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The daze after tomorrow

Caspar Henderson
1 June 2004

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“The Day After Tomorrow is rated PG-13. Millions of people die, but nobody swears, copulates, undresses or takes drugs.” So concludes a recent review of the new movie about climate change, neatly summarising much of the unreality about this piece of moral theatre. Disasters in the real world are much messier, more complex, more stealthy and less spectacular.

As cinema audiences worldwide enjoyed a vicarious thrill at the destruction of much of the western world by extreme climate change in The Day After Tomorrow, people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic are trying to piece together their lives after mudslides and floods that killed more than 2,000 people in the two countries and left many more homeless.

Extremely heavy rains such as those that hit the island of Hispaniola and precipitated the tragedy may become more frequent with climate change, but the reasons so many people died have more to do with poverty, linked to overpopulation and deforestation.

The potential for the Haitian people, for example, to build decent lives for themselves is limited by chronic political instability, an appalling economic situation, odious debt and unequal terms of trade.

As Paul Farmer reminds those who care to look, Haiti’s debt has increased from $302 million in 1980 to $1,134 billion today. In July 2003, Haiti sent more than 90% of all its foreign reserves to Washington to pay off arrears.

Climate Crazy

Sudden climate change on a scale of hours – as opposed to decades – is lousy science, but good drama. This Globolog comes from Hong Kong, where the movie is a runaway success, according to Tessa Tennant, chair of the Assocation for Sustainable and Responsible Investment in Asia (www.asria.org); “Friends of the Earth Hong Kong held a big event on the first night here. I’ve never seen a cinema so full or an audience so excited,” she says.

Tennant, like a surprising number of environmentalists Globolog has talked to, thinks the powerful political message of the film outweighs the dubious scientific detail. (Fans reportedly include the likes of John McCain, a Republican US Senator who is pushing for legislative action to meet the challenge of climate change, and has said “we need all the help we can get”).

Critics of those calling for rapid action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change are right to point out that such action will not only not be cost free, but is likely to be extremely expensive, both economically and politically. But the next step in the argument of some sceptics – that the costs and benefits of action on climate change should be weighed against the costs and benefits of a whole range of other actions to improve human welfare – is less sound than it may seem. Cost-benefit analysis is the wrong tool for addressing a problem that is long-term, irreversible, poorly understood and potentially catastrophic.

Take the case of South Asia, whose more than 1,300 million inhabitants are dependent either on the rains of the monsoon or the meltwater of the Himalayas for their agriculture. Some models - not universally accepted - point to a rise in river flow in the north as glaciers melt, followed by a sharp fall in flow within a few decades. As for the monsoon, the effects of climate change have not yet been successfully modelled but could be significant. There is a chance that hundreds of millions of people could quite literally lose the ability to feed themselves. But the uncertainties are so large and the potential downsides so great that it is not a useful question to ask what degree of change we think we can afford, because we cannot chose.

The old saying that prevention is better than cure applies as much to climate change as to development economics, where, as Jeffrey Sachs points out, people still have to learn that prevention is cheaper too:

In recent years America gave a negligible $4m a year to Ethiopia to boost agricultural productivity, but then responded with around $500m in emergency food aid in 2003 when the crops failed. In the 1990s America gave less than $50 million a year for Africa to prevent AIDS, so now will spend $3 billion per year to treat the disease after it has spread to more than 50 million Africans – 20 million dead and 30 million currently infected.

For places where it may already be too late, there is the question of how far people can adapt and what can be recovered. Globolog is traveling today to Helen reef and Tobi atoll, a remote part of the Republic of Palau in the South Pacific, to find out what the indigenous people, working together with scientists, can do to protect and restore what remains of their fundamental resource (and part of the great common heritage of mankind) – the coral reefs.

As the Iraqi filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi says in a roundtable on the future of her country, published this week on openDemocracy, “I wouldn’t say I was optimistic, but I’m not without hope”.

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