Economic impacts of climate change

Parts of the climate change story tend to get put in separate boxes. There’s the impact on nature, and the impact on business, and the impact on tourism, and the impact on farming, and the impact on health, and on homeowners, and so on.

Of course, it can be useful to focus in depth on one or another specific aspect of the overall climate picture, but it is also important to recognize the ways in which these different impacts are connected. The implication that our economy is somehow completely separate from our nation’s ecosystems, and indeed ecosystems around the world, is a fallacy that has been around for ages. In truth, our economy has always been intimately tied to ecology, and this has always been obvious to those who look. We’ve always known that while resources like fish, lumber, and game are self-renewing, if we over-harvest, they won’t be able to keep up, and those whose livelihoods rely on them will be without jobs. Even more basically, bad weather can make for bad business, and history has shown that when a nation becomes poorer and hungrier than it was, stable societies can be shaken up or taken down.

As the climate has warmed in recent decades, many things are changing. This past year, we’ve heard farmers telling us that it was literally too hot for corn to pollinate, and the droughts have been crushing production across the country. This, in many ways, is the most obvious impact. As the temperature continues to rise, so to will food prices. In the Gulf of Maine, fishermen and lobstermen are seeing their stocks change behavior and movement patterns. Shellfish in the ocean are developing various ailments as the ocean’s pH falls. The loss in cold, freshwater fishing revenues across the country has been estimated at $80-90 million per year, rising to as $300 million as the 21st century progresses. Much of this will be due to impacts on common freshwater game fish species; some of which have already been observed in New York.

On land, warm winters do a lot of economic damage in areas where winter tourism is a significant part of the economy. In NH, winter visitors spent about 20% per day more than the annual average, and warm, low-snow winters result in 33% fewer visitors, 15% fewer alpine ski tickets sold, 30% fewer Nordic ski tickets sold, and a similar decline in winter fishing licenses and snowmobile registration. The impact from all this amounts to over 13 million dollars lost in a given warm winter. A “bad winter” is one that is five degrees warmer than average, and current projections show winter temperatures increasing by six degrees by 2050, and 10 degrees by 2100. In addition to all that, the increasingly erratic spring temperatures are having a serious impact on the maple sugar industry throughout New England and New York.

Rising temperatures are also correlated with increased health problems, particularly surrounding respiratory disorders. A number of chemicals form more easily in hot air, and as a result, increasing heat waves have come with lung damage and worsened asthma. Beyond the direct impact, the northward spread of wildlife ranges means that diseases are moving north as well.

Those who deny the existence of man-made climate change, or resist taking action on it, often do so on the basis of economics – the decades-old concept that doing anything about environmental problems will ruin the economy. There has never been any real evidence for this.

Tourism, agriculture, and fishing all depend directly on the climate. Transportation, power bills, public health, and even power generation also depend on the climate.

Because many of the changes to the New England region have been fairly minor, until recent years, parsing out the influence of climate change from other factors is very difficult, especially at the local level. When you take a step back and look at the industries that drive this region, however, it becomes clear that there is an impact, and as the warming continues, and worsens, so will economic disruption.

October 16, 2012

Denmark reaches 2020 goal for solar 8 years early

Energy generation increasingly in the hands of the people in Germany

Rise in Community Choice Aggregation gives people more control over their energy sources

Norway set to double carbon tax on the oil industry to fund climate initiatives

More "greening": more jobs

People are taking direct action to prevent Keystone XL

Wild area of Wyoming saved from fossil fuel development

Shifting to 25% renewable would cost Michiganders a mere 50 cents per month

10,000MW (10GW) of renewable energy projects approved for development on public lands

GE develops new turbine optimized for renewable energy

Number of coal plants closing by 2016 to be double original assessments

October 2, 2012

European Union passes 100 gigawatts in wind power

Renewable energy output in the United Kingdom up by 42% last year

Two cities find that promoting bicycling and walking boosts local shops and restaurants

First U.S. Permit given for a commercial wave farm

India sets its sights on 20 gigawatts of solar power by 2022

Germany - 4.9 gigawatts of new installations between January and the end of July alone

US on track to install 3 gigawatts of photovoltaic panels in 2012

Research shows that available wind energy could power civilization several times over (with some caveats)

Advances made in carbon capture and sequestration, particularly in the area of biofuel power generation, could lead to negative emissions

Massachusetts butterflies weigh in

         Biological responses to climate change have most often been noted with respect to changing seasonal behavior (phenology):  when do certain plants first flower, when do birds arrive, when do amphibians or insects emerge? Another class of information comes from range-shifts, for example southern species appearing more frequently north of their range.  But when ranges change, population numbers are probably changing, too — becoming more numerous in some places, less in others.

