While some people are trying to determine if Pat Robertson or Danny Glover made the more egregious comment on the cause of the earthquake in Haiti (was it a deal with the Devil or failures in Copenhagen), others are getting to the root of the problem: Haiti is very poor and does not have the resources or infrastructure to prevent damage, react properly to a natural disaster or rebuild after the damage has been done. And proposed environmental solutions, both here and internationally, will do much more to hurt the world’s poor than to help them.
New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, “This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.” Phelim McAleer makes similar points here. And there’s evidence to support it says George Mason economist Don Boudreaux:
Empirical research reveals that Mr. Brooks is correct. For example, in a 2005 paper, economist Matthew Kahn (now teaching at UCLA) found that, while rich countries experience just as many natural disasters as do poor countries, persons in rich countries are less likely than are persons in poor countries to die from such disasters. Specifically, a country of 100 million people with a per-capita income of $8,000 will experience about 530 fewer deaths from natural disasters each year than will a country with the same population but where per-capita income is only $2,000. Raise the per-capita income from $8,000 to $14,000 and the annual expected death toll from natural disasters falls by another 233 persons.”
This isn’t a new phenomenon. In 2001, Jonah Goldberg provided several examples of how natural disasters affected wealthy areas versus how they affected poor ones: “For example, on December 7, 1988, there was an earthquake in Armenia that killed 28,854 people. It recorded 6.9 on the Richter scale. Less than a year later there was an earthquake in San Francisco and Oakland. It was a 7.1 on the Richter scale, but it claimed 63 casualties. About seven months later there was a quake near Rasht, Iran, scoring six tenths of a point higher, at 7.7. But that earthquake killed 50,000 people. You can do the same thing for almost any disaster — hurricanes, cyclones, etc. — the same trend will hold up. Natural disasters hurt poor people because poor people live in terrible conditions.”
The bigger problem is environmental policies designed to prevent natural disasters from occurring simply cannot do so. These costly regulations would, in actuality, have very little effect on the temperature whatsoever. Programs like a cap and trade system or an international treaty to reduce CO2 not only destroys wealth but also allocates resources away from more efficient uses.
Natural disasters will occur with or without global warming and their frequency or intensity cannot be linked to global warming. The answer to natural disasters is not to try to change the temperature but rather focus on increasing economic growth. Markets and economic growth will lead to stronger houses with solid floors and roofs, and paved roads with more accessibility. Countries and cities can devote resources to building better levees, rebuilding sand dunes and upgrading buildings to withstand damage.
It’s no wonder a global pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Copenhagen failed miserably. Bjorn Lomborg writes in the Washington Post: “First, developing nations have no intention of letting the developed world force them to stop using carbon-emitting fuels. They are understandably wary of any policy that might curtail the domestic economic growth that is allowing their populations to clamber out of poverty. And that is precisely what drastically reducing their carbon emissions would do.”
To prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future, we should allow countries to develop rather than implementing policies that would prohibit them to do so.