Catastrophe and prosperity

Millions are suffering and thousands have died from flooding in Pakistan and China. An extraordinary heatwave in Russia sparked fires causing dreadful pollution and wiping out swathes of the wheat crop. Are these weather-related disasters caused by global warming? Do they portend worse catastrophes? What can be done? Should Pakistan get more aid?

By Julian Morris

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Published: Fri 27 Aug 2010, 9:14 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:12 AM

In its most recent report, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) asserts that as the world becomes warmer, “flood magnitude and frequency are likely to increase in most regions.” This seems plausible: a warmer world is also likely to be a wetter world, as more water evaporates from the oceans into the atmosphere. But, although rainstorms last week put out some of the fires, Russia has a drought.

The IPCC also claims that droughts too are more likely in a warmer world—and that they have become more frequent since the 1970s, partly because of reduced precipitation. In fact the number of droughts reached a low point between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s: the evidence shows there has been no statistically significant increase in droughts since the 1950s. Given that global temperatures appear to have risen considerably since then, it seems a stretch to blame the Russian drought on global warming.

Underpinning both the floods in Pakistan and China and the drought in Russia is a change in the usual pattern of the jet stream. Each hemisphere has a “polar” jet (7-12km above sea level) and a “subtropical” jet (at 10-16km). In the Northern hemisphere, the polar jet pushes cooler air south and induces rain in mid-latitudes, while the subtropical jet pushes warm air north. But in mid-June, a kink appeared at the intersection, causing warm air to remain further north and east than normal and causing more cold air and rain to fall over northern Pakistan and China.

To make matters far worse, this kink in the jet stream was kept in place by a phenomenon called a “blocking event.” This kept the Russian heatwave going for nearly two months and massively exacerbated the precipitation in Pakistan and China.

Such blocking events are rare and there is no evidence of links with global warming. However, an explanation has been proposed by Professor Mike Lockwood, an astrophysicist at the University of Reading in the UK, who shows in a recent paper that blocking events in winter are related primarily to solar activity (although he cautiously said in an email to me that he “cannot say much (yet) about summer conditions as most of our work to date has been on wintertime which shows relatively strong solar effects in the Eurasian region.”). So the culprit is quite possibly the sun, not human emissions of greenhouse gases.

As for remedies, the current disasters demand a major humanitarian response. Worst affected is Pakistan, where an estimated six million face cholera and other waterborne diseases unless they urgently get potable water. Pakistan’s government responded slowly, making immediate national and international philanthropy even more important.

But what of the longer term? Floods, droughts and other weather disasters have plagued mankind for all of history. But deaths from such natural disasters have fallen by more than 90 per cent in the past 100 years, in spite of dramatic population growth. Why? Because higher wealth and better technology enable people better to cope: continued improvements are what is needed.

Last week, Pakistan requested that the IMF restructure a $10 billion loan because the floods prevent it meeting the conditions. But Pakistan’s reliance on Western “aid” (including these soft loans) has undermined incentives for economic reform. When governments must rely on local taxes rather than taxpayers in foreign countries, they are more strongly motivated to create conditions that generate wealth at home.

At present, Pakistan remains hidebound by restrictions on economic activity. Inefficient and expensive law courts make it difficult to enforce contracts. Restrictions on property make ownership insecure and undermine investment. Employment regulations and corruption make it difficult to operate a formal business, driving economic activity underground, where it cannot be taxed. These factors put Pakistan near the bottom of every ranking of economic freedom and are the main reasons for its weak economy and slow growth.

Instead of relying on foreign aid, governments of poor countries should remove these barriers to enterprise. Then next time they are struck by a natural disaster, people will be better able to cope—and far fewer will suffer and die.

Julian Morris is a visiting professor at the University of Buckingham and Executive Director of International Policy Network, London, an independent economic think-tank

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