How will the urban poor cope with climate change?
If climate change will cause mass death all over the developing world, as now seems possible, what can be done now to prevent it?
Global greenhouse gas emissions keep rising. Yes, the world's poor would enjoy an improvement in their standard of living if climate change does not unfold. Climate change's blows will be less severe if we can restrain our GHG emissions. But, the free rider problem lurks and I predict that GHG emissions will continue to rise. Taking this as given, what happens next to the urban poor? Will there be mass death all over the developing world caused by climate change? If we anticipate that the answer is "maybe", what do we do now? Does this moral imperative nudge any swing voters to now support carbon regulation? I wish this was the case but I don't believe this. Self interest governs much of our behavior.Skip to next paragraph
Mathew is an economics professor at UCLA and has written three books: Green Cities (Brookings Institution Press); Heroes and Cowards (Princeton University Press, jointly with Dora L. Costa); and in fall 2010, Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter World (Basic Books).
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Some Climatopolis reviewers (see this example) have hinted that I lack a moral code for promoting an anti-poverty agenda for helping the poor to cope with climate change. Am I a "bad person"? I don't think so. I view people as self interested and taking actions that help them to achieve their goals. If we could engage in social engineering to change Rush Limbaugh's preferences then it would be easier to fight climate change but I don't believe that Rush will be operated upon by "green" doctors.
Climate change will not abruptly destroy our society in the next several decades. We have time to simultaneously seek out mitigation and adaptation strategies. Our science nerds will develop ways to uncouple energy production from greenhouse gas production. Our transportation fleet will swap out electric cars for gasoline cars. These mitigation efforts will help to attenuate the link between world GNP growth and world GHG growth. On the adaptation side, it is a fact that richer people will have an easier time adapting to climate change. They will have greater access to a variety of coping strategies ranging from migration, to the types of homes they live , to the types of products (air conditioners and electricity) that they can afford.
There are plenty of urban poor people in the world. If you want to protect them from climate change and if we are unable to solve the free rider problem (i.e signing a credible global Carbon Cap agreement), then the only way to protect the urban poor is to help them to grow richer. The logic is obvious. Go to China or India and you can meet 100s of millions of people who have been lifted out of poverty by embracing free markets , isn't this a success story? Climate change actually creates a moral imperative to embrace free markets and globalization. Consider the alternatives. Bill Gates is worth $50 billion dollars. If he gives it all way to every person on the planet, they would each receive $7. This is a silly example but my point is that private charity is not going to solve this problem. Skill development, education and integration into the world economy offers the urban poor their best start.
So again, here are my basic points;
1. climate change is a real threat that grows more scary the more CO2 we release
2. we are showing no signs of capping our CO2 emissions
3. given 1 and 2, we must prepare for climate change adaptation and out of self interest we have the right incentives to do so.
4. the poor have the least ability to cope with climate change
5. there is no law of physics that the poor must remain poor. The American Dream is playing out around the world and this should be celebrated and encouraged. We are not passive victims in the face of changing circumstances.
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