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Views from the Center


**This post is co-authored with CGD senior fellow David Wheeler
Today's Washington Post column by David Ignatius finally inches popular understanding in the U.S. a bit further in the right direction on why climate change could be so costly to human society. It isn't just the direct costs of seawalls and more destructive hurricanes that climate change will bring. It's the risk that institutional arrangements to deal with those costs will not be resilient and will collapse under the resulting pressure--so that, as Chinua Achebe suggested about post-colonial West Africa, things do literally "fall apart".

Americans are familiar with the idea because of our Katrina failure--the lack of agility and the absence of reasonable planning and coordination among local, state and federal institutions here. Ignatius refers to the implications for social order of the millions of people that could be affected by flooding in Bangladesh and quotes Peter Schwartz (pdf) on the fragility of Haiti, already at the ecological precipice.
What hasn't yet been explicitly considered is the risk to the other 50 (more or less) "weak and fragile states" in the developing world. The U.S. is much richer--in income and in institutions--than Nicaragua, Nigeria, and Nepal. The risk of social breakdown in these poorer settings--because they are poorer in income and poorer in institutional resilience--has yet to be understood, and the costs to the rich as well as poor world of collapse in the poor world has yet to be taken seriously. There are the obvious health and welfare costs for the millions of poor people whose lives are disrupted. And there are the costs to the rich world of dealing with desperate refugees (e.g. Nicaragua and Central America) or chaos in oil markets (e.g. Nigeria).
New thinking about coping and costs is only now beginning in the development community. We're starting on those at CGD, in a climate change initiative led by senior fellow David Wheeler.


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.