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Betting the farm against climate change


Friday September 09, 2011

Global warming is extracting real costs, even in states where the governors are in denial.

Footprints mark the bank of a partially dried-up pond near downtown Dallas, Texas August 1. Scorching heat and lingering drought across Texas have pushed electric use to a new all-time peak according to the state grid operator. (Tim Sharp / Reuters)

Footprints mark the bank of a partially dried-up pond near downtown Dallas, Texas August 1. Scorching heat and lingering drought across Texas have pushed electric use to a new all-time peak according to the state grid operator. (Tim Sharp / Reuters)


 

Leon Trotsky is reputed to have quipped, "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." Substitute the words "climate change" for "war" and the quote is perfectly suited for the governors of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, all of whom have ridiculed or dismissed the threat of climate change even as their states suffer record-breaking heat and drought.

In his book, "Fed Up!," Texas governor and presidential aspirant Rick Perry derided global warming as a "phony mess," a sentiment he has expanded on in recent campaign appearances. Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico, has gone on record as doubting that humans influence climate, and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma dismissed research on climate change as a waste of time. Her solution to the extraordinary drought: Pray for rain (an approach also endorsed by Perry).

Although they may dismiss climate change, a changing climate imposes costs on their states and the rest of us as well.

In Texas, the unremitting heat has been straining the capacity of the electric grid, killing crops and livestock, and threatening water supplies. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the grid's governing body, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, bases its forecasts on the average demand over the previous 10 years. In a world without the threat of global warming, this is an entirely reasonable approach. But what if climate change makes the past an unreliable guide to the future? Then Texas is left with the present situation, in which the grid operator is forced to procure power in a tight market where wholesale prices have skyrocketed to 60 times normal.

Grid problems in Texas are but one pixel in a vast panorama of weather-related costs. In 2010, extreme drought in Russia and floods in Australia contributed to a doubling of grain prices. This year, floods from the Dakotas to Louisiana, and drought in the American Southwest and parts of Europe, have kept grain prices high.

The floods in Australia also contributed to a rise in steel prices in 2010 by closing Brisbane's port and interrupting the shipment of iron ore. The Mississippi floods this spring affected the delivery by barge of materials ranging from grain to such basic manufacturing chemicals as caustic soda and cumene. This year may surpass the 2008 record of $9-billion-plus weather-related disasters, and it probably will be the costliest in U.S. history in terms of tornado damage. Add it all up — well, you can't because, as in the case of the Mississippi floods, it's hard to pry apart weather-related damage from the compounding effect of dunderheaded human actions such as walling off the river from its natural flood plain.

Politicians who dismiss the risk of climate change like to talk about the uncertainties of the science. And, at least in one sense, they're right. It's impossible to assert that global warming contributed X amount of damage to this year's floods, much less finger climate change as a precise component of the extraordinary violence of this spring's tornadoes. The best climate science can say is that a warming globe provides a nurturing context for more intense storms and weather extremes. Scientists can offer only scenarios, rather than a script, as to how that will play out.

Richard Seager of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory labs offered one such scenario in a much-discussed paper in the journal Science. It postulated that a warming globe would shift upper-atmosphere circulatory patterns and lead to "perpetual drought" in the American Southwest and other subtropical regions around the world.

Given that events on the ground have been playing out in a way that supports Seager's hypothesis, one would think, for instance, that planners for electrical grids and other sectors likely to be affected would stress-test their models for situations in which prolonged heat and drought became more frequent events. Via email, Seager told me that, indeed, the study had prompted concerned government officials to contact him. But how likely is any follow-up action if the very highest elected officials in the affected states dismiss the threat with scorn?

Though there have yet to be political costs to adopting an anti-scientific posture on the threat of climate change, the real economic costs of mispricing this risk have caught the attention of a good segment of the business community, from commodity traders to insurers. Reinsurers in particular (companies that insure the insurers against catastrophe) see risks on a global scale and have the data that allow them to sort out local effects from global trends. Insurers also are the best equipped to price those risks — when politicians let them.

