Opinion

What happens if we assume climate change is caused by humans?

Posted August 4

This is a column for everyone. I am writing for those who believe that climate change has been produced by humans, for those who do not believe that climate change is human-produced, and for those who do not believe that the climate is changing. I just ask that you assume, for the moment, that the climate is changing and that it is people in the countries in the middle to top end of the development spectrum who have mostly caused the change.

It seems fairly apparent that some countries are more vulnerable than others. The United Nations Development Program found that Bangladesh is the nation most vulnerable to cyclones and sixth most vulnerable to floods. Close to 300 extreme natural disasters have hit Bangladesh since 1991.

Why is Bangladesh so prone to climate change disasters? About 80 percent of its landmass consists of fertile alluvial lowland soil, slightly above sea level, and 10 percent is actually below sea level. These characteristics make it ideal for growing rice but also make it susceptible to floods. In the event of a major inundation, 47 percent of the population could be affected, since they make their livings from agriculture.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that by 2050, 17 percent of Bangladesh could be under water, displacing more than 20 million people. Moreover, according to the World Bank, 40 percent of the productive land could be lost to a 65 cm (2.2 foot) sea level rise by the 2080s.

Bangladesh is not only vulnerable because of its geography, but also because of its poor economy. More than 50 million people live in extreme poverty, out of 150 million. Moreover, 43 percent of the population live on less than $1.90/day, and up to 77 percent live on less than $3.10.

Data from the Bangladeshi government state that Cyclone Sidr, which struck the country in 2007, had waves of up to six meters high (19.7 feet), flooding more than 40 percent of Bangladesh. A total of 2.3 million households were affected, 3,406 people were killed, and 55,000 were injured. The economic devastation was valued at $1.7 billion: 7 percent of the country’s economy disappeared overnight. Cyclones stronger than Sidr are expected by 2050 if climate change is not addressed, according to the World Bank.

Do we in significantly developed countries have a responsibility to Bangladesh, assuming the sea rises?

Here is my take. We do have a responsibility. Moreover, assuming that climate change intensifies, not only Bangladesh will suffer, but other nations will do so as well. Simply put, a 1.2-foot sea rise would affect at least 84 countries.

Those living in the U.S. have for generations lived on the forefront of technological innovation and action against world threats. Assuming climate change is caused mostly by those in richer countries, Americans have an opportunity and an obligation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (CO2), which is one of climate change’s main fuels. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, America is the second largest CO2 producer, contributing 16 percent of worldwide emissions, behind only China, which produces 28 percent.

Moreover, the U.S. Global Change Research Program found that, because more than 53 million people live in coastal areas in the nation, a two-foot rise in the sea level by the end of the century would cause $4.7 trillion of property damage in the U.S.

So, again assuming that climate change exists and is largely caused by humans, the U.S. would help itself, as well as help Bangladesh, by making basic changes — using renewable energy, power-saving electronics, smaller cars and public transportation.

John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. Mario Alejandro Mercado Mendoza did the research for this article.

John Hoffmire teaches at SaÏd Business School at the University of Oxford.

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