Climaction: The differentiated impacts of climate change

This photo provided by 6abc Action News shows the Inlet section of Atlantic City, N.J., as Hurricane Sandy makes it approach. (AP Photo/6abc Action News, Dann Cuellar)   | Photo Credit: Dann Cuellar

Last time we considered climate change impacts from an Indian perspective and why it would make sense for us to act. But climate change is a global phenomenon caused by all of us in differing extents and affecting all of us in different ways.

This is an important point. Understanding the differentiated impacts of climate change will help us understand why so little has been done so far. Impact here is defined by the IPCC, a group of 800+ of the world's leading climate scientists, as the intersection of risk, vulnerability and adaptation. An example may help: a very hot day, well above 100°F, is manageable if one can stay indoors in cold air conditioning. However, if one has an arduous manual job performed outdoors, a series of such days could prove fatal. The former is low impact while the latter is high impact.

The prisoner's dilemma provides a great framework to understand (in)action on climate change. This is a game in game theory that shows why two rational individuals might not cooperate, even if it maybe in their best interests to do so. The rules are as follows: Two prisoners are in two cells unable to talk together. They know this: if both keep silent, they both get off. If prisoner A squeals, but prisoner B is silent, prisoner A gets off and gets perks, while prisoner B goes to jail for 5 years and vice versa. If both squeal, they both go to jail for 2 years. Long story short, they both squeal, most of the time.

Climate change is a prisoner’s dilemma with horns and on steroids. If we, the world, cooperate, or arrest climate change, we all get a wonderful place to live. If we don’t, for some of us, our way of life ends. But wait, there’s more. If we don’t cooperate, we all don’t go to the same kind of prison - some of us stay out, some go to hell, some to a low security prison. Whether or not we will cooperate will depend (a) on how much it costs us, and (b) how much we gain by cooperating. The first step to solving this dilemma is to understand the payoffs (impacts) of key players in cooperating.

In Climate Change, the key players together constitute more than 50% of the world GDP, population and CO2 emissions. They are the US, China, the European Union and India.

Let’s start with the US. The US is geographically and politically very diverse. California and the US Southwest are and will be hit hardest by the changing climate. Much like India, they will become drier, so households and agriculture will be sorely beset. The rich and famous in Hollywood already spend crores of rupees a year in buying water. Forest fires, encouraged by increasing drought and heat, burned 9.2 million acres of forest in 2012 (roughly the size of Kerala) with rising risks to health and property. So it’s not surprising that Arnold Schwarzenegger, erstwhile Terminator and current governor of California, is a committed climate change fighter.

Moving to the East Coast: Hurricane Sandy that hit the US in 2012 left behind $60 billion in property damage and 150 deaths in its wake. The Northeast will be pounded by heavy rainfall and powerful storms as the climate warms leaving expensive infrastructure and the urban poor vulnerable to flooding and its aftermath.

The rest of the US will be affected by climate change but manageably so and many parts like the Midwest might even benefit with longer crop growing cycles and nicer weather. The Great plains of America is home to oil companies and oil-derived wealth and the fracking (getting oil & gas from shale rock) revolution - they will not want to give that up easily to lessen climate change especially as they are not impacted too much.

While President Obama and politicians from the badly impacted regions may push for climate action, the political process in the US prevents them from delivering substantive action.

On to China.

China is a powerful country with 1.3 billion mouths to feed and a third of its workforce in agriculture. Dust storms now bombard the capital, frequent droughts have begun to plague agriculture, floods and storms threaten the prosperous south-eastern cities and the air is thick with haze. Heat waves threaten the urban Chinese and incidence of dengue is set to increase. Many of China’s glaciers are predicted to disappear by 2050 further impacting agriculture, especially in the dryer north. China has woken up to the dangers of climate change and in typical Chinese fashion, has started to act. From next to nothing, China has the largest installed wind power capacity today and is targeting 70 GW of solar installations by 2017. It is the world’s largest solar panel manufacturer. China has been building another great wall - one made of trees to prevent sandstorms over Beijing.

Next time, we will look at the European Union and revisit India and see where that leaves us in solving the prisoner’s dilemma, and the climate problem.

Climaction is a fortnightly column that is published in MetroPlus Weekend on alternate Fridays. The next article in this series will appear on March 20. Feedback and questions may be e-mailed to

Mridula Ramesh is the Executive Director of Sundaram Textiles. She is also a student and teacher of global warming.

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2021 6:23:10 PM |

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