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What Is The Human Cost Of Global Warming?

Ken Silverstein 

With at least 192 nations preparing to gather in Bonn, Germany, in June for a major climate conference, scientists at the Universities of Exeter in the UK and Nanjing in China have quantified the human cost of global warming.

Their message: failing to keep temperatures in check could jeopardize the fates of 2 billion people, forcing them into intolerable circumstances. But if the global community acts quickly, it can reduce the risk by a factor of five.

“There’s the potential for large-scale movements of people,” says Professor Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at Exeter, in a conversation with this writer. “Those people who are affected are the poorer people on the planet. At higher temperatures, life becomes unbearable, affecting water, agriculture, and food. You can’t barricade yourself from climate change. There is an undeniable interconnection amongst nations.”

In a world of 9.5 billion people, he points to India, where extreme heat is already killing the most vulnerable — the sick and elderly without air conditioning. A 2.7 degree Celsius rise puts 600 million people there in jeopardy. Meanwhile, relentless temperatures in Nigeria would put 300 million at risk. And Pakistan, which suffered terrible flooding last year, has 80 million in harm’s way.

“It is easy to see how uncontrolled temperature increases would lead to extraordinary movements across borders,” says Lenton.

The paper says that if temperatures decline by 0.3 degrees Celsius, it reduces the exposure to global warming by 4.3% or 410 million people. The goal is to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

The good news is that the corporate community is on board. Morgan StanleyMS +1.4% says that 3,152 businesses made net-zero pledges in 2022, up from 2,891 in 2021. They target emissions at their operations by deploying energy-efficient technologies and by buying cleaner fuels from third parties. They also use their financial clout to get their supply chains to take climate action.

Professor Lenton says the low-hanging fruit is switching to renewables, which are already cost-competitive with alternative fuels. It’s also electrifying more of the economy, notably transportation. And it’s about saving the tropical rainforests, which are natural CO2 vacuums. It all leads to healthier populations.

Between 1960 and 1990, global warming affected 85% of the world’s population, putting “600 million people outside the niche,” says the paper, “Quantifying the Human Cost of Global Warming.” The most productive economic regions have temperate climates of 12 degrees Celsius or 56 degrees Fahrenheit while those “outside the niche” are the hottest and coldest places on Earth.

How Do We Prevent Mass Migration?

The universities’ study puts the heat on global policymakers. But some economists are concerned about the probable cost of limiting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius: $48 trillion over 20 years, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Economists will also note the “opportunity costs” — or the cost of not doing something else.

To that end, the International Renewable Energy Agency says that wind and solar prices have fallen by two digits since 2020, saving consumers $55 billion worldwide compared to alternative fuels. To hit net zero, it says we must triple the investments in green energy— from the existing installed base of 260 gigawatts to more than 800 gigawatts by 2030, requiring an investment of $5.7 trillion.

That would increase the gross domestic product worldwide by 2.4%. The 85 million new positions linked to the green energy economy would dwarf the 16 million lost jobs tied to the old economy. Moreover, it prevents mass migration and a brain drain in developing countries.

Consider Pakistan: The global consultancy McKinsey says that unless climate change is addressed and controlled, 30% of that nation will be uninhabitable in 2050. Twice this decade, the country has been under water. Those at the bottom of the economic pyramid suffer the most. Last Spring, a heatwave led to a glacier melt, exacerbated by heavy rains. It destroyed communities and created a disaster.

And in Honduras, 500 people are leaving per day — a byproduct of many factors, including a 74% poverty rate. Its primary goal now is to win climate financing to preserve its rainforests to curb warming, create jobs, and keep its citizens at home. Meanwhile, natural gas provides 32% of its electricity mix, coal makes up 18%, and renewables comprise 13%. It is increasing the use of green energy so that it can become more energy independent.

“Many economists prefer to look at global warming in monetary terms, valuing the assets of the rich,” says Professor Lenton. “But global warming hits the poorest parts of the world the hardest. Every human life is equal. Corporations have to put their money where their mouths are to achieve their targets. And they need to provide scientists like me full transparency so we can evaluate their progress.

“We are not seizing the opportunity — even when renewables are generating electricity cheaper than the alternatives,” he adds. “The more we invest in them, the cheaper they will get — a huge opportunity, including better cities and healthier lives. If we act more decisively to limit global warming, we can prevent enormous human exposure.”