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As Gore charts progress on climate, new risk analysis paints dire scenarios

REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
According to former Vice President Al Gore, “a powerful, largely unnoticed shift is taking place” in the struggle to rein in global warming.

It’s a strange eddy in the currents of climate-change news when Al Gore proclaims, in optimistic prose, a tidal shift in global efforts to rein in carbon emissions, while a group of commerce-minded gentlemen – a fair share of them Republican – issues a dire warning about global warming’s threat to American business and investment.

But both have happened in the past week or so, and each is worth a close look on its own merits.

Taking the freshest first, let’s consider “Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States,” whose grim conclusions include a projection that, absent dramatic new reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, Americans will experience multiple days each year in which heat and humidity make simply being outdoors a life-threatening activity.

Issued on Tuesday, this report was prepared under the leadership of Michael Bloomberg, the business-media baron and former New York City mayor, and three former Treasury secretaries: Robert Rubin, who served under Bill Clinton; Henry Paulson (George W. Bush) and George Shultz (Richard Nixon).

Claiming to be the first “comprehensive assessment of the economic risks our nation faces from the changing climate,” the report uses risk-assessment measures that are standard in the business world and applies them, on a region-by-region basis, to widely accepted, peer-reviewed, science-based predictions of impacts traceable to the Earth’s continued warming. (Among the sources are the National Climate Assessment discussed in this space last month.)

Its principal focus is on “damage to coastal property and infrastructure from rising sea levels and increased storm surge, climate-driven changes in agricultural production and energy demand, and the impact of higher temperatures on labor productivity and public health.”

And its risk calculations factor in both the likelihood of a particular impact (the odds of a certain degree of sea-level rise, for example) and the probable damage that can be associated with it.

Thus, a highly likely impact with a relatively small potential for harm could rank below a less probable but more destructive scenario. It’s the kind of calculation we all do when we decide where to set the deductibles on our auto insurance, or whether to buy extended warranties on a $15 jump drive (nah) or $750 laptop (maybe a good idea).

An example:

If we continue on our current path [in terms of controlling greenhouse-gas emissions], by 2050 between $66 billion and $106 billion worth of existing coastal property will likely be below sea level nationwide, with $238 billion to $507 billion worth of property below sea level by 2100.

There is a 1-in-20 chance — about the same chance as an American developing colon cancer; twice as likely as an American developing melanoma — that by the end of this century, more than $701 billion worth of existing coastal property will be below mean sea levels, with more than $730 billion of additional property at risk during high tide.

By the same measure of probability, average annual losses from hurricanes and other coastal storms along the eastern Seaboard and Gulf of Mexico will grow by more than $42 billion due to sea level rise alone. Potential changes in hurricane activity could raise this figure to $108 billion.

The report devotes considerable attention to predictions of the frequency and distribution of days with high temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit, which is not a marker chosen at random. Without significant new reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,

By the middle of this century, the average American will likely see 26 to 50 days over 95º each year—from double to more than triple the average number of 95º days we’ve seen over the past 30 to 40 years. Climate change impacts only accelerate with time, so that by the end of this century we will likely see 45 to 96 days per year over 95º F. ...

One of the most striking findings in our analysis is that increasing heat and humidity in some parts of the country could lead to outside conditions that are literally unbearable to humans, who must maintain a skin temperature below 95º F in order to effectively cool down and avoid fatal heat stroke.

The U.S. has never yet seen a day exceeding this threshold on what we call the “Humid Heat Stroke Index,” or HHSI, but if we continue on our current climate path, this will change, with residents in the eastern half of the U.S. experiencing 1 such day a year on average by century’s end and nearly 13 such days per year into the next century.

In its section on economic risks in the Midwest region, the report focuses first on agriculture, and the outlook is worse in its southern portions. Farmers in Missouri and Illinois are likely to experience 15 percent average losses in yield in the next five to 25 years, it finds, with that figure rising as high as 73 percent by the end of the century. Across the region, and assuming no effective adaptation strategies are implemented, the yield declines are pegged at 19 percent by mid-century and 63 percent by 2100.

On the other hand, it finds that the agricultural sector is “probably the best equipped to manage these risks” because farmers “have always adapted to changing weather and climate conditions, with adaptation and flexibility built into their business models.”

However, there are limits to how much adaptation is possible, and “in many cases, crop production will likely shift from the Midwest to the Upper Great Plains, Northwest and Canada.”

