National Journal’s Coral Davenport has written a wide-ranging new piece laying out the myriad ways climate change, driven by human carbon emissions, is threatening the American economy. The point is backed up by myriad scientific reports: The draft of the upcoming Fifth Assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determined that, by more than a 95 percent probability, human activities are to blame over half the observed increase in the global average surface temperature since the 1950s.
The draft of the Federal Advisory Committee’s Climate Assessment Report concluded that most of the United States is in for 9 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit of warming given the current path carbon emissions are following, with with ever-worsening extreme weather, sea-level rise, heat waves, deluges, droughts, storms, flooding, and ocean acidification as the result.
Using specific stories ranging from Norfolk, Virginia, to Netarts Bay in Oregon, to St. Louis, Missouri, Davenport illustrates the ways these impending upheavals in the climate and ecosystems can and already are undermining Americans’ chances of recovering from the Great Recession — or of prospering in future decades.
The Economic Costs Of Extreme Weather
Globally, extreme weather and climate change are already shaving 1.6 percent off worldwide gross domestic product — or about $1.2 trillion per year — according to a study by DARA. By 2030, it will be up 3.2 percent of global GDP, costing the United States over 2 percent of its GDP and India over 5 percent.
In the U.S. specifically, the heat waves and droughts that continue to sweep through Texas, Oklahoma and the Midwest have driven crop yields down a food prices up, resulting in record payouts for crop-insurance claims. Davenport cites a 2011 study by the consulting firm Mercer that warned climate change could increase investment-portfolio risk by 10 percent over the next two decades, by disrupting supply chains.
The country is suffering larger and more frequent wildfires, storms are damaging infrastructure and causing power outages and fuel-price spikes, and relief aid for Superstorm Sandy alone cost the federal government over $60 billion:
2011 and 2012 were the two most extreme years on record for destructive weather events. A record 14 weather disasters occurred in 2011, sustaining more than $1 billion each in economic losses for a total of $60.6 billion. Last year brought 11 weather disasters that each cost $1 billion or more; while the total economic loss has not been determined, experts say the dollar figure is almost certain to exceed 2011’s. Meanwhile, the insurance industry estimates that its losses from 2012’s natural disasters will total $58 billion—more than double the average yearly losses of $27 billion from 2000 to 2011.
Alternating droughts and floods have even disrupted shipping traffic on the Mississippi River, and lowered water levels on the Great Lakes have raised shipping companies’ costs by an average of up to 22 percent.
Ocean Acidification And The Marine Industries
The Earth’s oceans naturally absorb carbon dioxide, so as human carbon-emitting activities have increased carbon levels in the oceans have increased dramatically. That leads to more acidic water, threatening marine ecosystems around the globe as well as the various industries that depend on them. Davenport’s microcosm for this crisis is the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Oregon, which saw its oyster larvae production collapse from 7 to 10 billion down to 2.5 billion in 2008, part of an oyster crash that hit both U.S. coasts. But the ocean acidification problem reaches across the planet:
In the South Pacific, it’s eating away at coral reefs. The water is also slowly destroying microscopic shellfish called pteropods, a staple of Pacific salmon’s diet. New studies show that, eventually, the heavily acidic waters could deprive salmon of this essential food source, triggering a breakdown in a crucial food chain and a major industry.
The Effects Of Water Shortages
As precipitation becomes less reliable, snow packs melt earlier, river flows drop and glaciers continue to recede, fresh water is becoming harder and harder to come by both in American and around the globe, threatening both economic and political instability. The United Nations is projecting that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in regions with severe water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water-stressed conditions. The need to secure fresh water supplies is actually driving intensifying conflicts between various U.S. states, as Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico are entangled in a series of suits over access to river water.
As Davenport points out, one of the biggest ironies of this situation is that many of the biggest carbon emitters in the power generation industries require copious amounts of water to operate, so they’re feeling especially pinched by the shortages:
A typical coal-fired power plant can consume up to 11 million gallons of water to operate each day. During the 2011 drought in Texas, water shortages threatened more than 3,000 megawatts of generating capacity, enough power to supply over a million homes. At the same time, electricity demand spiked as people cranked up air conditioners against the sweltering heat. Production prices shot up to $3,000 per megawatt-hour—more than three times the amount that generators are allowed to charge their customers.
According to figures from the International Energy Agency, water consumption by the energy industries will double from 66 billion cubic meters now to 135 by 2035, with most of the growth driven by coal-fired power.
And just to drive home the point outside of the energy world, lost of businesses that make various products require water, including major beverage producers: Coca-Cola actually lost an operating license in India in 2004 due to water shortage.
Flooding And Sea-Level Rise
We already have evidence that, due to global warming, sea levels may be rising up to 60 percent faster than predicted in the IPCC’s report, and the United States may already be in for an ultimate increase (many centuries from now) of 69 feet. In line with that finding, Davenport also points out a 2012 study by the U.S. Geological Survey, which found that sea levels along the East Coast will rise 3 to 4 times faster than the global average. “Over the past century, the planet’s sea levels have risen about 8 inches,” she reports. “Globally, scientists now project sea levels to rise another 1 to 4 feet by the end of this century.”
The U.S. Geological Survey study singled out Norfolk, Virginia as an American city particularly vulnerable to flooding and climate change. Floods have repeatedly damaged businesses in the community over the last few years, and future economic impacts to the community are estimated to run as high as $25 billion.
Tragically, Virginia’s state government has been a hotbed of climate denialism. The state’s Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, spiked a climate-change action plan proposed under his Democratic predecessor, Tim Kaine, and has aggressively lobbied for expanded oil drilling. McDonnell’s probably successor, GOP Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, has attempted to discredit climate scientist Michael Mann, has worked against the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to regulate greenhouse gases, and even tried to block studies of the effects of to sea level rise.
As Davenport points out, this gives Virginia a dual significance: The state’s fate not only demonstrates the very real costs of climate change to human lives and prosperity, but also the political foolishness that’s rendering the arrival of those costs all the more certain.