The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 87.0°F | Mostly Cloudy

Global Warming Threatens Third World Nations Most

Column by Scott Paradise

Episcopal Chaplain

Jesse Ausubel's year-old article in Nature seems to offer some comfort to those worrying about long-term impacts of global climate change. He offers a succession of historical examples, most from the past 150 years, of how societies have been able to, with the use of technology, adapt to all kinds of climates. If climactic changes destroy nearby farmland, transportation technology makes it possible to bring food from afar. If fish stocks are depleted, fish-farming can make up the loss. With air-conditioned buildings and cars, summer living in Houston is comfortable. With irrigation we have made deserts bloom. With central heating and special walkways people can do their business comfortably in downtown Minneapolis while the outside temperature is many degrees below zero.

He points out that historically the development and deployment of new technology and the replacement of capital stock takes place at a fast enough pace in the normal run of things to keep ahead of the exigencies of projected global climate change. In sum, the message of the recent historical record suggests that we can continue with business as usual regardless of the prospects of global climate change because for us overall, climate no longer matters.

The dark side of this is only hinted at in the words: "Cities in developing countries, which are often in difficult climates to begin with and face worsening problems of urban pollution, may well lack the resources to apply such technologies to raise or maintain the quality of life in the face of changing climate." If, for example, the government is hard-put to find enough water for toilets for the twenty million inhabitants of Mexico City even without climate change, what happens if the climate becomes dryer and the rural poor seeking refuge continue to pour into the city? How can the millions of subsistence farmers in Africa find the capital to import food when desertification robs them of their livelihood? How can the poor of Bangladesh afford to construct the dikes necessary to keep the sea from flooding their low-lying land if climate change results in the rise of global sea levels?

The developed countries, which contain a minority of the world's population, account for 72 percent of current fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions and 84 percent of fossil fuel carbon dioxide accumulated since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, according to one study. Even taking deforestation and land-use changes into account, developed countries account for 63 percent of current and 78 percent of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions from all sources.

While the developed countries, with their relatively small populations, have produced most of the carbon dioxide which produces global climate change, they also have benefited most from the production of carbon dioxide and have the resources to protect themselves from the consequences of climate change.

The developing countries, on the other hand, with their large and rapidly growing populations, have less responsibility for causing global climate change, have received fewer benefits from the production of carbon dioxide, and have fewer resources to protect themselves from the consequences of the resulting climate change.

Climate may no longer matter to most people in the developed nations. But for them to continue with economic practices and lifestyles which will accelerate global climate change could well be catastrophic for the people in the developing world. In view of this fact, for the governments of the developed world to continue business as usual is flagrantly unjust. For them, not even trying to reduce emissions responsible for global warming seems wicked.