Economic Costs and Disaster Risks of a Warming World Are Detailed in a British Government Report

When the world’s governments meet in early November in Nairobi, they are to consider the next steps—beyond the Kyoto Protocol---in the halting struggle against climate change. The conference—the 12th session of the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention—comes against the backdrop of rising carbon emissions, global temperatures that continue to set new records, and a growing appreciation of the economic costs and disaster risks of inaction.

On October 30, 2006, a new report to the British government—the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change—lent additional weight to the chorus of warnings against complacency. It is named after Sir Nicholas Stern, Head of the Government Economics Service and Adviser to the Government on the economics of climate change and development. The Stern report notes that preventive and adaptive action is far cheaper, and far preferable, to the prevailing pattern of inaction. It warns that humanity risks “major disruption to economic and social activity, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century.” The report points out that the costs of extreme weather—floods, droughts and storms—are already rising, for all of humanity.

But “the most vulnerable—the poorest countries and populations—will suffer earliest and most, even though they have contributed least to the causes of climate change.” High rainfall variability, heavy dependence on agriculture (the most climate-sensitive of all economic sectors), and low incomes make adaptation to climate change particularly difficult for poor countries. Global warming entails a substantially elevated risk of unprecedented disasters and the possibility that abrupt and large-scale changes might be triggered:

  • Melting glaciers increase flood risk and strongly reduce water supplies. Eventually, one-sixth of the world’s population—predominantly in the Indian sub-continent, parts of China, and the Andes in South America—will be at risk.
  • Sudden shifts in regional weather patterns such as the monsoon rains in South Asia or the El Ni–o phenomenon would have severe consequences for water availability and would threaten the livelihoods of millions of people.
  • Declining crop yields, especially in Africa, could leave hundreds of millions of people without the ability to produce or purchase sufficient food.
  • The Amazon rainforest could be subject to significant drying.
  • Rising sea levels will result in tens to hundreds of millions more people flooded each year. Risks will be particularly pronounced for low-lying coastal areas of South East Asia, small islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific, and several coastal cities.
  • By the middle of this century, 200 million people may become permanently displaced due to rising sea levels, heavier floods, and more intense droughts. Such displacements could well spark violent conflicts.

Less than a month before the Stern report’s release, Australia’s leading scientific body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, warned that millions of people in the Asia-Pacific region could become homeless by 2070 due to rising sea levels. CSIRO named Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, China, and the Pacific islands as being most at risk. In addition to sea-level rise, warming trends also threaten to cause more severe tropical storms and heavier downpours during summer monsoons. Rising sea levels and increased rainfall in turn would spread infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.