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Over the last decade, Ethiopia was hailed as a success story in many respects. The prime minister of Ethiopia was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Fast-forward two years later, and headlines wonder if Ethiopia will come apart or fail to survive. The point here is that humans have little ability to comprehend even the present, let alone intelligently project scenarios of the future. Yet, we persist. If there is a common thread that’s shared by covid management and the human response to climate change, it is a willingness to suspend disbelief and suppress dissenting views. As Norman Doidge, psychiatrist and author of two books on the brain, puts it, “Under psychological stress, the quasi-religiosity of so much of that scientific belief emerges." (bit.ly/3wLDorX)

That is evident in the zero-covid approach that has trapped some countries in a policy cul-de-sac around the world, notably in Asia. The truth is, even without the state imposing draconian measures, humans adapt. A study by the India Development Foundation on mobility behaviour in Pune showed that mobility slowed even before the state of Maharashtra and the district administration imposed lockdowns. Extreme scenarios that do not allow for human adaptation were behind the mortality forecasts made by Imperial College London early in the pandemic. That led to prolonged or indefinite lockdowns with massive collateral damage in the form of lost years of schooling, education and other serious illnesses going unattended. The mental health toll is incalculable. Now, similar mistakes are being made on climate change.

In what was the best article I read in 2021 (bit.ly/3cc9d3L), Norman Doidge writes: “The term, in medicine, for the inadvertent harms caused by a medical treatment is ‘iatrogenic’ harm. A good rule of thumb is that the more the practitioners are certain of their good intentions (as they define them), the more vigilant we must be about the iatrogenic possibilities." That is indeed why the Hippocratic oath reminds medical practitioners to “first, cause no harm". With respect to public health or climate change, there is no scarcity of good intentions. But they are already causing ‘iatrogenic’ harm, as we see with the shortage of natural gas and rising prices of liquid fuels around the world.

In its latest World Economic Outlook (WEO) published in October, the International Monetary Fund sounds a timely warning.

It has a box-item and a short essay in its first chapter that gives us an idea of the potential side-effects of policies pursued to deal with climate change. Of the metals that are likely to be in demand due to an energy transition, copper and nickel have been traded for a long time. Lithium and cobalt are thinly traded and their production is concentrated. According to a study cited in the WEO, these metals would reach historical peak prices for an unprecedented sustained period under a ‘net zero by 2050’ emissions scenario. The total value of metals production is estimated to rise to $13 trillion by 2040, equalling the value of crude oil output that year. Significant windfall gains for producers and resource headaches for consuming nations are in store. Significant investment in mines will be needed to extract those metals.

Both policy uncertainty and greed can delay investment so as to benefit from high prices that would result from shortages. Further, going by the record of nations on vaccine distribution, the available supplies of rare metals will get cornered, leaving many nations faced with a choice between high carbon emissions and financial ruin. The section ends with a pious recommendation to set up an international institution to ensure international cooperation.

Box 1.2 (pages 27-28) examines the impact of the green economy on the labour market. It finds that jobs have become greener in the last decade. But people with higher education are likely to get them as green jobs tend to require higher skills and pay more. So much for a great reset. Just as financialization concentrated education, skills, income and wealth in fewer hands, so would decarbonization. The box ends with another ‘feel-good’ recommendation to provide training to workers with lower education so that a green economy can be more inclusive. This sounds like the far-sighted policies called into play to ensure that the spoils of free trade were shared widely—and we all know how those turned out!

As political philosopher and former academic John Gray wrote this July in the New Statesman: “Schemes to achieve net zero carbon emissions are extremely costly, and will not prevent accelerated global warming. The vast sums would be more reasonably spent adapting to the abrupt climate change that is already underway. But that would demand realistic thinking, which Western opinion-leaders reject as defeatist if not immoral." (bit.ly/3nfXrfe).

In his 2021 article, Norman Doidge cites scientist Janelle Ayres pleading for a mindset that tries to survive and not fight infections. As long as Sapiens pursue wars on terror, covid and climate change and defiantly declare zero tolerance, zero cases and net-zero, we know what outcomes to expect. It may well be a fitting end for our narcissistic species.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is visiting distinguished professor of economics at Krea University. These are the author’s personal views.

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