TCS Daily

Comedy and Climate

By Nick Schulz - August 9, 2002 12:00 AM

Several years before he became a late night talk show funnyman in New York, David Letterman was merely a mid-day funny weatherman in Indianapolis. He once famously tickled some heartland funnybones when he predicted hail stones "the size of canned hams." Hoosiers thought this was humorous since, after all, they are used to huge Midwestern hail storms and they can handle the consequences.

But that image of ham-sized hail came to mind last week when a story emerged from China about giant hailstones devastating Henan province. Only, as with comedy, context is everything when it comes to the climate. For the people in Henan province, it was effectively hailing canned-hams. Except there was nothing funny about it: The hailstones killed 25 people and injured 200 more.

According to one report, "most of the fatalities were caused by buildings collapsing under the weight of the hail." This sad fact highlights a critical difference between the experiences of Chinese villagers and residents of Nap Town. For both, it could have been hailing equally hard. They could both experience hail the size of golf balls, or "canned hams," or cats and dogs for that matter. The difference is their perspective - Hoosiers see the world from a perch of relative wealth; most Chinese villagers scrape by at the bottom. Simply put, weather for the wealthy is never the same as weather for the poor.

Mother Nature, Getting Angry

A quick look at some natural disaster figures bears this out. The Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster (CRED) defines a disaster as "a situation or event that overwhelms local capacity, necessitating a request to national or international level for external assistance." According to CRED, there have already been more than 17,000 people killed worldwide by natural disasters this year. Another 44,000 have been injured and more than 100,000 made homeless. Since 1960, more than 4 million people have been killed by Mother Nature acting out, and another 40 million have been "severely affected."

Those numbers are tragic, but what's truly distressing is to look at where the people are who have been severely affected. Of the 30 biggest natural disasters this year in terms of fatalities, almost half of them occurred in Africa. Another nine occurred in South Asia (India, Afghanistan, Iran, etc.) But not one of the 30 most fatal took place in North America or Europe.

Why this disparity? After all, it's not as if the United States doesn't have its own run-ins with Mother Nature. We have lots of natural disasters. Just this year there was a large earthquake in the northeast that registered over 5 on the Richter scale. And CRED lists 17 natural disasters in the United States alone this year - wind storms, wild fires, floods, droughts, and extreme temperatures. That's more than double the number of disasters of any other country.

But in the U.S. earthquake no one was killed. And while the worst of the natural disasters in the United States this year killed two dozen people, in several of them there were no fatalities at all. The same can't be said for India -- or Burkina Faso, for that matter -- where already thousands of people have been killed by natural disasters.

Could it be that the United States is just lucky? Could it be that Gaia is punishing lowly Africans and South Asians by sending more deadly natural disasters to those parts of the world? No, instead it has everything to do with context.

Poverty Is Expensive

Africa and many parts of South Asia are among the poorest spots on the planet. As such, they lack "adaptive capacity" - the ability to adapt to circumstances and conditions outside their control. Another name for adaptive capacity is "wealth."

Now, wealth isn't thought of too highly these days - greedy CEOs and crooked accountants and all that have given wealth generation and procurement a bad name. "Greed Is Bad" lectured Paul Krugman recently from the pages of The New York Times.

But such cynical whimsy about the potential hazards of wealth is itself a luxury. And it is one, ironically enough, affordable only to the wealthy. Indeed, our wealth is what enables us to laugh at jokes about hail the size of canned hams. In those parts of the world that lack wealth, however -- where houses collapse and kill people when the weather is inclement - any large hail is life-threatening since they're too poor to do anything about it.

So significant is adaptive capacity when it comes to mankind and our interaction with nature, that according to the Red Cross, in the last ten years, poor countries "have accounted for just one-fifth of the total number of disasters, but over half of all disaster fatalities," and "on average 13 times more people die per reported disaster in [poor] countries than in [wealthy] countries."

Wealth Makes Health

All of which makes the perpetual alarmism over what mankind is doing to the planet so puzzling.

In the run up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg later this month, we are already hearing stories, opinions and analysis about mankind's ecological footprint and the environmental crisis created by human excess. In the most infamous example of this so far, we've been warned that we are outstripping the resources of the planet and unless we change our behaviour we will exhaust the Earth by 2050.

What to make of this? Well, it's true that there is an environmental crisis. In particular, there's a perpetual environmental crisis for the 5 billion people around the world who live in poverty. But it has nothing to do with overconsumption or any other environmental bugaboo we hear so much about. The crisis is that the poor too often lack the means to protect themselves from a fickle and often heavy-handed Mother Nature.

And the poor get a bad deal both coming and going. Not only are they least able to protect themselves from nature's frequent fury, but they also have some of the worst environmental conditions. As it turns out, wealth makes health - environmental and personal. An important new paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives called "Confronting the Environmental Kuznets Curve" (Dasgupta, Laplante, Wang, Wheeler) demonstrates the link between economic growth, rising living standards, and environmental health. Indeed, the distinguished climate scientist Jack Hollander will explore that theme in an important forthcoming book, "The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment's Number One Enemy."

Despite that, most of those involved in trying to "save the world" from impending, uncertain environmental crises - such as those hoping to accomplish the impossible: to regulate and stabilize an ever-changing climate - are promoting policies that will do nothing to help the world's poor. Instead, their prescriptions, such as the energy-suppressing Kyoto protocol, seek to "fix" the climate with massive regulation, taxation and prohibitions. But such measures amount to ham-sized economic hail that will - like its natural counterpart - harm most those with the least. And that's no joke.



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