The debate over our response to global warming is one fraught with powerful images of disaster.
The lone polar bear clinging to a melting ice floe. Refugees streaming out of submerged cities. Global famine and extreme poverty as farmland recedes into desert and food becomes scarce.
These are dreadful scenarios, and the thought that they may occur sometime in the future is frightening. But disasters on a similar scale are taking place today, and humanity ought to make ending them its first priority. Global poverty is as devastating today as climate change may be tomorrow - and toiling to save hypothetical future lives at the expense of relieving actual human suffering now is a difficult moral proposition.
Let's be clear about one thing: Climate change is a very real and very dangerous phenomenon, intensified by humans burning fossil fuels. Although the scope and magnitude of its effects may be uncertain, a broad scientific consensus says that warming is real.
But like so much of our woeful modern discourse regarding public policy, the debate over global warming is polarized. On one side are those blind to scientific reasoning, dismissing the phenomenon as a hoax or a myth. On the other, those convinced that the evidence is so overwhelming that any skepticism is balderdash.
With such a divided discussion over the very existence of global warming, it's no surprise that finding a sensible solution has been difficult. So here's an idea: Let's stop arguing over the crusade to stop climate change and focus on helping humans here and now.
There's a reason climate pacts like Kyoto have failed: The costs of cutting carbon emissions drastically outweigh the benefits. Fighting global warming by reducing carbon emissions is a hugely expensive task, and a marginal reduction in emissions will have a very small effect in the future - forestalling climate change by perhaps a few years. Add to that the fact that real reductions require an internationally engineered solution to a difficult collective action problem, and the prospect of actually solving warming with worldwide emissions restrictions looks formidable.
But if saving human lives and alleviating human suffering is our real goal, there are concrete steps that can be taken now.
The Copenhagen Consensus, a 2005 project sponsored by The Economist, charged a group of economists with considering the costs and benefits of solutions to 17 of the world's biggest problems. The survey found that money spent alleviating world poverty offers an excellent return, measured by the ratio of social benefit to social cost. The top four priorities - fighting AIDS, ending malnutrition, encouraging trade and reducing malaria - all had benefits exceeding their costs tenfold.
Surprisingly, fighting climate change came at the bottom of the list. The cost of the draconian emissions restrictions required to have any real effect on slowing global warming returned only about 30 cents of benefit for every dollar spent. Warming is a real problem, but its massive scale means that humans can do very little about it and at a high cost.
There are legitimate criticisms of the methodology used by the Copenhagen Consensus committee. As with any academic exercise attempting to predict the value of policy decisions, estimates of future warming costs are highly uncertain. The Stern Review, a study commissioned by the British government to estimate the economic effects of climate change, came to a wildly different conclusion, estimating failure to prevent global warming now could lead to a 20 percent decrease in world gross national product by 2100.
This uncertainty is exactly why we must pay attention to global warming, but focus first on global poverty. Estimates of the costs and benefits of fighting malaria, malnutrition and ending AIDS are certain, and we ought to alleviate these problems now, while we can.
The United Nations estimates that 2.7 billion people worldwide survive on less than $2 a day. Six million of them will die of malnutrition before the age of five. At least 300 million people are infected with malaria, and three million of them will die this year. Eight-hundred million are malnourished, and a full 2.6 billion lack access to adequate sanitation and clean drinking water.
Jeffrey Sachs, an economist for the UN's Millennium Development Project and a leading researcher on world poverty, estimates that most of those problems can be alleviated at a cost of $75 billion (a sickening pittance compared with the amount the wealthy world spends on other priorities).
There is no question that climate change is a disease of the wealthy world, which has relied on the burning of fossil fuels as an engine of economic productivity. But poor nations will overwhelmingly bear its costs. One solution is to eliminate global warming - to exert Herculean effort to stop a complex global process that the IPCC itself suggests will continue for centuries, even if greenhouse emissions are stabilized. But another is to alleviate poverty, ensuring that today's poor will be wealthy and resilient enough to adapt to a changing climate.
Climate change raises uncomfortable moral questions for the wealthy world. Is it more important to ensure that your grandchildren aren't exposed to nasty weather, or to keep Third World children from dying of malaria today?
Forcing anyone - except the poor - to reduce emissions is a nasty practice that puts uneven values on the lives of rich and poor humans around the world. We ought to focus on alleviating crippling poverty instead.
Connor Mendenhall is a sophomore majoring in economics and international studies and the opinions editor of the Arizona Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.