Climate economics | Rising sea levels: Why the world should care

Climate economics | Rising sea levels: Why the world should care

Wine grapes don’t grow very well in the Maldives. Actually, other than coconuts and bananas, not much does. Yet, this tropical paradise has something in common with the world’s oldest vineyards. Not the grapes—the rose bushes. Vintners often surround their vines with more fragile vegetation as a kind of alarm system. If some kind of disease emerges, it will show up on the bushes on the periphery first.

The same is true of the Maldives with regard to the forces of climate change. A crude analogy perhaps, yet one to which politicians and investors should pay more attention. Our global rose bushes are flashing warning signs.

“We are on the front lines," fisherman Akbar Ibrahim, 48, recently told me in Male, the Maldives capital, while preparing to head out to sea. “I hope we are sending signals out across the world."

The average elevation of this 1,200-island nation in the Indian Ocean is 1.5m (59 inches) above sea level. Home to 330,000, the Maldives was reminded of its vulnerabilities during the tsunami of December 2004. Most of the nation was underwater for a few minutes.

Since then, President Abdul Gayoom has stepped up efforts to get rich nations to reduce greenhouse gasses and reverse global warming. Last week, he hosted a meeting of small island nations to find a common strategy to halt trends that threaten to submerge them. “The projected rise in sea levels by the end of this century could mean that our islands may become uninhabitable," said Gayoom, who has long worried that rising temperatures and melting ice caps will precipitate the “death of a ­nation."

The good news is that the world is listening. Former US vice-president Al Gore sharing this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with a United Nations panel was a huge boost. Another important step came on 17 November when the intergovernmental panel on climate change warned governments they will have to spend billions of dollars annually to slow warming and adapt to its effects.

“Slowing and reversing these threats is the defining challenge of our age," UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said last week.

The bad news is that it’s easier said than done. By 2100, the panel said, sea levels might rise as much as 59cm and temperatures could increase 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees Fahrenheit) thanks to greenhouse gas emissions. These projections may even prove conservative; it could all happen much sooner.

Yet, the odds favour the status quo as leaders from Washington to Beijing realize the magnitude of the steps necessary. A report last year by former World Bank economist Nicholas Stern found that failure to invest now might cut global gross domestic product by 5% to 20%. The longer leaders wait, the more expensive things will become and the more detrimental it will be to bond and stock markets.

Bold and rapid action is needed; world leaders are still only talking. Even as leaders such as US President George W. Bush talk more seriously about climate change, there are too many reasons for pessimism to list here.

Bush’s unwillingness to force Americans to conserve energy more comes to mind. So does the way many Asian governments plan to fuel their economies for years to come with so-called clean coal. It’s a marginal improvement over conventional coal, yet Asia must pursue cleaner energies, not other fossil fuels.

Consider, too, Tata Motors Ltd’s plan to introduce a car priced at about Rs100,000 in 2008. While great news for emerging market consumers, it’s dismal news for Asia’s air quality. Imagine how things will look when 500 million Chinese and 500 million Indians own cars and a couple of air conditioners.

Or, consider Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal buying an Airbus SAS A380 superjumbo jet for personal use. That $319 million (about Rs1,257 crore) purchase in being financed by a lack of energy conservation and efficiency. Just as there are magazine-cover curses that signal peaks in markets, there are purchases that epitomize the hubris of our times. This has got to be one of them.

We need “political, economic and moral leadership to address climate change," said Amjad Abdulla, assistant director of the Maldives ministry of environment, energy and water. “Failure to address these challenges will have devastating consequences for human rights, homes, livelihoods and, ultimately, human lives."

Well before that happens, the Maldivian economy might be devastated. Rising ocean temperatures threaten the nation’s famed coral reefs. That would take out the two biggest industries of South Asia’s richest economy: tourism and ­fishing.

The more we fill up our sport utility vehicles and pump industrial waste into our skies without a second thought, the less chance low-lying nations have of surviving. If you’re still wondering why you should care, consider this: Once the Maldives is underwater, rising sea levels will start encroaching on far bigger targets such as Jakarta, Mumbai, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo.

The world can pretend there’s no crisis; our global rose bushes show one is indeed budding. Bloomberg

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