Over 800 years ago, Genghis Khan and his army forcibly took control over much of Asia, invading territories as far east as China, as far south as Afghanistan, and as far west as Russia. Genghis Khan was known both for his charisma and iron-fist leadership, two attributes which contributed to his political and military achievements. New research, however, points to a third source of his success: climate change. Researchers believe that a period of warmer, wetter weather could have aided Genghis Khan in his conquest across Asia. Through careful analysis of tree rings during that period, researchers point to increased opportunities for agricultural production and the unstable political climate caused by previous droughts as potential contributing factors of the Mongol conquests.
We often discuss the damages caused by climate change, but overlook its benefits. Genghis Khan was one beneficiary of these changes in the past, while others benefit today, and some are likely to benefit in the future. But, in this age of anthropogenic climate change, accelerated by the combustion of fossil fuels since the 19th century, will these benefits outweigh the costs? The answer is likely quite complicated.
In one report highlighting the benefits of climate change, researchers found that the aggregate effects on human-economic welfare were positive during the 20th century. They found that climate change and its contributing processes rose global economic outputs by 1.4 percent per year, and that this value should rise to 1.5 percent by 2025. Further, below a certain threshold these benefits should continue. This critical threshold is 3.0 degrees Celsius warming beyond pre-industrial levels. Based on current trends we will pass that level in 2080. At that point global net economic welfare begins to decline with further warming.
Does this mean that everyone will benefit from global warming? No. There are many who will suffer as a result. Further, those who will suffer are likely disproportionately located in developing countries, which raises important equity issues. However, global economic wellbeing may well improve as a result of global warming which is an important fact to remember in the discussion over what should be done about climate change.
Regarding increased levels of carbon dioxide, another publication suggests that climate change can account for higher vitamin content in plants, and therefore higher medicinal value for humans. As a result of this increased medicinal potential, a “CO2-enriched future” may actually bode well for commercial production, and, by extension, economic prosperity. The publication also notes that, although humans are the drivers of climate change, climate change itself is a negligible contributor to increased instances of disease in humans. Rather, increased human and animal populations, economic and political instability, and viral evolution are to blame, and link more soundly to the current and expected trends in disease variability. Thus not only are diseases not expected to increase due to climate change, the methods used to prevent illness may become more effective.
Of course, all of these benefits are dependent on that 3 degrees of warming threshold. Because we are likely to surpass that threshold, many of these benefits are limited to this century. Few, if any, scientists believe that warming beyond 3 degrees (2 degrees beyond current levels) will be good for society. So the question becomes, do we embrace the benefits of global warming today? Or do we take action to preserve the wellbeing of the future generations? A question that goes to the heart of what sustainable development means. If we define sustainable development as the pursuit of human needs generation-to-generation, as the landmark Brundtland Report does, which generations matter? The present one? The next one? The one alive in 100 years? As one scientific adviser states, “What price a grandchild? And if not what price a grandchild, then what price a grandchild’s grandchild?”
If we define sustainable development also as the pursuit of human needs within a generation, we revive not only issues of the global North and South divide, but also the distribution of needs within a given nation. Though the combustion of fossil fuels may have a positive net effect on human welfare well into the 21st century, these benefits will likely be distributed unjustly among human populations.
Climate change is happening. That is indisputable. What should be done about it is still open to debate. And a complicating feature of that debate is the fact that climate change might actually be a net benefit for this century. That it will, if left unchecked, undeniably harm future generations means our response today will require a difficult prioritization: us or them. Do we make the explicit choice to benefit those alive today at the cost of those yet to be born? And if we choose that, what about the millions who will suffer today? Climate change is no longer a scientific question: its existence is settled. It has now become a moral challenge — one that we will struggle to solve.
Image Credit: Shoyuramen via Wikimedia Commons