This week, the Senate will bicker over health reform, EHR vendors will continue their anxious wait for government agencies to release Meaningful Use criteria on which their financial viability depends, people will continue arguing whether middle-aged women should get mammograms, and world leaders from 100 countries will convene in Copenhagen to hammer out a new agreement that prevents or at least slows down global warming.
There’s not much doubt which issue will have the most impact on the health of US citizens, at least those who are around 50-100 years from now.
In 1997, the global family of nations released a document known as the Kyoto protocol. Its goal was to reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions to levels 5.2% below those produced in 1990 by year-end, 2012.
Since then, 187 countries have signed the document, including China, Russia, India and every country in Europe. But Uncle Sam, the source of nearly one-third of the world’s carbon emissions, never did.
In the absence of leadership from the world’s biggest offender, global carbon-dioxide emissions rose 33% since the treaty was signed.
That’s despite the ready availability of cheap, low-carbon technologies which can be deployed in both developed and developing nations. Electricity can be produced by wind and solar plants, hydropower and nuclear fission, and cars and trucks can run on electricity and biofuels.
Views on the matter of climate change are as divergent as can be. Some are convinced that life on the planet hangs in the balance: we must reach an accord in Copenhagen and make it stick in major offending countries like the US…or else. Others think the global warming is unrelated to human activity and is likely to self-correct in a century or two.
Nobody really knows whether global warming is man-made or how bad it will get, so it’s no wonder that it’s been hard to persuade people to spend money on a fix. It’s the mother of all externalities.
Yet as The Economist points out, this uncertainty is precisely why man needs to tackle global warming, now. If we knew that temperatures would rise by just a few degrees in the next century, then the argument to let things go would seem somewhat reasonable.
But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was organized by the UN to develop evidence-based consensus on the matter, and which used every shred of evidence it could find, could do no better than give a range. It concluded that if things are left as they are, by the end of this century the average temperature on planet Earth will rise somewhere between 2-11ºF.
No sane person can argue that temperature elevations near the top end of this estimate would be anything less than catastrophic. More than a billion people would be displaced by coastal flooding, and at least that many would be severely affected by associated climate change.
But there’s some good news. Assuming humans approach the problem smartly (as discussed for example, here), the costs of averting that kind of catastrophe are not nearly as great as many think…about 1% of the world’s global economic output for the next several years.
On average, US homeowners spend about that percentage of their income insuring their homes. Heck, just last year, the world spent 5% of total global output bailing out the banking system.
The technology to control global warming is here. Global warming is a problem with unknown but potentially catastrophic consequences that can be averted with no worse than mild economic consequences. How could we not do this?