WARMING TO GLOBAL WARMING
A warmer climate may be a good thing for countries already inured to the cold, like Canada
Canwest News Service,
The negative effects of global warming have been well-documented by activist politicians and scientists such as Al Gore and David Suzuki, but the positive effects have so far received less attention.
But a group of global-warming experts, made up mainly of university economists and anthropologists, is pushing the notion that global warming might not be an unmitigated disaster, especially for certain northerly regions, such as Canada, Russia and Scandinavia.
Leading the charge is Robert Mendelsohn, an economics professor at
"You're lucky because you're a northern-latitude country, Mendelsohn says. "If you add it all up, it's a good thing for
Such benefits could well make Canadians feel ambivalent about taking measures to stop global warming, says economist Thomas Gale Moore, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute in
"When it comes down to doing something about global warming, it quickly turns out to be kind of expensive and certain people . . . would look out and say, 'Wow, global warming, that's going to be nice. I don't want to spend any money stopping that.' "
Of course, not all countries will benefit from the warmer, wetter world of global warming, Mendelsohn says. Poor counties will especially struggle, as they lack the resources to adapt.
But, on the whole, moderate climate change of an additional two degrees will likely be beneficial for the world, says Benny Peiser, an anthropologist at
For countries like
Grave concerns about human health, and even human extinction, have been put forward in the global warming debate. British scientist James Lovelock, who predicts a rise of eight degrees in temperate areas and five degrees in the tropics this century, says the tropics will become scrub and desert, leading to unparalleled human suffering: "Before this century is over, billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable."
But Peiser considers Lovelock to be alarmist and expects the rise in temperature to follow the current slow upward trend, which will prove beneficial to human health. "Unless there is a very significant and dramatic increase in the warming, the benefits will outweigh the problems."
Humankind's affinity for warmer weather is ancient and rational, says Peiser, an expert on how past civilizations have handled natural disasters. The world's temperature has fluctuated in the past and civilizations have struggled to adapt, but the big problem has always been global cooling. "In periods of warming you always had thriving societies, and the periods that were troubling for societies were the cold periods, obviously because that's when agriculture suffers."
The Little Ice Age in
"By in large we've had fantastic progress in economic development and social development. . . . It's been extremely beneficial."
The link between warm weather and good times is so ingrained that in the 1970s, when scientists started to raise alarms about a new global cooling and a new ice age, economists such as
Warmer temperatures will mean more tourists for
Winter sports, such as skiing, won't be hit hard in Canada in the short term as in the U.S. - in fact, business will shift north to Canadian resorts with more snow, Mendelsohn said. "Eventually it will catch up to your own resorts, and then it will be bad."
In the long run, though, increased tourism in the summer will more than make up for any loss to winter ski resorts, Mendelsohn says.
When it's warm out, people tend to be healthier,
The effects of increased summer heat can be handled with more air conditioning. "As long as economies grow and living standards rise, then people will be less vulnerable to whatever the temperature is," Peiser says. "
In his work, Mendelsohn and his colleagues look at economic impacts of global warming, but focus mostly on agriculture, because this is the realm most affected by global warming. "With agriculture we think that's going to be a big benefit for
No new farm land is suddenly going to be developed - so no peach orchards in
"The more the temperature rises, the bigger the benefits will be (for agriculture). As far as
Forests will become more productive, Mendelsohn says. The northern forests will expand into the tundra and the southern forests will grow better. The types of trees in different regions will change. Fire and disease might well take out old forests, but Mendelsohn says forestry companies can also be allowed to go in and take out at-risk trees.
"Rather than let it be destroyed naturally, you harvest it into the marketplace and then just let the natural systems replace what should be there next."
As for the downside for agriculture, in tropical countries agriculture will decline just as the agricultural production in
Tropical countries won't have enough water to maintain current production. Farmers there already grow crops that can barely survive hot and dry conditions. "If it gets any hotter, they basically are out of business," Mendelsohn says.
It's crucial to note that while overall precipitation is predicted to go up in Canada, that precipitation will come in winter, not in summer during the growing season, says geographer David Sauchyn, a professor at the University of Regina, who recently led a federal government study on the impacts of climate change on the prairies.
There will be opportunities for Canadian farmers, Sauchyn says, but only if they can take advantage of the increased summer heat and winter precipitation.
Mendelsohn's optimistic outlook for
Any gains that come from an increased growing season in some years could be wiped out by a lengthy drought, Sauchyn says.
"A shift in the distribution of water from season to season and from year to year and from basin to basin, is by far the most challenging scenario under climate change."
With global warming, the ocean level will also rise, but this shouldn't be a big issue in
Things will be more difficult, though, in impoverished and low-lying areas like
If Canadians conclude that global warming is a benefit, the issue will present a moral challenge, says philosophy professor Nathan Kowalsky of the
Mendelsohn agrees: "If
"It's important that we start trying to control greenhouse gases . . . Eventually it's going to get too warm. Damages will far exceed the benefits."
In the end, civilization won't be brought down by global warming, Mendelsohn believes. "There's an enormous amount of adaptations we can undertake. And at least the stuff that is going to happen this century, we will be able to adapt to it.
"I'm not saying that climate change is a non-issue. It is an issue and it is going to cause damages. It's just that it's not the calamity that people say. People exaggerate how bad it is."
© Edmonton Journal 2008