Can climate change bring in positive impacts?

Saturday, 6 September 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  •  The other side of the coin
By Chatura Rodrigo Most of the global phenomenons have two sides to their story. They bring negative as well as positive impacts. Climate change is no different. The debate on the impact of climate change has a long history. Many talk about the negative impacts of climate change. However, there are also scientists who argue on the positives of climate change. A major reason for not talking about the positive impacts is that the negatives are much more overwhelming than the positives. Negative impacts are easily visible. Floods, heavy rainfall, droughts, disease outbreaks, harvest losses, reduction in drinking water, threats on energy security, threats on food security and threats on biodiversity, top the list. However, positive impacts are hard to convince and receive less attention from the scientific as well as policy making entities. Positive impacts of climate change: Argument of the other side The first documentary on the benefit of climate change was released in 1992 produced by the Institute for Biosphere Research and was sponsored by the Western Fuels Association Inc. This was the era where there was a lot of concern about the CO2 emissions and George W. Bush, President of the United States of America, agreed to a voluntary reduction in CO2 emissions. In this documentary sponsored by the oil lobby group of the United States of America, soil scientist Sherwood Idso stated that the doubling of the CO2 levels will produce a tremendous greening of plant earth while increasing the agricultural productivity by 30%. Industrially elevated atmospheric CO2 has since increased to about 400 parts per million (ppm), nearly90 ppm over 1950 levels. Even though this has resulted in some agricultural gains in recent decades, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that the overall negative impacts are much higher than the increase in agricultural productivity. ‘Climate Change Reconsidered II: Biological Impacts,’ a report produced by the Non-governmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) in year 2014 still argues on the positive benefits of climate change. The NIPCC, as its name suggests, is an international panel of scientists and scholars who came together to understand the causes and consequences of climate change. The NIPCC has no formal attachment to or sponsorship from any government or government related agency. According to the findings, atmospheric carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. It is a non-toxic, non-irritating, and natural component of the atmosphere. Long-term CO2 enrichment studies confirm the findings of shorter-term experiments, demonstrating numerous growth-enhancing, water-conserving, and stress-alleviating effects of elevated atmospheric CO2 on plants, growing in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems1. The findings further reveal that the ongoing rise in the air’s CO2 content is causing a great greening of the Earth. All across the planet, the historical increase in the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration has stimulated vegetative productivity. There is little or no risk of increasing food insecurity due to global warming or rising atmospheric CO2 levels. Rising temperatures and atmospheric CO2 levels play a key role in the realisation of the food security in Asian and African countries. Terrestrial ecosystems have thrived throughout the world as a result of warming temperatures and rising levels of atmospheric CO2. Rising temperatures and atmospheric CO2 levels do not pose a significant threat to aquatic life. Many aquatic species have shown considerable tolerance to temperatures andCO2 values predicted for the next few centuries, and many have demonstrated a likelihood of positive responses in empirical studies. Finally a modest warming of the planet will result in a net reduction of human mortality from temperature-related events. The findings further argue that more lives are saved by global warming via the amelioration of cold-related deaths than those lost under excessive heat2. Basis for the other argument Scientists who argue on the positive impacts of climate change do so under several scientific reasons. The main argument is on the climate change models. Global climate models are unable to make accurate projections of the climate even 10 years ahead, let alone the 100-year period that has been adopted by policy planners of today. These scientists further suggest that the output of such models should therefore not be used to guide public policy formulation. Such scientists also argue that no unambiguous evidence exists of dangerous interference in the global climate caused by human-related CO2 emissions. These scientists stress that the cryosphere is not melting at an enhanced rate, sea-level rise is not accelerating, and no systematic change has been documented in evaporation or rainfall or in the magnitude or intensity of extreme meteorological events. They further argue that any human global climate signal is so small as to be nearly indiscernible against the background variability of the natural climate system and climate change is always occurring. Finally, the scientific community concludes that a phase of temperature stasis or cooling has succeeded the mild warming of the Twentieth Century. Similar periods of warming and cooling due to natural variability are certain to occur in the future irrespective of human emissions of greenhouse gases. How can the positive impacts be harnessed? A developing country perspective It is very clear that the two groups who argue against positive and negative impacts of climate change have enough solid evidence to prove their own arguments. Therefore, for developing countries, rather than trying to pick a side, it is quite important to understand the take-home message from both these arguments. Among many points under the debate, main areas that developing countries should focus on are food security and energy security.  Scientists who argue on the positive impacts of climate change are optimistic about increased productivity of food crops with increased CO2 levels. However, this is not for all the food crops. There is enough evidence that some crops are prone to perform less under increasing climate change impacts. Therefore, this calls for more research and development. If plants that perform well under the changing climate can be identified and if they can be acclimatised to the conditions where there are food insecurities, especially the Asian and African regions, it will be a perfect trade for all. Studies have shown that wheat plants tend to produce less under the elevated CO2 conditions while maize plants respond positively to the same situation. Both these plants are grown in the Asian region where wheat is mainly grown in China and maize is grown in all most all the countries of the Asian region. Studies have also shown that elevated CO2 levels are beneficial to forage cultivation and this is good news for the dairy sector since majority of the Asian communities are associated with farm animals at small scale. For example, Sri Lanka’s staple food is rice. There are many rice varieties in cultivation today and there are more than 2000 traditional rice varieties. If more research can be carried out, there could be rice varieties, either traditional or new improved that could perform under increasing CO2 concentrations. Furthermore, availability of forage is a major constraint for the small scale diary sector of Sri Lanka. With more research there are possibilities to come up with high yielding forage varieties that can yield under high CO2 concentrations. These kinds of inventions can solve the forage issues faced by the small scale dairy sector in a time when the climate is changing. Even though the scientists who propose the positive impact of climate change might not agree, current climate change models predict changes in the rainfall patterns. According to these models, total rainfall will decline while rainfall intensities will also change. These changes will affect energy production from hydrological sources. Therefore, Asian countries like Sri Lanka which depend on hydro energy will have a major issue in the future in meeting their energy demands. At the same time, CO2 emission reduction will discourage the use of coal as an energy source. All these negative impacts of climate change will push countries to adopt more renewable energy through wind, solar and bio-mass. These energy production avenues are environmental friendly, sustainable and will save government’s money especially when compared to the use of coal. For example, Sri Lanka’s energy policy is dependent on coal for the next decade. By 2020, Sri Lanka’s energy mix will be mainly on coal power, however CO2 emissions and financial burden on purchasing coal is a real issue. With changing climate, water is becoming limited for energy production. Both these situations allow Sri Lanka to be more considerate on energy production through wind, solar and bio-mass. Therefore, climate change can bring in new prospects such as the development of the renewable energy sector, which is obviously a great positive impact. Whether climate change is good or bad is not the real question. The real question is what we can do to minimise the negative impacts and harness the positive impacts. Clearly there are some positive effects of climate change. These positive impacts have opened up doors to more research and development and they have proposed new avenues for burning issues like food and energy security. (The writer is a Research Economist at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. Visit ‘IPS CLIMATEnet Blog’ for the online version with references, and to comment.)