Kyoto’s Misplaced Priorities

When the Kyoto treaty enters into force on February 16, the global warming community will undoubtedly congratulate itself: to do good they have secured the most expensive worldwide treaty ever. They have succeeded in making global warming a central moral test of our time. They were wrong to do so.

Global warming is real and is caused by emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). But existing climate models show we can do little about it. Even if everyone (including the United States) applied the Kyoto rules and stuck to them throughout the century, the change would be almost immeasurable, postponing warming for a mere six years in 2100 while costing at least $150 billion a year.

Global warming will mainly harm developing countries, because they are poorer and therefore less able to handle climate changes. However, by 2100, even the most pessimistic forecasts from the UN expect the average person in the developing countries to be richer than now, and thus better able to cope.

So Kyoto is basically a costly way of doing little for much richer people far in the future. We need to ask ourselves if this should be our first priority.

Of course, in the best of all worlds, we would not need to choose our priorities. We could do all good things. We could win the war against hunger, end conflicts, stop communicable diseases, provide clean drinking water, improve education and halt climate change. But we can’t do everything. So we must ask the hard question: what should we do first?

Some of the world’s top economists – including three Nobel Laureates – answered this question at the Copenhagen Consensus last May. They found that dealing with HIV/AIDS, hunger, free trade, and malaria were the world’s top priorities, where we could do the most good for our money. Moreover, they put urgent responses to climate change at the bottom of the list. In fact, the panel called these ventures – including Kyoto – “bad projects,” because they cost more than the good they do.

As the economics of climate change has become ever clearer, warnings from the global warming community have become shriller. For example, the head of the UN Climate Panel says, “We are risking the ability of the human race to survive.”

Such statements make headlines, but they are nonsense. For example:

· At a recent meeting at Exeter in the UK, some participants warned of a 50-50 chance that the Gulf Stream winds could collapse within a century. Such a scenario looks great in the movie “The Day After Tomorrow,” but it is unsubstantiated. As one presenter at the conference summarized: “No models have shown a complete shutdown, or a net cooling over land areas. Hence a shutdown during the twenty-first century is regarded as unlikely.”

· Recently, a coalition of prominent environmental and development organizations claimed that malaria would increase in a warmer world. This has some theoretical validity, but ignores malaria’s dependence on poor infrastructure and health care. Indeed, throughout the cold 1500-1800’s, malaria was a major disease in Europe, the US, and far into the Arctic Circle. Malaria infections didn’t end because it got colder (it actually got warmer), but because Europe and the US got rich and dealt with the problem. With developing countries getting richer over the century, malaria is similarly likely to decrease rather than increase.

· We are told that sea levels will rise – by roughly 50 centimeters by 2100 in some scenarios. This is correct, and it will clearly cause problems in low-lying countries like Bangladesh. But the alarmists neglect to mention that sea levels rose through the twentieth century by 10-25 centimeters. Did anyone notice? The rise in the twenty-first century will be worse and should not be trivialized, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the total cost of adaptation will be around 0.1% of GDP.

The “end-of-civilization” argument is counterproductive to serious public debate. It makes us believe that we only have one choice. Yet the reality is that we can choose to make climate change our first priority, or we can choose to do a lot more good first.

To say this is not to suggest laissez faire. Far from it. Thousands died in Haiti during recent hurricanes, but not in Florida, because Haitians are poor and cannot take preventive measures. Breaking the circle of poverty by addressing the most pressing issues of disease, hunger, and polluted water will not only do obvious good; it will also make people less vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

We live in a world with limited resources, so caring more about some issues means caring less about others. If we have a moral obligation, it is to spend each dollar doing the most good that we possibly can. With Kyoto, the world will spend $150 billion a year on doing little good a century from now. In comparison, the UN estimates that half that amount could buy clean drinking water, sanitation, basic health care, and education for every single person in the world. Which is better?

Global warming really is the moral test of our time, but not in the way its proponents imagine. We need to stop our obsession with global warming and start dealing with more pressing and tractable problems first.