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Climate change: a developing challenge for poor nations

MIT and U.N. researchers team up to tackle some of the heftiest climate change challenges developing countries will face as they confront an uncertain future.
Farmers in Zanzibar, Tanzania
Farmers in Zanzibar, Tanzania

Higher temperatures, extreme flooding, longer droughts — for those living in the developed world, the symptoms of climate change mean building higher bridges and paying more for a bowl of cereal. But for those in low-income countries trying to grow and develop, climate change is yet another roadblock.

"In developing countries — and particularly in Africa — they're building their infrastructure at a very fast rate. They're also the most vulnerable to climate change impacts like flooding," says Ken Strzepek, a researcher with MIT's Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, who has joined forces with the United Nations University-World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) to help policymakers use a holistic approach to their development strategies.

He and his MIT colleague Adam Schlosser traveled to Finland to present their research at a UNU-WIDER conference last week. The conference was an opportunity to share the results of a multi-study analysis sponsored by UNU-WIDER and released in August as a special edition version of the journal Review of Development Economics. Strzepek was a co-editor.

In their research, Strzepek and colleagues from the Universities of Copenhagen and Colorado take temperature and precipitation projections and look at how flooding, droughts and other impacts of climate change could shape factors such as crop yields, roads and energy infrastructure — all critical for a nation's growth. In doing so, they help governments in these low-income countries decide "Do we adapt now to an uncertain future? Or do we wait and potentially pay more later?" Strzepek says.

Knowing what is unknown

The researchers' main conclusion from their work is that there is so much overall uncertainty surrounding the impacts of climate change that how a country should respond depends largely on very specific factors.

Strzepek gave Tanzania as one example from his research. Like most living in developing nations, the people of Tanzania rely heavily on rain-fed agriculture. Because of the potential for increases in floods and droughts, climate change is seen as a major threat to their main source of food and income. But Strzepek found there was a very large variability in how and how much these changes could affect the country.

"You can't just go to the prime minister and say agriculture is going to go down 20 percent," says Strzepek, "there's too much uncertainty."

But there is very little uncertainty when Strzepek looked at Mozambique. There, it was clear that flooding and sea level rise would be two critical threats to the economy, and in particular to roads needed to transport food from rural farms to city populations.

"So it would make sense for the government to spend the money now to build the roads in a way that makes them less vulnerable in the future," Strzepek says.

As a third example, he studied the development of hydropower in Ethiopia, which they plan to use as an electricity export to help fund roads, schools and other social investments. In studying future impacts to hydropower, Strzepek finds that by 2050 climate change could both positively and negatively affect the energy source. But in the short term, he recommends that the government continue their plan.

"Climate change won't affect the plans that are under way now," Strzepek says. "In 15 years, we'll know a lot more about the direction of climate change and we'll be able to adapt at that time."

Strzepek found too much uncertainty to act in Tanzania, too much not to act in Ethiopia, and very little uncertainty in Mozambique. While the case studies are a needed first step at shedding light on the harsh realities of developing under climate change, much is still unclear.

With the current approach, "you can only look at the extremes," Strzepek says. "Policymakers don't like extremes or worst case scenarios because they can't afford to plan for the worst case scenarios. They like to see what is the likelihood of different outcomes."

That is the next phase of the research. Strzepek and Schlosser are beginning to use the MIT Integrated Global System Modeling (IGSM) framework, which, on a global scale, quantifies the likelihood of various climate predictions and compares them with different policies. They are now bringing this technique down to a regional scale.

Schlosser previewed this approach at the UNU-WIDER conference, while Strzepek gave an example of how it could be used.

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