But the real story in this region is the combined impact of heat and humidity … . Even at an HHSI of 92º F, core body temperatures can get close to 104o, which is the body’s absolute limit.

To date, the U.S. has never experienced heat-plus-humidity at this scale. The closest this country has come was in 1995 in Appleton, Wisconsin, when the HHSI hit 92° F. (At the time, the outside temperature was 101° F and the dew point was 90° F.)

… Our research shows that if we continue on our current path, the average Midwesterner could see an HHSI at the dangerous level of 95° F two days every year by late century, and that by the middle of the next century, she or he can expect to experience 20 full days in a typical year of HHSI over 95° F, during which it will be functionally impossible to be outdoors.

***

As for Al Gore’s somewhat untypical take, published last week in Rolling Stone, it must be said, first, that the former vice president delivers some genuinely good news in support of his key thesis that “a powerful, largely unnoticed shift is taking place” in the struggle to rein in global warming:

The forward journey for human civilization will be difficult and dangerous, but it is now clear that we will ultimately prevail. The only question is how quickly we can accelerate and complete the transition to a low-carbon civilization. There will be many times in the decades ahead when we will have to take care to guard against despair, lest it become another form of denial, paralyzing action.

It is true that we have waited too long to avoid some serious damage to the planetary ecosystem – some of it, unfortunately, irreversible. Yet the truly catastrophic damages that have the potential for ending civilization as we know it can still – almost certainly – be avoided. Moreover, the pace of the changes already set in motion can still be moderated significantly.

Elements of Gore’s big shift include accelerating deployment of solar-generated electricity, a shrinking of the price gap between electricity derived from coal or natural gas and electricity generated from the sun and wind, growing investment in “distributed generation” as a more efficient and resilient alternative to utility-dominated systems.

It’s especially encouraging to read his observations about India and China embracing renewables in a big way; to review case after case in which businesses, governments and citizens have disproved discouraging industry forecasts of slow expansion in the renewables sector; to see some persuasive evidence of the Koch brothers’ declining influence.

But I looked in vain for any material that refutes any of the fundamental points in the Bloomberg group’s report.

They’re just writing about different time scales, and when Gore speaks of “unavoidably serious damage to the planetary ecosystem,” he’s talking about, you know, decades of catastrophic sea-level rise, massive shifts in agricultural zones, a lengthening tally of days it’s fatally hot and humid to be outside.

I’ll grant that all of this misery combined doesn’t add up to the end of all civilization as we know it. But for the many who will be afflicted, it will be plenty close enough.

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Comments (12)

We can

We can change but it requires working together to make the changeover affordable for all. I predict there will be strong opposition to that.

sea level hysteria

Sea level rise has been slowly declining since the Wisconsin glacier melted more than ten thousand years ago. It is now at 2.3 mm/year or about one inch every decade. That's still a problem, but the notion that 3-4 inches of rise by 2050 will be catastrophic is a stretch.
But then Paulson and Bloomberg think carbon is carbon dioxide, so we probably won't recruit them as chemistry teachers.
Don't sell your winter coat.

Um, no.

So the rate of sea level rise will not increase even as the melting of Greenland and Antarctica accelerates? Cause does lead to effect, as far as I know.

Or, to put it another way, what does 10,000 years of pre-industrial natural climate history have to do with AGW in the industrial age?

antarctica

Antarctica which has about 90% of the world's ice is at record levels.

Antarctica

Again, you are incorrect. The sea ice around Antarctica (not Antarctica itself) has increased somewhat, but that is just the surface area. The thickness though of that sea ice has decreased, leading to less mass overall.

Also the sea ice has no impact of sea levels as the ice when it melts does not raise the sea. Just like a glass of water with ice cubes in it, the glass does not overflow as the ice melts. Ice and snow on land, however, is a completely different story. And that's the part we have to be concerned about.

Deniers

How long will it be before the deniers start their posting. Oh, too late...

One can only hope that more

One can only hope that more and more Republicans, even some Liberatarians, publish informed reports like the Bloomberg one, that might--just might--get a few climate-change deniers to open their eyes and thus change their mind. If several of their own, rather than the liberal Al Gore, point out the facts, maybe they'll listen.

This report rightly focuses on the economics of huge climate-related changes. Effect on business is something that might get the attention of Republican business types, who must begin to see what's happening and help with the big changes Gore's piece notes.

There's no conflict

The business group is talking about the risks of unchecked global warming, and Gore is talking about what's being done to check it and his optimism about further progress. I don't see any points of disagreement. It's not like one is saying solar can work while the other is saying it can't.

