John Quiggin in Aeon:
Even to those who are thoroughly inured to warnings of impending catastrophe, the World Bank’s recent report on climate change, Turn Down the Heat (November, 2012), made for alarming reading. Looking at the consequences of four degrees of global warming, a likely outcome under current trajectories, the Bank concludes that the full scope of damage is almost impossible to project. Even so, it states: ‘The projected impacts on water availability, ecosystems, agriculture, and human health could lead to large-scale displacement of populations and have adverse consequences for human security and economic and trade systems.’ Among the calamities anticipated in the paper are large-scale dieback in the Amazon, the collapse of coral reef systems and the subsistence fishing communities that depend on them, and sharp declines in crop yields.
By contrast, most of us are already inured to the continuing catastrophe reported in the Bank’s annual World Development Report. Hundreds of millions of people go hungry every day. Tens of millions die every year from easily treatable or preventable diseases. Uncontrolled climate change could produce more crop failures and famines, and spread diseases and the pests that cause them even more widely.
Economic development and technological progress provide the only real hope of lifting billions of people out of poverty and destitution, just as it has done for the minority in the developed world. Yet the living standards of the developed world have been built on cheap energy from carbon-based fossil fuels. If everyone in the world used energy as Americans or even Europeans do, it would be impossible to restrict climate change to even four degrees of warming.
For those of us who seek a better life for everybody, the question of how much our environment can withstand is crucial. If current First World living standards can’t safely be extended to the rest of the world, the future holds either environmental catastrophe or an indefinite continuation of the age-old struggle between rich and poor. Of course, it might hold both.