How the war on climate change slams the world’s poor

When a “solution” to a problem causes more damage than the problem, policymaking has gone awry. That’s where we often find ourselves with global warming today.

Activist organizations like Worldwatch argue that higher temperatures will make more people hungry, so drastic carbon cuts are needed. But a comprehensive new study published in Nature Climate Change led by researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis has found that strong global climate action would cause far more hunger and food insecurity than climate change itself.

The scientists used eight global-agricultural models to analyze various scenarios between now and 2050. These models suggest, on average, that climate change could put an extra 24 million people at risk of hunger. But a global carbon tax would increase food prices and push 78 million more people into risk of hunger. The areas expected to be most vulnerable are sub-Saharan Africa and India.

Trying to help 24 million people by imperiling 78 million people’s lives is a very poor policy.

We’ve heard similar stories before: In a few short decades, climate policy has often created more damage than the benefits it attempts to deliver.

Ten years ago, a biofuels craze swept rich countries with the full-throated support of green activists who hailed any shift away from fossil fuels. Food crops were replaced to produce ethanol, and the resulting spike in food prices forced at least 30 million people into poverty and 30 million more into hunger, according to UK charity ActionAid.

If we want to eradicate hunger, there are more effective ways. Around 800 million people are undernourished today, mostly because of poverty. The single most significant initiative that could be undertaken tomorrow is not a policy that slows the global economy, but one that cuts poverty: a global trade deal.

The Doha free-trade deal was allowed to collapse with just a fraction of the attention given to global climate-change negotiations.

Reviving Doha would lift an extra 145 million people out of poverty by 2030, according to research commissioned by Copenhagen Consensus. It could make the average person in the developing world $1,000 better off every year — allowing them to not only better feed themselves and their children, but also afford better health care, more education and lead more prosperous lives.

The EU’s climate policy under the Paris agreement, meanwhile, will realistically cost the bloc about $600 billion each year for the rest of the century, yet at best it delivers a trifling temperature reduction of just 0.09°F by the end of the century.

When comparing the massive cost with the slight delay in climate damage, each dollar spent delivers just three cents of climate benefits — i.e., lower hurricane damage, fewer heat waves, less agricultural stress.

Forcing poor countries to reduce emissions does even more harm, because cheap, abundant energy brings prosperity. Example: Activists argue Bangladesh should cut coal expansion. That would deliver global climate benefits worth nearly $100 million. But the forgone boost to the Bangladeshi economy would cost about $50 billion.

Aside from the immorality of obliging poor nations to avoid policies that would reduce poverty, the big problem with forcing carbon cuts is that green energy is not yet the savior that it is portrayed as.

Even after decades of heavy investment in subsidies to support green-energy production — costing more than $150 billion just this year — the International Energy Agency finds that wind provides just 0.6 percent of energy needs, and solar 0.2 percent.

By 2040, even if all of the grand promises in the Paris agreement on climate change were to be fulfilled (which seems unlikely), the IEA finds these figures will inch up to just 2.1 percent and 1.5 percent.

The flawed Paris agreement, which is the closest we have to a global scheme, will achieve at best merely 1 percent of what would be needed to keep temperature rises under 2°C, according to the UN. It’ll cost $1 trillion to $2 trillion annually. This is money that can’t be spent improving nutrition, health or education.

We need to get smarter about climate change. My think tank asked 27 top climate economists to explore all the feasible policy responses, and the conclusion was that the best long-term investment is in green energy R&D. For every dollar spent, $11 of climate damages would be avoided.

That makes much more sense than today’s climate approach, which mostly does more harm than good.

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