Water

In many ways, these issues will come down to water.

Farmers have relied on large scale irrigation to boost yields, depleting aquifers in the process. Even as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns are disrupted, irrigation will become untenable. Farmers may be excellent at adaptation, but they still need water.

Rising sea levels present an economic threat, not just as presented above, but specifically in terms of seaports. As the waters rise, seaports will either need to be moved to formerly inland, now coastal areas, or protected by sea walls. Either alternative will involve trillions of dollars in expenditures.

Ocean water is not only heating, thus disrupting climate as ocean heat exchange mechanisms are primary drivers of climate, but also acidifying as the ocean water absorbs CO2 (roughly half of human produced CO2 has been absorbed by the sea, thus far). As the waters acidify, shell-forming organisms such as coral, shellfish and plankton cannot form shells. This attacks the base of the ocean food chain, disrupting the entire oceanic ecosystem. Further, the ocean does not have an unlimited capacity to absorb, so over time it will absorb less, thus accelerating atmospheric heating.

Desert cities rely on mountain snowpacks for water. As these diminish, how will these cities obtain water?

There are more examples.

Before things get better

…they're going to get worse.

It won't take much to make New Orleans untenable for example, both as a place to live and as a major seaport, and the Bloomberg report doesn't offer much encouragement for any Gulf Coast city in that context.

In much of the intermountain western U.S., the ultimate cap on development and population may well be water, or the lack thereof. Montana may be warmer, but if snowpack melts sooner and more quickly, it'll also be drier. Think of Wyoming moving north 300 to 400 miles. Then, to the dismay of current residents, think of Colorado moving north, making its climate and weather very much like current New Mexico. Meanwhile, current New Mexico comes to resemble the Sonoran Desert of northern Mexico, and it almost goes without saying that Arizona, Utah and Nevada will dwindle in population as Rocky Mountain snowpacks dwindle in quantity, melt sooner, etc., and the Colorado and other western rivers dwindle or disappear. While that's going on, Minnesota could, as some reputable scientific voices have already suggested, come to resemble Nebraska, as the northern forest retreats into Canada, and the Twin Cities become, in terms of climate, much like Des Moines.

I think Rolf Westgard is correct in suggesting that it's premature to sell your winter coat, but water quantity and quality will increasingly be issues in Minnesota, as well. For one thing, even if precipitation maintains its current level in this part of the country, there will be increasing pressure – economic and thus political – to send water from areas that have it (i.e., here) to areas that do not (i.e., Oklahoma, or Kansas, or…).

Yes, that sort of suggestion sounds ridiculously expensive and impractical, but plans for pipelines carrying water across the country have already been proposed, and have financial backing, just as plans for pumping oil and natural gas across the country (e.g., Keystone and many others) have been proposed and supported financially. States like Colorado, that already have hundreds of water storage reservoirs because of skimpy precipitation, will find that reservoirs only work when there's water to be stored. If it gets REALLY dry, as it has in the past, agriculture simply won't be tenable, and people will have to move to where the water is.

And so on. Industrial civilization has brought huge benefits, but has done so with huge costs, as well, and those debts, including costs to the environment, are eventually going to come due. I spent my first half-century in suburban St. Louis, where plenty of summer days are in the 90s, with tropical humidity levels. If the Bloomberg report is close to correct, people who like to get outdoors as much as Minnesotans and Coloradans and others have historically wanted to do are going to find that they'll have to adapt to much more life indoors, not just in the winter, but also in the summer.

When it's 95° outside and the humidity is in the 80% range, and there's no wind to speak of, you'll be looking for reasons to stay indoors. Climate is a big reason why I was happy to leave Missouri.

Water

Right on, Ray.
Las Vegas has been looking at our region and north to the Columbia for water, but it isn't practical.
Las Vegas has those straws in the slowly declining Lake Mead. I wish them luck.

Long before sea level rise

Long before sea level rise becomes a factor in out lives, we will have been battered by decades of increasingly chaotic weather and be a long way along in the trends trend toward desertification of much the formerly agriculturally productive temperate areas.

We will have a southwest perennially short of water, the fruitbasket of California only a memory, the midwest grainbasket greatly reduced by drought and downpours, and similar stories playing out throughout the formerly fertile areas of the world.

Have no doubt, waters will rise, but the problems will be obvious long before Miami goes under the waves..