Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity

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This Wonkcast was originally recorded in April 2011.

Rapid climate change is upon us, and governments, multilateral organizations, and development agencies are preparing to dole out billions of dollars in adaptation assistance. Nevertheless, little research has gone into calculating which countries are most vulnerable to global warming.

On this Wonkcast, I’m joined by David Wheeler, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, who created an index for determining which countries should be prioritized when the money starts to flow. His paper, “Quantifying Vulnerability to Climate Change: Implications for Adaptation Assistance”, provides an index for comparison of cross-country vulnerability to some of the most extreme climate threats. An accompanying map makes it easy to see which countries will be hit hardest.

We start by discussing three horses of the climate apocalypse: weather-related disasters, rising seas, and the loss of agricultural productivity. Drawing on the latest climate models, David’s index shows where these climate-related disasters are most likely to occur, and the likelihood that an individual in each country would be affected.

This index shows the future to be grim in many places. China and India are severely vulnerable to weather-related disasters. Small island states will suffer from rising sea levels and storm surges. Finally, rising temperatures threaten agricultural productivity, the foundation of growth in developing countries. Some countries, like Bangladesh, get hit with a triple whammy.

“When you think about how critical it is to have agricultural development in developing countries and you look ahead to anticipated productivity losses, you can’t help but think we really need to act as quickly as possible,” says David. “It’s sobering to think of the hundreds of millions of people who will be affected by these declines.”

We end by discussing the power of the index. David’s catalogue includes filters to measure which countries are best able to cope with climate change or implement adaptation projects. This is a helpful tool for donors looking to make assistance more effective and in line with their giving priorities.

Ultimately David tells me he hopes the index will serve as a wake-up call to the world.

“I decided to design it uniformly for 233 countries because I thought it was much better to emphasize the commonality of the danger. We’re all in this together and we’re all going to be damaged. It’s important for us all to be aware of that.”

Listen to the Wonkcast to hear more on climate vulnerability.

My thanks to Will McKitterick for his production assistance on the Wonkcast recording and for assistance in drafting this blog post. If you have iTunes, you can subscribe to get new episodes delivered straight to your computer every week.