For instance, increased hurricane risk in Florida caught the attention of insurers and reinsurers in the 1990s, even as people flocked to the coast to live. Responding to the perceived threat, insurers tried to raise rates, but a succession of Florida governors stymied these increases, causing many insurers to abandon the market and the state to form an insurance pool to provide protection for homeowners.Rick Scott, the new governor, remarked on the record that he does not believe in climate change, which means Florida's taxpayers — and the rest of us, if a major disaster strikes — have joined him in making a bet that global warming is a myth.

In the states governed by climate-change deniers — and in the nation as a whole, where we are doing too little to address the threat of a warming globe — nature seems to be calling that bet.

Eugene Linden is the author of "The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations," among other books. In 2005, he helped edit "Climate Change Futures: Health, Ecological and Economic Dimensions," a project undertaken by Harvard Medical School and sponsored by the United Nations Development Program and Swiss Re, a worldwide reinsurer.
 
 

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Short Take

THOUGHTS ON WHY THE EARLY IPCC ASSESSMENTS UNDERSTATED THE CLIMATE THREAT

 

An oped involves extreme compression, and so I thought I’d expand on why I think the initial IPCC reports so underestimated the threat. Make no mistake, the consensus in the summaries for policy makers in the first two assessments did underestimate the threat. The consensus was that permafrost would be stable for the next 100 years and also that the ice sheets would remain stable (there was even a strong sentiment at that time that the East Antarctic sheet would gain mass). Moreover, in 1990, the concept of rapid climate change was at the periphery of mainstream scientific opinion. All these things turned out to be wrong

Of course, there were scientists at that time who raised alarms about the possibility of rapid climate change, collapse of the ice sheets, and nightmare scenarios of melting permafrost, but, fairly or not, the IPCC summary for policy makers was and is taken to represent the consensus of scientific thinking.

In my opinion such documents will always take a more conservative (less dramatic) position than what scientists feel is justified. For one thing the IPCC included policy makers, most of whom were more incentivized to downplay the threats. For another, many of the national governments that were the customers for these assessments barely tolerated the exercise and gave strong signals that they didn’t want to see anything that called for dramatic action, and this being the UN, there was a strong push to present a document that as many governments as possible would accept.

And then there is the nature of science and the state of climate science at that point. There is an inherent structural lag built in to the nature of science. For instance, the 1980’s were marked by the rapid development of proxies to see past climate changes with ever more precision. By the mid-late 80’s the proxies and siting had been refined sufficiently that the GISP and GRIP projects could confidently get ice cores from Greenland that they felt represented a true climate record and by then they also had the proxies with the resolution to see the rapid changes that had taken place in the past. Given the nature of data collection, interpretation, peer-review and publishing, it wasn’t until 1993 that these results were published.

It took nearly another decade for this new, alarming, paradigm about how rapidly global climate can change to percolate through the scientific community, and, even today, much of the public is unaware that climate can change on a dime.

As for the ice sheets, when I was on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 1996, there was talk about the acceleratio of  ice streams feeding the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, but the notion that there might be a significant increase in runoff from the ice sheet over the next hundred years was still very much a fringe idea.

With permafrost, the problem was a sparsity of data in the 80s and early 90s and it is understandable that scientists didn’t want to venture beyond the data.

The problem for society as a whole was that the muted consensus on the scale of the threat diminished any sense of urgency about dealing with the problem. Perhaps the best example of this was the early work of William Nordhaus. Working from the IPCC best estimates in the early 1990s Nordhaus published one paper in which he predicted the hit to the US GDP from climate change in 2100 would be about ½ of 1%. Nobody is going to jump out of their chair and demand action if the hit to the economy was going to be 0.5% of GPD a hundred years laterLibertarians such as William Niskanen seized on this and testified before Congress that there was plenty of time to deal with global warming if it was a threat at all.  

And then there was the disinformation campaign of industry, particularly fossil fuel lobbyists, as well as pressure from unions (the UAW in particular) and the financial community. These highly motivated, deep-pocketed interests seized on scientific caution to suggest deep divisions among scientists and that the threat was overplayed. Little wonder then that the public failed to appreciate that this was a looming crisis that demanded immediate, concerted action.

 



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