Friday, March 09, 2007

The wrong way to think about climate change impact

An excellent example of the wrong way to think about the future of climate change appears on the cover of this month's Atlantic. Gregg Easterbrook addresses the important topic of who will be the winners and losers in climate change. But his approach to answering that question goes dramatically astray because of a basic methodological flaw: he starts his impact analysis by looking at the change to the weather (which he reduces to "warmer everywhere," ignoring regional variations and the perhaps even more important hydrological shifts that climate change will produce), thereby ignoring the crucial question of which places are in the best position to adapt to the changes in the weather. He simply assumes that all places are equally well positioned to respond to increases in temperature, concluding that places that are already really hot are going to be in trouble, whereas places that are currently cold are going to be better off.

The point is clearest in his discussion of how climate change may impact the price of Russian real estate:

Russia! For generations poets have bemoaned this realm as cursed by enormous, foreboding, harsh Siberia. What if the region in question were instead enormous, temperate, inviting Siberia? Climate change could place Russia in possession of the largest new region of pristine, exploitable land since the sailing ships of Europe first spied the shores of what would be called North America. The snows of Siberia cover soils that have never been depleted by controlled agriculture. What’s more, beneath Siberia’s snow may lie geologic formations that hold vast deposits of fossil fuels, as well as mineral resources. When considering ratification of the Kyoto Protocol to regulate greenhouse gases, the Moscow government dragged its feet, though the treaty was worded to offer the Russians extensive favors. Why might this have happened? Perhaps because Russia might be much better off in a warming world: Warming’s benefits to Russia could exceed those to all other nations combined.

This is a classic statement of linear reasoning about the impact of climate change: Russia's problem is that it's too cold; ergo, in a hotter world, Russia becomes a nicer place. It's also a dramatically wrong conclusion.

The main determinant of the price of real estate is whether the property is located in a place that is nice to live, to vacation, to extract resources, or to farm. A huge determining factor for that "niceness" is whether the place has effective and reliable vital systems -- e.g., energy generation and distribution; telecommunications; water supply; food production and distribution; public health; transportation systems (fuel supply, railway network, airports); and security services (police, military). All of these vital systems are liable to be put under severe stress by climate change. To determine which places are likely to win or lose as the climate changes, you need to start by figuring out the places that have the most resilient vital systems.

Although Russian elites may find it convenient, given their grand strategy of wielding influence by controlling global hydrocarbon supply, to tell themselves that a warmer Russia is a better Russia, the sad truth is that climate change is likely to be disastrous for the country, given the awful state of many of its vital systems. Food production and distribution is tenuous, public security is awful, and the health care system has already cratered. Do you really think a place like that is likely to be the site of a great property boom? Is a Siberian steppe which is again a malarial swamp going to be a good place to buy real estate? Is a place where the rich can't walk down the street without a bodyguard really going to replace St.Tropez as a destination of choice? Is a place where the aquifers have been destroyed likely to be the world's next great breadbasket?

1 comment:

zachawry said...

(Think my first comment got lost...)

Although I think you are on the money when it comes to viewing climate change through the lenses of non-linear change and infrastructural ability to cope, I don't think your Siberian example does you much good. Any opportunities like a newly verdant Siberia would likely eventually bring up the infrastructure needed for development in a virtuous circle.

You would be more persuasive to cite locations where a slight climatic change for the worse would result in catastrophic effects because of infrastructure issues.