The actual impact of global warming on humankind is unclear, instead of just being a Pandora’s Box which only brings misfortune to mankind, global warming, to certain degrees, benefits us in certain ways.
There is no absolute standard against which we can decide whether the temperature is suitable for living or not as it is very much decided by the adaptability of human beings. If human beings fail to keep up with the pace of temperature increase, then global warming will surely threaten our existence. Therefore, the problem is a race between humans and nature in terms of adapting to a new living environment.
Resources do not only include natural resources but more importantly knowledge and technology. From this perspective, the capital in terms of resources that will be owned by our offspring is much more than what we have now.
Compared with problems caused by natural resources, man-made problems are the biggest threat facing human kind. Therefore, sustainable development is more a social issue rather than an environmental one.
There have been many discussions and debates over what is the most accurate model of global warming. Experts disagree with one another on how much the atmospheric temperature will increase by the end of the 21st century, and there is no consensus regarding the possible environmental consequences. What’s more, nobody knows for sure what will happen to our economy as temperatures increase; there is no definitive answer as to how much it will cost if we make up our minds to act, to take preventive measures now. Most of the experts adopt a cautious attitude, saying that they would rather spend more money on preventive measures than run the risk of causing further damage because of our ignorance. I would like to share with you my opinions on global warming after an objective and logical analysis.
First of all, I would like to point out the true nature of the global-warming issue. Global warming may become problematic, not because humans and animals cannot stand heat, but because we may or may not be able to adapt to it. Nobody can prove that the temperature levels we have now are optimal for humans and other living creatures on earth. Higher temperatures may benefit us more, but no one has provided any real evidence either way.
For example, higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere help with plant photosynthesis, which lead to better crop harvests. If the concentration of carbon dioxide were to double, the output of such crops as potatoes and wheat could increase by 20 to 45%. If photosynthesis were to accelerate, the water-use efficiency of plants would be increased by two-thirds, and drought-afflicted areas which used to be unsuitable for cultivating plants could improve and become farming areas. Plants’ resistance to pests could also be enhanced.
In another example, the rise in sea-water temperatures could mean some of the ports on the Arctic Ocean would stay in operation throughout the whole year, boosting their local economies.
These analyses point out some of the benefits that global warming can bring to the world, but the problem is that nobody can tell if the benefits will outweigh the costs, or vice versa. After millions of years of adaptation, humankind and other life on earth has got used to the present temperature levels. If they increase, human beings will have to adapt themselves to a new temperature range, and the result of this process could be good or bad. If it takes too long, or human beings fail to keep up with the pace of temperature change, we will find it really difficult to get used to the new living environment, which will lead to a series of problems. So, the problem is all about human beings and other living creatures adjusting to a new living environment. If we can adapt ourselves to it within a short time, it won’t be a problem.
For example, land will be covered by sea water as a result of the rise in sea levels and properties will be lost to it. According to statistical projections, if the sea level rises by 4.6 meters, the total land area of the 48 continguous states of the United States will be reduced by 1.5%, which will result in a displacement of 6% of the total population and loss of 6% of the real estate.
However, these changes will take place slowly within the next 100 years, and most of the properties will be rotten and out of function before they are covered by sea water. Even if the losses are twice as high than the current projections indicate, losses taking place every year are equal to the subsidies given by the US government to its dairy industry, and much less than its current national defence budget. What’s more, humankind has plenty of time to build dikes to prevent the invasion of sea water in the next 100 years. Building dikes can be done much faster than sea levels can rise, and the costs will not exceed those of such construction projects as the building of subway systems.
We often worry about our offspring. We are afraid that we may use up resources and leave nothing for them. As a matter of fact, succeeding generations will have much more capital than we had when we were born. Our generation (and previous ones) have built a lot of railways, highways, airports, ports, skyscrapers and modern production plants for them. They can use them without making much further sacrifice. More importantly, the knowledge and technology which the next generations will have at its disposal is more than we had when we were born. The more knowledge they have, the better lives they can enjoy. Today, a lone sailor can travel across the Pacific Ocean safely in a boat just several meters long, whereas 500 years ago -- when Columbus sailed across the Atlantic – he had three big ships and 87 sailors and the task was very risky. That’s the difference knowledge makes.
If we look at the wider picture, humankind has entered a new stage of fast development since the 19th century. Tremendous wealth has been created and people’s livelihoods have been improved dramatically. Statistics released by various international organisations also demonstrate that the global economy, either in terms of total volume or per capita, is increasing very year. Although there are countries which showed signs of economic setbacks during certain periods of time, or witnessed a decrease in average life expectancy, these have nothing to do with natural resources. These are man-made problems.
A decrease in life expectancy in Russia, the financial crisis in Argentina which dragged the country into economic recession, tens of thousands of lives lost to AIDS and wars in some African countries -- these are all man-made problems. In some cases, environmental pollution and over-consumption of resources may have resulted in human losses, but they have not yet exerted significant influence on humankind as a whole. Therefore, if we, as human beings, can keep doing what we are doing now and keep ourselves away from self-destructive behaviours, it is quite likely that our children will be able to enjoy a much better life.
In fact, problems within our society are the real threat to human existence, particularly wars, social chaos, hate, prejudice and clashes among cultures and traditions. Each year human losses due to these reasons are hundreds of times more than the losses caused by environmental problems. Therefore, sustainable development is more a social issue rather than an environmental one. What we really need to deal with is not environmental problems but social problems, problems between people. This is not to say that the environment and resources are not issues for sustainable development.
Environmental pollution, for example, has become so serious in some regions that it is threatening local people’s health, even their very lives. While problems such as large-scale deforestation, desertification, soil erosion and damage to ecosystems require urgent action and need to be addressed, they do not yet pose a threat to human existence if we look at the statistics on the total number of these environmental problems. In comparison, social problems may pose far more urgent problems that we need to solve.
Professor Akerlof knows the Chinese leaders’ minds very well. He’s persuading them to look at this issue from a morality angle, and to take the initiative to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, so that China can surpass the US to become the world’s model in protecting the environment. I agree that whether a country is powerful or not is judged not only by its productivity, but more importantly by its ability to promote its ideology. The US has become the world’s leader because of its people’s success in promoting equality and freedom and because of its political system, which prevents the government from abusing power, as it is under the supervision of its people. What makes the US less trustworthy in international affairs is its arrogant attitude of looking down upon others and its ignorance of international laws. Based on the current situation within China, there is still a long way to go before China can take the lead in promoting its ideology, and it cannot be achieved only by reducing emissions.
The Author: Professor Mao Yushi is a micro-economist who has held positions at Harvard University and the Beijing Institute of Economics. He graduated in 1950 from the faculty of engineering of Jiaotong University in Shanghai and has been chairman of the Unirule Institute of Economics since 1999.