Development Roast

Reducing Vulnerability to Climate Change: Mitigation, Development or Migration

Most humans have a preference for temperatures around 20°C. If the climate is hotter, they use air-conditioners to bring down the temperature, and if it is colder, they use heating systems to increase the temperature.

Except the poor, who cannot afford air-conditioners and heating systems. They just have to accept the climate as it is, and accept the resulting inconveniences in terms of increased mortality and decreased productivity. Especially if they are too poor to move to a place with a better climate.

If temperate climates are more conducive to human development than either too cold or too hot climates, then the relationship between temperature and development must look something like the following:

Figure 1: Theoretical relationship between temperature and development

Given this relationship, rich countries/persons are relatively insensitive to climate change (the slope of the temperature-development curve at the maximum is flat) while the poor are very sensitive to climate change (the slopes at the extremes are steep).

In this framework, there are three basic ways to reduce poor people's vulnerability to climate change:

1) You can try to prevent climate change,

2) You can help people move to regions with more suitable climates, or

3) You can help people in cold and hot climates increase their incomes, so that they can buy air-conditioners, heating systems, mosquito nets and other things that would help them deal with sub-optimal climates. You can also help them become better educated, so that they can engage in economic activities that are less climate sensitive than agriculture. This essentially means flattening the curve, so that nobody will be very sensitive to climate change (and nobody will be very poor).

Reducing the sensitivity to climate change even at extreme climates is possible as evidenced by the success of many countries or cities located in very adverse climates. Las Vegas, Dubai and Qatar, for example, are all doing great despite hot desert climates, while Alaska, Canada, Finland, and Norway are all doing considerably better than you would have thought possible given their icy cold, dark winters.

The US has almost completely flattened its relationship between temperature and income across states (see Figure 2). Although the extremely high levels of incomes in Washington D.C. does pull up the average for mid-range temperatures, both the coldest state (Alaska) and the warmest (Hawaii) belong to the wealthiest half of all states (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Empirical relationship between temperature and income in the US, by state
Source: Author's elaboration based on data from 1 and 2 .

Thus, climate is clearly not destiny.

Of the three options for reducing vulnerability to climate change, two can be applied at the individual level. Option number 1 is clearly not feasible, as no individual can control the climate. Option number 2 works well if you live in a big country with large variations in climate (if you get tired of the climate in Chicago, you can move to Florida), but if you live in a small country that is invariably hot, then the restrictions on international migration sometimes makes it difficult to employ this option. At the individual level, option number 3 involves actions to reduce your vulnerability to climatic extremes. For example, acquiring education to avoid working the land in the hot sun, building your house with attention to the climate, install a shower, so that you don't have to bathe in a mosquito infested pond, etc.

Option number 1 is only possible at the collective level, as it would require a tremendous concerted global effort. I seriously doubt it is at all possible, however. The climate has always changed and will always change, no matter what we do. We may be able to nudge the climate in one direction or the other, but then some natural event (like a volcanic eruption,a change in solar activity, or even a supernova thousands of light-years away) will come along and push us away from the "normal" level that we fought so hard to reach.

At the collective level, option number 3 is called development (or development aid, depending on your perspective), and it has been practiced with varying degrees of success ranging from spectacular to disappointing. In cases of rapid development (like much of Asia), this is a very effective mechanism for reducing people's vulnerability to climate change.

In places where development has proven elusive despite the best of efforts, something else is necessary. We are here talking mostly about sub-Saharan Africa, but could also include the Bolivian Altiplano. In these places the climates are so far from optimal that just maintaining the present climate would do little in terms of reducing climate stress. We can keep trying option 3 until we either find a way that works or finally conclude that sustained development in these areas is impossible.

Alternatively, we can resort to option 2: Help people move away from places where they seem to be doomed to poverty and misery no matter how the global climate changes. This is not that difficult, and the process wouldn't have to be rushed. Mostly it would just require refraining from obstructing these people's voluntary attempts to move. Certainly this option seems more feasible than controlling the planet's climate.

Still, development would be my first choice as a mechanism of reducing vulnerability to climate change because it has so many positive side-effects apart from reducing climate sensitivity.

How can we reduce vulnerability to climate change? Leave your reply below.

Lykke Andersen is the Director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.