         This kind of information is hard to collect, as it requires fairly detailed population data from across a species' range.  Under the right conditions, it's just the sort of field work that citizen scientists can conduct.  In a recent issue of Nature Climate Change, Greg Breed, Sharon Stichter, and Elizabeth Crone report on data collected by members of the Massachusetts Butterfly Club between 1992 and 2010, which tells a compelling story of climate change and its effect on butterfly distributions in central New England.  Club members compiled over 19,000 observations on 100 species (86% of all species known from the state), providing evidence that species whose ranges were centered north of Boston were in significant decline, while species whose ranges were centered south of Boston were increasing in numbers.  Thus, from the point of view of butterflies, the Massachusetts climate has "moved south."  Some common summer butterflies are in decline, for example two species of fritillary (Speyeria), which have declined by 90% since 1992.  The cause is not habitat destruction or some new disease, but climate transformation. At the same time, species associated with more southern climes have been thriving. The frosted elfin (Callophrys irus), which has been historically rare in Massachusetts, has shown a 1,000% population increase.

         The researchers conclude that of the possible causes for these changes, climate change is the best candidate.  It's not only that the average temperature has risen several degrees in recent decades:  it's also the pattern of that warming.  Climate models have long predicted that winter and nighttime would show the strongest warming trend in our latitudes, and that is what the temperature data have shown. 

The butterflies agree, on the evidence of this study.  There are some species that overwinter as eggs or larvae, and these species show the strongest declines in abundance.  The researchers suggest that "Overwintering eggs and neonates are probably more susceptible to dehydration of summers, autumns, and winters become warmer, dryer, and with less snow cover."

         These changes are happening very quickly, and at a scale that makes them hard to track and respond to (for example with conservation planning).  There are data showing a similar response by a few other groups (taxa) of organisms, but much more work needs to be done.  The paper shows how a large, skilled group of amateur naturalists can play an important part in Expedition Earth, helping us understand how our planet is changing before our eyes, and how rapidly. 

Linking weather events to climate change

Linking weather events to climate change is problematic. By now, most of us have heard it said that individual cold snaps in the winter don’t prove there’s no warming. At the same time though, talk about global warming skyrockets during heat waves. So, how do we make sense of the relationship of weather to climate change?

Part of the problem is the media search for concrete, simple answers to an extremely complex scientific issue, complicated by the fact that climate change deniers are willing to give concrete, simple answers, and to speak in absolutes.
In addition, the global rise in temperature means that no aspect of weather is free from the influence of global warming, so every event becomes subject to scrutiny.

An analogy with the effect of steroid use on sports achievement has been widely used in recent discussions of the weather/climate link.

Baseball is a sport that keeps track of statistics. There are huge data sets and very sophisticated ways of analyzing the performance of individual players and teams, as compared with hundreds of other players' or teams' performances, decade after decade. If a baseball player starts taking steroids, you cannot say that any one home run was due to the steroids. What you can do, is look at his record at the end of the season, compare it to the years before steroid use, and say that he would not have hit that many home runs had he not been taking them.

In the same way, while we can’t say for sure “this event would not have happened without global climate change,” what we can say is that this many events of this severity would not have occurred had the climate not been warmer. As the heat rises, it changes the odds of extreme events of many kinds. This is not an assumption or a hypothesis, it is cause and effect as dictated by known laws of physics and chemistry: A majority of weather events are connected to water. When air and water are warmer, it is because there is more energy in them, and consequently, the molecules are moving around faster. The higher speed means that, in the case of water, it is less likely to stay in liquid form. Water evaporates faster, and stays in the air longer, and so higher temperatures mean worse droughts, as the heat evaporates the water, and they also mean bigger rainstorms and snowstorms when a drop in temperature allows the water to condense and fall back to the ground.

An example of this effect on a massive scale came in 2010 when a heat wave in Russia evaporated massive amounts of water, which the jet stream then carried to Pakistan. When it came down as rain in Pakistan, the resulting floods covered an area the size of the United States eastern seaboard. In fact a newly published analysis of precipitation in the U.S. between 1948 and 2011 shows that extreme precipitation events have increased in both size and severity, and record-shattering droughts are starting to seem like an annual occurrence.

When you combine that with the heat waves we’ve been seeing, and the unprecedented weather events like the massive derecho in June of this year, we can say with a high degree of confidence, that we are seeing climate change in action.