Accessibility links

Top Environmental Economist says Next US Administration must Focus on Climate Change - PART 3 of 5

A top environmental expert in America is advising the next president of the US to put a high priority on efforts to deal with global warming. David Wheeler is a senior fellow at a leading US think tank, the Center for Global Development (CGD). He says Africa will be at the center of American attempts in the future to lessen the damage done by climate change. Wheeler maintains that the response to global warming and environmental degradation represents an “opportunity for greatness” for the new man in the Oval Office.

Wheeler says the new president “can’t afford to waste a minute” as the world continues to slide towards what could be “environmental disaster” in the near future.

“We have very few more years, at this rate, before we will probably go past an irreversible tipping point to lead to enormous increases in global temperatures and probably a series of environmental catastrophes. So this is really the time we need to move,” says the specialist in environmental economics, climate change and natural resource conservation.

Wheeler’s conducted his research and led projects throughout the developing world, including in sub-Saharan Africa. He says developing countries are “critical” to US engagement relating to global warming.

He warns that even if the US and other developed nations were to “very aggressively” lower their carbon emissions and could even drive their carbon output “down near zero,” emissions from developing countries are “growing so quickly that within about 20 years, we would have the same climate crisis occurring. Without addressing the problem in developing countries, we have very little hope of solving the global problem.”

Agricultural crisis looms in Africa

Wheeler forecasts several “critical effects” of “unchecked” global warming. At the forefront, he says, “which relates centrally to the problem of poverty,” is agriculture.

“Agriculture is key; we foresee big problems here unless measures are taken…. As climate changes, as the atmosphere heats up and as rainfall patterns change, the anticipated effect on agriculture in poor countries will be devastating in many cases.”

Recent research into agriculture and global warming by one of Wheeler’s colleagues at the CGD, William Cline, found that agricultural output on the Indian subcontinent would drop by about 40 per cent by 2070 as a direct result of climate change.

“This is really unimaginably large, and obviously in the context of India, this would be terrifically tragic. One sees similar numbers in Africa,” Wheeler warns.

He says rising temperatures will also cause sea levels to rise, although he acknowledges that this phenomenon is “more contentious because we’re not quite sure at what speed ice caps may break up. The consensus (though) among scientists keeps advancing the time forward when we will start to experience critical problems with sea level rise.”

Wheeler says many scientists agree that within this century, “we may see a meter of sea level rise.” If this is combined with “storm surges,” he explains, that means an “enormous number of people – in the many tens of millions in coastal populations in poor countries – will be subject to recurrent flooding and disastrous conditions over the next half-century to three-quarter century.”

But there are skeptics who take issue with Wheeler’s dire predictions and who assert that he’s exaggerating the problem of global warming. These more conservative elements are concerned that under a new administration, US government environmental protection agencies will “over-regulate” and impose a plethora of new taxes on Americans. They point to evidence that appears to cast doubt on the phenomenon of global warming, and say laws limiting carbon emissions will double gas prices and raise the price of electricity in the US by as much as six-fold.

The conservative Heritage Foundation has released a study it says shows that proposed limits on carbon emissions will reduce US GDP by almost seven trillion dollars over the next 20 years and lead to almost three million lost jobs and great harm to the US economy.

The disadvantages of so-called clean energy, they argue, outweigh the benefits of such a program.

Clean energy revolution

But Wheeler maintains that the US must lead what he terms a “clean energy revolution” if the world is to save itself from environmental disaster.

undertaken in renewable energy – solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and so forth – energy sources that are really independent of fossil fuels, that have low or even zero carbon emissions.”

Wheeler acknowledges, though, that the investments required for renewable sources of energy are at the moment too expensive for developing countries. The new president, he says, will have to support these nations’ efforts to be more environmentally friendly.

“The common problem is to change the relative price of renewable energy so that it’s cheaper than coal and other fossil fuels. Once that is done, the private sector will be able to take over and make the requisite investments.”

He explains that richer countries have the resources to enable them to implement laws that effectively regulate carbon emissions and have the effect of “making fossil fuels like coal more expensive.”

But Wheeler says poorer countries generally don’t have the necessary institutions and/or resources to enable them to enforce such regulations.

“Therefore in developing countries one needs to look at the other side of the equation: If we can’t make carbon more expensive, can we make renewable energy cheaper?”

This, Wheeler stresses, is possible through a “focused program of investment…. through multilateral development banks and other aid agencies – on the renewable (and clean) energy sources whose costs can be driven down to competitiveness with coal and other fossil fuels very quickly.”

Washington must engage Africa to fight climate change

He calls on the next president to provide incentives to African countries to support them to switch to producing cleaner energy. This, Wheeler states, will have the added benefit of helping Africa conserve its forests, many of which are being cut down at a rapid rate by timber companies and poor people who need wood to sell for income, as well as to build houses and burn for heating and cooking purposes.

Wheeler explains, “In Africa, south-east Asia and Latin America, we have a similar problem. In the whole central tropical belt of forest, we have an enormous stock of carbon locked up in those trees. As people clear the land, as population grows and as people exploit this new resource, they clear forest and burn the wood and release all that carbon into the atmosphere. This represents a very substantial chunk of total emissions of carbon. At this point in our history, globally, probably about 20 per cent of the total. So one certainly needs to address that.”

But he acknowledges that the US will in future have to be “very sensitive to the problem of poverty. People who are clearing these forests are doing so because they’re (poor)…. It makes sense (at this point in time for them) to convert forest to other uses.”

Wheeler says, “If the (richer) countries are serious about trying to reduce emissions from deforestation, the key is to develop a program that will actually pay the developing countries to conserve those forests, at a rate commensurate with the value of that land and other uses.”

He adds that while the World Bank is undertaking such a program, its funding is “still rather modest.” However, Wheeler adds, “most of the people who have analyzed the relative costs of controlling carbon emissions have concluded that such a program would represent a bargain and should be pursued, because it is relatively cheap to pay the cost that would compensate people for not deforesting.”

Rich countries should ‘compensate’ developing countries

Some developing countries have said their continued progress depends to a large degree on further industrialization, on building more factories, and so on, and therefore probably harming the world around them in order to lift themselves out of poverty. This, they emphasize, is exactly the path that has enabled developed countries like the US to become rich. They say it would be hypocritical of the wealthy nations to now demand that Africa, for example, stop its industrialization.

Wheeler’s response is emphatic.

“I think those arguments (by developing countries) are correct. The developed countries (have) really contributed by far the most to the current loading of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. One has to acknowledge that. There is no way that one can expect poor countries to suffer additional cost for making this transition, if…developed countries are not themselves willing to incur such costs.”

He says rich countries will simply have to compensate developing countries that “undertake a clean development path for the difference in the cost between the path that they would undertake otherwise – that is to say a path intensive in the combustion of fossil fuels or forests – and a path that would be cleaner. The latter is unquestionably more costly.”

Wheeler says the “critical policy problem” that the world, and the new US president, will face over the next few years will be “to organize a system of financial flows to cover that additional cost so that in fact developing countries can choose the clean path without sacrificing development.”

He says the first step the next American administration must take with regard to global warming is “absolutely clear: In the United States we must pass meaningful carbon regulation that sets a substantial price for carbon and begins to create incentives for us to switch from dirty to clean fuels in the power sector and other sectors.”

Wheeler maintains that if the US does not do this, it will have “no credibility” in the eyes of the rest of the world at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in November 2009.

“We will be unable to persuade developing countries to undertake any (carbon) limitations if we are not ourselves willing to do that.”