The Risk of Moving Too Slowly
The thumbnail definition of risk is probability combined with potential consequences. Americans understand a lot about risk. Taking calculated risks built this country. We now face the catastrophic risk of climate change and consequences beyond human experience.
From 1980 to present there have been 196 climatic extreme events that have caused damage greater than $1 billion. The total aggregate cost for damages is $1.1 trillion. Globally, 90 percent of disasters are weather-related. In 2016, the disaster damage reached $250 billion (Forbes, May 12, 2016). As the weather changes with a changing climate, the cost of damages is projected to exceed $1 trillion by 2020. Global urban infrastructure expenditure is expected to reach $350 trillion by mid-century.
There is a high probability that damage will increase as the climate further destabilizes. As food, transportation and infrastructure damages increase, the cost of mitigating and adapting to these events will also increase.
Over 40 percent of disasters were caused by floods that disrupted the lives and livelihood of over two billion people; or one in every 3.75 people on earth. In economic terms, delay would not be good fiscal policy.
Some Short and Long Term Concerns
Heat and drought amplify forest fire conditions. In the Contiguous United States (CONUS), forest fires have followed natural cyclical succession regime between peak fire years. This burn and regrowth is part of the natural pattern; but, human influence and climate change has dramatically altered the natural evolution of forests. Today fires are larger and more intense. Each year fire destroys more timber and property. Three out of the last four years have set all time records in timber states. The cost of fire operations is expected to reach $1.8 billion per year by 2025. This does not include the cost of lost timber revenue, recreation or habitat.
Agricultural and livestock production has also been affected by climate change. Approximately 25 percent of 2015 production was lost due to climate-related disasters (Modern Farmer, 2015). In 2015, livestock losses amounted to $80 billion. These figures do not include disaster food and medical relief; soil and pasture loss; and the cost of restocking and planting.
Traditional business as usual (BAU) practices are a path to another dust bowl. Drought, water shortages and over-production are already threatening production. According to a recent Risky Business report chaired by NYC Mayor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg; the U.S. could see agricultural losses as high as 80 percent by the end of the century.
Extended periods of agricultural failure throughout history have led to migration and refugees as people seek greener pastures. Classic examples: Ireland and the potato famine in the 19th century, Syria and the Arab Spring in the 21st century.
Swine, cattle and sheep also suffer from climate extremes. Production costs increase because of increased feed and water costs, increased expenditures for disease control, loss of fertility and unpredictable market forecasting on futures.
Water shortages in the U.S. are becoming dire. Ground water is not being replenished as rapidly as it is being drawn down. Millions of acre feet of ground water are contaminated by fracking and inadequate oversight and regulatory control of pollutants.
Seasonal rain patterns are changing. Precipitation patterns can mean too little or too much coming at the wrong time. As these patterns change, water availability for hydroelectric power, summer irrigation, fish and recreation are impacted.
In the west, severe forest fires have increased because of water shortages. Years of drought have left California with reservoirs that were sometimes too low to fight forest fires.
Ocean warming and acidification is increasing at unprecedented rates. Ocean acidification has increased 30 percent because the oceans absorb CO2 that converts to carbonic acid. Up to 90 percent of global warming heat is taken up by the ocean. This alters the global circulation (marine currents), the distribution of nutrients, marine food chains and ecosystems. Marine plankton is responsible for the majority of oxygen production in our atmosphere. Plankton is beginning to show signs of stress.
Agricultural pollutants reach the sea and cause algae blooms. These blooms deplete the oxygen in the water causing “dead zones,” devoid of marine life, that can cover thousands of square miles.
Invasive species, disease and loss of biodiversity are growing problems that influence the cost of health care, renewable resources and ultimately our social and environmental resilience on a global scale. Biodiversity is key to planetary resilience to climate change. Loss of biodiversity transfers the burden of natural resilience to humans.
Climate Change and Conflict
All of these climate-induced factors combine to threaten domestic as well as global security. Territorial waters are being extended to secure available fisheries and other resources. Military expenditures are on the rise. As security decreases, sectarian, ethnic and religious hostilities increase. Politicians debate the need for stronger borders and trade agreements.
Climate Change and Politics
Choosing a government that responds appropriately to global warming and the resulting changes in climate is critical to our domestic and global security. Climate change is taking place so rapidly that we approach a tipping point of dire consequences. There will not be a second chance.
Global temperatures are already warmer than the past 11,300 years (Holocene). By mid-century, the planet is likely as not to be warmer than at any time in human history. The U.S. is experiencing an average of 1℃ of warming, yet extreme events, drought, water draw down and fires are already breaking all records. The most recent BAU models indicate a high probability of warming between 3℃ (5.4℉) and 4.5℃ (8.1℉). This does not include less predictable feedback loops or changes in planetary resilience.
The Bottom Line
It is not an exaggeration to say 3℃ or 4.5℃ would be catastrophic to human civilization as we know it. Current measures to slow global warming are grossly insufficient to remain below the 2℃ international goal. The risk and consequences only increase with time and inaction.
Think it through and vote.