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The Senate voted today (Thursday) to move ahead with legislation to build the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport millions of barrels of dirty tar sands oil from Canada to the US Gulf Coast, mostly to be refined and exported to other countries (legislation destined for the Presidential veto). Strange, then, that last week the Senate voted 98-1 to approve a resolution stating that “climate change is real and not a hoax.” However, other amendments that included the words ‘humans cause climate change’ (or words to that effect) failed in the Senate. So much for progress (although we note several Republican Senators crossed the aisle to support these resolutions). 

The question that the Senate (and Congress as a whole and other governments) should be asking is not ‘is climate change real?’ nor ‘is climate change man-made?’ but ‘what can we do about limiting the impacts of man-made climate change?’

Those impacts are already being seen in extreme and unpredictable weather battering many parts of the world, from blizzards in New York to droughts in Brazil to super-typhoons in the Philippines. 

In fact, it is developing countries that are both more likely to suffer the most serious impacts of climate change, and least able to deal with them. A recent article in Nature Climate Change suggests, for instance, that hot temperatures will have statistically significant negative effects on national output and growth rates in poor countries, to the extent that “the average annual growth rate in poor regions is cut from 3.2% to 2.6%, which means that by 2100 per capita GDP is 40% below” what it would otherwise have been. The article reinforces previous evidence, including from a forthcoming CGD book, on the devastating impacts of climate change on poor countries. And unlike New York City, with its robust tax revenues, developing countries are already hard-pressed to expand and maintain infrastructure services for energy and water. Climate change will impose additional stresses.

So, back to the question of what can we do about limiting the impacts of man-made climate change? In some developing countries, work led by CGD has found there is a relatively easy way to mitigate a huge amount of the carbon emissions that lead to climate change, strengthen economic development, and help protect against the impacts of climate-enhanced disasters. The answer lies in tropical forests. Our research has found that stopping further tropical deforestation, replanting areas already cleared, and allowing those trees to mature both prevents the release of carbon emissions into the atmosphere AND soaks up carbon already in the air. And the effects are huge. We calculate these two effects can lower annual carbon emissions by a whopping 24-30%. 

In addition to tackling climate change, forests create healthier ecosystems for local communities and support sustainable jobs. In short, tropical forests help development.  We’ll be presenting more of the science and economics of tropical forests in a forthcoming CGD book Why Forests? Why Now?, but you can read some of our work here

The failure to acknowledge that climate change is caused by humans has dire implications for us all, but particularly for developing countries.  “Man cannot change climate,” was the explanation given by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK).  The logical corollary is that if man cannot change the climate, then it’s not worth investing effort and resources to try to arrest the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Our work shows that, at least in the case of forests, such investment is worthwhile, easily affordable, and has a host of other benefits too.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.