a better policy.

First of all, I must confess that even though some of you may have pegged me as a conservative and that by extension I must be a climate change “denier”, I do believe that climate change is real and that a large part of it must be caused by human action. However, to say that climate change is caused by humanity does not logically imply a blank cheque for environmental policy.

In fact, I am more optimistic in general than many pundits and academics and a thorough reading of history can only give us an amazing appreciation of how ressourceful humanity is when it needs to adapt.  The dykes in the Netherlands (built well during the late Medieval age) or along the Thames in London are testimony of how humanity can adapt and shield themselves to variations in the natural environment. But adaptation is dependent on the amount of ressources that you might spend at low cost to protect yourself. Hence, the richer a society is, the easier the burden of adaptation is (especially if you account for discounting).

This is why the problems of climate change are mostly by-products of underdevelopment (yes I used that dirty word, no need for political correctness). For example, in a review of the academic litterature on climate change in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Richard Tol looks which regions of our planet are the hardest hit. Unsurprisingly, the most industrialized and richest societies suffer very little, Eastern Europe and Russia are often net benefactors and those who bear the brunt of the pain are countries in Africa for whom climate change would be disastrous. Just look at the table reproduced from Tol’s work to see it.


Problems of water scarcity, increased malaria prevalance, reduced growth, increased poverty and mass migration (climate refugees) can all be settled by economic growth and wealth accumulation. As these countries grow richer, it will be easier for them to fight malaria with good hospitalization and proper healthcare systems, it will be easier to battle water scarcity if corporations can use capital markets to invest in water recuperation technologies and water conservation techniques for their own profits. It will also be easier to spend ressources on creating the necessary infrastructures to mitigate the effects of extreme weather events (hurricanes, floods etc.).

Hence, maybe spending less ressources on mitigating climate change might not be that farcical of a policy decision especially when there are tradeoffs to be made in order to get the best outcome with the least inputs.

6 thoughts on “Climate change is (mostly) a development problem

  1. I agree with your argument but to an extent: it is important to remember that most of poor states are more vulnerable to climate change effects primarily due to their geographical location, not due to “under-development”. It is obviously easier to cope with catastrophic floods or drains if you are better-off economically but I think geography is crucial here, not economics. As an example, let’s take an abstract small island in Oceania which, let’s imagine, is very well developed and wealthy. If the sea level increases by a few meters, all the wealth will not save it as it goes under water. I might sound deterministic but I do believe that climate change for LDCs is about being unlucky enough to be located where they are. And economic issues add to that.
    PS Greetings from Rome:)

  2. I would also agree with the main thrust of your argument – that climate change is (mostly) a development problem. However, Katia makes a good point about geography. We should also keep in mind that *un-mitigated* climate change will lead to very dramatic changes that may be more difficult to adapt to than you seem to suggest. There is a worthwhile debate needed over the appropriate amount of mitigation and the balance between mitigation and adaptation (which from a developing country’s point of view, basically amounts to development). I’ve written about this issue in more detail on my blog: http://nottheconventionalwisdom.blogspot.com/2011/10/winning-battle-with-climate-change.html

  3. Hello Katia,

    Greetings from London! Well, true there are some “unlucky” country for whom investing for adaptation might not be affordable, but one should wonder the extents at which migration with compensation would be a cheaper policy. We have to balance costs and benefits and I don’t mean to sound chalice, but spending hundreds of billions of dollars to save to protect some country-islands with less than 1 million inhabitants does not sound like a reasonable policy. As for most other LDCs, most of the adaptation can be done normally like Europe has dealt with the Medieval Warm Age and the later Little Ice Age. If I can allow myself a Star Trek quote, Humanity can more easily adapt than the Borg, history is a good witness of this capability. Most policy decisions ought to be taken in consideration of reducing adaptation costs rather than mitigating climate change (for example: end the subsidization of country houses on the beach).

    Richard: Indeed, but as I remember correctly from Fagan’s history of the Little Ice Age, the dikes were well completed by the end of the Medieval Warm Age (around 1250 if I am not mistaken).

    Tom: I am not wholly convinced by the need for a great amount of mitigation as I have indicated to Katia. First of all, let us remove the worst case scenarios from our minds because they will likely not occur and even if they did, the mitigation policy would not make a dent in that trend (in short, if the end of the world, why not just look busy). All the medium scenarios do not imply a massive cost for developed countries (we should use them as benchmark for hypothetically developped LDCs), they are either midly beneficial or midly detrimental. If climate change was an exogenous shock happening all of the sudden, then my opinion might be different, but it is a slow phenomenum and people living on seasides will realize this, migration will occur inland or they will even be investments for adaptation which are not that hard to make. For example, Venice which is barely a few meters above sea level, is developping an impressive flood control system to protect the city from changes in sea level (http://www.stormchaser.ca/flooding/venice/venice_flood_control.html). For a city as wealthy as Venice, an investment of a few billions euros (4.2 if my memory is correct) in top-edge technology is quite small relative to the cost/benefit ratio of Venitians contributing their “fair share” of climate change mitigation. But please don’t get me wrong, I am not a climate skeptic!

  4. @Vincent
    The Westfriese Omringdijk was completed around 1250. It was the first complete dike system. The dikes were weak, though, and frequently breached. It was only 600 years later that you could feel reasonably safe behind a dike.

  5. Interesting, maybe there is research to do on adaptation costs on an historical perspectives to draw policy lessons with regards to climate change, maybe we could chat via email and see if there is a common interest in the longer run (v.geloso@lse.ac.uk)

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