Until very recently, few mainstream economists took climate change seriously in projecting growth.   Weather is something the polite talk about when they have nothing to say.Today, climate change is moving onto centre stage. 

Most people equate climate change with global warming.  But climate change could be excessive heat, cold, or simply larger variations in temperature that could cause drought, floods, typhoons etc at the same time. The large volcanic eruption like Krakotoa in 1883 caused global cooling because of the thick atmospheric cover from volcanic ash that cuts sunshine. 

Man conquered nature through the advance of science.  Human occupation of the tropics could not have succeeded without the invention of modern medicine and invention of air-conditioning.

For thousands of years, man was vulnerable to major climate change.  The last period of major cooling 12,000 years ago destroyed mammoths and forced human migration to all parts of the world in search of food and warmth. Abraham and his people may not have moved out of Egypt if it was not due to famine, pestilence or over-population. 

Chinese history is replete with conflicts between the Northern nomadic people and the Southern settlers.  When the northern grassland was subject to cold weather or drought, the nomadic Huns would invade the southern farmers for food, causing them to build the Great Wall for defense.   

Prize-winning historian Geoffrey Parker (2013) has made the case that a major period of global cooling in the 17th century caused a “Global Crisis” of war and catastrophe. Using both scientific data from geology (ice cores and cave deposits) and biology (tree rings and pollen history), as well as anecdotal and written history, he showed how the “Little Ice Age” in the middle of the 17th century created conditions for large wars and conflict in Europe, China, India and Latin America. 

Beginning in the late 1630s to mid 1660s, there were major civil wars and revolutions in Europe, notably the Thirty Years War (1618-48), English civil war that led to the execution of Charles I, with revolts in Ireland, Portugal, Ukraine, Spain and Istanbul. In China, the Ming empire fell to the invading Manchus. There were major incidences of regicide in the Ottoman Empire and a major civil war in Mogul India. 

Parker&’s interesting thesis is that the chaos from the Great Crisis due to climate change was responsible for the Great Divergence between the West and the East beginning in the 17th century.   Competition between European states pushed maritime trade and national revival through colonial conquests, improvements in governance and focus on science and technology. 

In India, the weak Moguls fell to English colonization.  In 1793, when Macartney, the first British envoy called on China, the Qing dynasty had already peaked, whereas the West was advancing in military power and only just beginning to exploit new energy sources like coal, which then fueled steam power. 

The historical debate why the West overtook China during this period centred essentially around differences in governance. Chinese historian Qian Mu (1895-1990) had a simple answer. The Qing Dynasty was essentially a colonial administration, since the Manchu government that conquered China in 1644 was not interested in science and technology, because that would empower the majority Han population to rebel.   

The relationship between climate change and war was highlighted by a 2003 US Pentagon report that concluded that climate change would soon become a US national security problem. A decade later, four years of drought in Syria led to the Syrian civil war.   Water stress in the Middle East and North Africa may be responsible for the current migration into Europe, which has cooler climates and higher living standards.  These high birth countries have high unemployment plus failing governance, which may push the number of migrants into Europe from currently one million to tens of millions annually.

The most comprehensive study on the risks from climate change, commissioned by the UK, China and Indian authorities (Centre for Science and Policy 2015), concluded that climate change risks are non-linear, with human lives vulnerable to heat stress, crop failure, flooding, drought and rise in sea-levels. All scientific evidence points towards more global warming due to increases in carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels and destroying our natural forests and reefs.

Some statistics illustrate our vulnerability. Only 2.5 per cent of Earth&’s water is freshwater, but 30.1 per cent of freshwater is groundwater (rivers, lakes and wellwater), the rest being locked up in glaciers or polar ice-caps.   China and India together have 37 per cent of world population, but only 11 per cent of freshwater resources. On a high temperature scenario, the probability of the Tigris-Euphrates river (providing water to Turkey, Syria and Iraq) suffering severe water shortage would rise to nearly 100 per cent by 2070. 

There is still much that we do not understand about the science of climate change and its impact on human society. But there is a general conclusion that we need to change our behaviour in terms of use of water and natural resources (forest and marine) and carbon emissions in order to minimize our risks of severe stresses.

In the 2lst century, global population will rise to over 10 billion, so that with increased consumption per capita of water, food and energy, there will be more conflicts arising from over-crowding, territorial disputes and higher inflation and social inequality. Failed or failing states cannot afford to apply the technology to deal with these complex problems, only hastening their failure.

There are two keys to solutions for climate change – the first is to recognize that this is not somebody else&’s problem but our own personal responsibility. The second is to invest in our young, through creating jobs that will leave our footprints on nature better than we done before. 

Climate change must be tackled one step at a time. This problem is now urgent in high population Asia.

Despite advances in science, man is still more vulnerable from mother nature than we commonly believe. Climate change is something we need to act on now.

The writer, a former Central banker,  is Distinguished Fellow, Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong.

Special to ANN.