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Vulnerability and Inequality

Dave Roberts has a post up arguing that environmentalists need to rethink their focus on greenhouse gas emission reductions as a strategy for combatting the disastrous effects of climate change. Based on a paper by Roger Pielke Jr. and Daniel Sarewitz, he argues that it would be more cost-effective to focus on reducing people's vulnerability to climate.

I agree that vulnerability reduction needs to be a central part of our climate change strategy -- if for no other reason than that the political prospects of meaningful greenhouse gas reduction are so discouraging. Vulnerability has been overlooked too often, I think, because 1) it's studied by social scientists, who lack the credibility and clout of the natural scientists who study climate change dynamics*, 2) it doesn't fit as nicely into the technocratic "fix the environment" orientation of government problem-solving, and 3) it doesn't support environmentalists' favored narrative of "nature being destroyed by humans" -- indeed, it seems to reflect a "humans at the mercy of cruel nature" narrative that's often blamed for environmental destruction.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to keep greenhouse gas reductions as a key part of the strategy as well. On a purely tactical level, much groundwork for raising public consciousness about the need to reduce emissions has already been done, whereas getting people interested in vulnerability reduction would have huge up-front costs. Commenters in Roberts's post raise some other issues, such as the fact that vulnerability reduction won't save wild organisms and ecosystems, which are also threatened by climate change.

The concern that occurred to me is international inequality. Basically, emissions reductions are a common good, while vulnerability reduction is a private good. While the impacts of climate change on different countries are substantially different even if we hold vulnerability constant, climate change is a worldwide package deal. A ton of carbon emitted by the US is not going to raise only the US's temperature. It goes into a global carbon bank that affects the whole world's climate. This is a major political hurdle, as negotiations over emissions reduction are plagued by collective action problems. Nevertheless, whatever reductions are made will benefit the whole world.

On the other hand, vulnerability reduction is a private good. If the US were to, say, change its tax laws to encourage people to live farther inland so as not to be so vulnerable to sea level rise, that would help only Americans -- Bangladeshis would still be living next to the ocean. In general terms, the countries that are most at risk from climate change are those with the least resources to reduce their vulnerability.

The obvious rejoinder here is that rich countries should finance vulnerability reduction in poor countries. Indeed they should. However, there are severe political and practical limits to how much that can accomplish. Politically, rich countries are simply not willing to devote much of their GDP to foreign aid. Practically, foreign aid can only do so much. The resources that are needed for vulnerability reduction are not simply financial. They're cultural, political, administrative, economic, and social as well. We can't build those resources in other countries simply by dumping money (and alien expertise) on them. Sixty years of "development" projects have shown that it's exceedingly difficult to use standard foreign aid policies to improve living conditions in poorer nations. Change needs to be deeply woven into the structure of society, not bought by an outsider. The prospects of the first world shifting to a radically new development paradigm in time to save poorer countries from the impacts of climate change are even more laughable than the prospects of drastically ramping up foreign aid money.

*Of course, social science is a necessary part of this researach too, though too often overlooked.


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