Those ignorant hippies at MIT have just published their new revised climate change projections in some crazy socialist peer-reviewed scientific journal, the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate. As Joe Romm summarizes, they’re projecting 5.1℃ average warming by 2095, with 12℃ at the poles and 866 ppm of CO2. (Via Kevin Drum.) That’s double their 2003 estimates, and it’s well above the catastrophic 450 ppm level and ultra-catastrophic 700 ppm limits people often refer to when they’re talking about the upper bound humanity can afford. (CO2 levels of 450 ppm probably mean “an ice-free planet”, according to a recent study by NASA and Yale authors.) The reasons: the carbon “sinks” are maxed out, and positive feedback loops are stronger than previously understood. Romm writes: “How could Greenland’s ice sheets possibly survive that?” Melting the Greenland ice sheet would raise global sea levels by 7 meters.
The latest fad among climate-change “skeptics” and “non-orthodox” thinkers has been to throw up one’s hands and declare that China, India and the rest of the developing world will never go along with serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, so there’s no point trying to stop the warming. We should just adapt. On another front, orthodox environmentalists are saying that China will never voluntarily go along with serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, so we should threaten them with trade sanctions.
I think this is wrong. Paul Krugman has talked to far more influential people in China than I have. But here in Vietnam, influential people are extremely worried about climate change and eager to participate in international efforts to slow it down. Climate change is spelling disaster for Vietnam, and people are already starting to feel it. A 1-meter sea level rise, which is now considered less than the mean forecast for 2100, would sink the entire Mekong Delta, which produces the overwhelming majority of rice in Vietnam — the world’s second-largest rice exporter. Rice producers are already suffering from salinization caused by rising sea levels, and fishing villages are caving into the sea. Typhoons have been unusually devastating in each of the past three years. Strange cold spells have hit the mountainous northern regions; in the winter of 2008 they had week-long frosts in areas where the temperature almost never falls below 0, killing water buffalo, wrecking the winter-spring rice crop, and threatening famine in remote regions.
These weather events are always covered in Vietnam’s press as effects of climate change. And politicians and the public are paying attention. A month ago at the press conference held by Sens. McCain, Graham and Klobuchar in Hanoi, the Vietnamese press didn’t ask a single question related to McCain’s Vietnam War experiences. They asked Klobuchar about references she’d made to anti-climate change cooperation. Three weeks ago I talked to the chairman of the relevant committee in the National Assembly, and he said Vietnam has to start setting CO2 emissions limits in accordance with international efforts. I asked what the benefits for Vietnam were — after all, Vietnam’s tiny $85 billion economy hardly has any influence on global climate change, and if the Mekong goes under it won’t be because of Vietnamese emissions. He said: If we expect the rest of the world to do anything about climate change, we have to show that we are doing our part.
Caveats: As a small country, Vietnam is exceptionally conscious of the need to cultivate international goodwill. And to some extent Vietnamese receptivity to action against greenhouse emissions benefits from the fact that the world’s biggest CO2 emitter is China (the ancient frienemy!). The nice talk on greenhouse-gas reductions hasn’t yet been matched by action, but that’s in part because the global community hasn’t really started to lay out terms yet for the developing world to take part. First, the US needs to get on board. But once the world’s leading developed economies can present a united front on the need to curb greenhouse emissions, I am dead sure that developing nations will get on board as well. And perhaps Krugman is right and China will be the last to come around. But come around it will.
First-world climate change skeptics and freethinkers who deny that third-world countries will reduce greenhouse emissions often make a big mistake: they conflate the interests and capabilities of individuals in the developing world with the interests and capabilities of developing-world governments. This comes out clearly in the Nordhaus and Shellenberger article referenced above. In much of the developing world — think sub-Saharan Africa — governments are weak, and so the fact that individual villagers aren’t going to stop using wood-burning cookstoves to save the planet really is the dominant factor. But developing-world governments like Vietnam and China, and increasingly Indonesia and Thailand and India, are not weak. They can act to fight perceived collective threats in ways that their individual citizens can’t. And when they do take action, their effectiveness can shock the world. In 2004, when avian influenza began cropping up in Southeast Asia, the widespread prediction was that it would be almost impossible for third-world governments to fight it; their farmers were too scattered and poor, they lived intimately with their animals, it was a cultural thing. Two years later, Vietnam was vaccinating every domestic fowl in the entire country. China has a similar capacity to effect staggering shifts in behavior on issues the government views as a national priority. The question is: does the government view global warming as a national priority? At the moment, no. But that is going to change. It’s going to change rapidly. And when it does, I firmly believe that the question will not be whether China can change its economy fast enough. The question will be whether the US can keep up.
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