The Effects of Climate Change

The image that many people have of a global warming is that all regions of Earth would be warmed equally, as if one turned up the thermostat in the global house. This image is quite misleading. The impacts of global warming would be very diverse. Some regions would warm while others would cool. Precipitation patterns would change, and extreme events (e.g., droughts and hurricanes) would become more frequent. While this much is clear, it is extremely difficult to say how particular regions would be affected. The predictions generally agree about the global effects of climate change but disagree to a great extent about its regional effects.

Impacts of climate change fall into three categories. First-order impacts involve physical changes such as rises in sea level, effects on biological systems and circulation of water and so on. A large number of species will become extinct and many ecosystems will fracture and disintegrate. Some of the most dramatic first-order effects of a global warming would be the inundation of island nations, such as the Maldives, Kiribati (Gilbert Islands), and the Marshall Islands. Egypt could lose 1 percent of its land due to flooding. Second-order impacts involve the direct social, economic, and health effects of first-order impacts. An example would be the economic, social, and cultural consequences of Egypt's loss of 1 percent of its land. The part of Egypt that would be threatened by a sea-level rise is the Nile delta, home to 48 million people and contributor of 15 percent of Egypt's GNP. Third-order impacts of climate change involve the indirect social and political responses to the first- and second-order effects. Third-order impacts might include massive emigration from affected regions such as the Nile delta, and international conflicts resulting from economic dislocations and changing patterns of resource use.

The impact of climate change on human health is an area of research that has been receiving a great deal of attention. In particular, there is concern that infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever will become more prevalent, along with water-borne diseases such as cholera. There are already 300 million clinically confirmed cases of malaria in the world, causing more than 1 million annual deaths. Infectious diseases are currently the largest source of mortality in the developing world, and until sometime in the twentieth century they were also the largest killer in most of the developed world. Increases in the prevalence of infectious disease could have devastating effects on the human population.

Until the late 1980s it was commonly said that all people would suffer from climate change. However it has become increasingly clear that climate change will involve winners and losers, and most experts believe that the rich countries will do better than the poor ones. Rich countries can build seawalls and dikes to protect coastal areas against rising sea levels. They can even gain economically by developing and exporting technologies that will help in adapting to climate change. Rich countries can pay more for food if climate change adversely affects agriculture. In general, their control of capital can be used to shield them from many effects of a changing climate. Poor countries do not have resources to protect themselves in these ways. Moreover, some poor countries (e.g., Bangladesh) already suffer enormously from extreme climatic events.

But even though it may generally be true that the rich would do better than the poor in adapting to climate change, there are still reasons for the rich to be concerned. Rich people are often more averse to risk than poor people, for they have more to lose. Moreover, if climate change occurs, there will be differential effects across both rich and poor countries. For example, according to some scenarios, agriculture in the U.S. Great Plains might dry up and blow away, while in some arid regions of Africa precipitation might increase.

Although the regional effects of global climate change are uncertain, it is clear that there will be winners and losers. When human action has consequences that benefit some and burden others, it becomes a matter for moral evaluation.

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