Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Adapting to climate change: A matter of dollars and sense

Are jobs lost by anticipating and adapting to climate change? No. But not adapting can put jobs, personal property, and lives at risk.
Climate change is already having significant impacts on public health, the economy, and the environment. The floods occurring now along the Mississippi are just one example of the impacts a changing climate could have. It is estimated that damages in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi could exceed $1.5 billion. Looking to the future, we’ll likely see more floods like these as the frequency and intensity of storms continue to rise. Lives could be lost, homes destroyed, factories damaged, and production disrupted. More frequent and severe droughts will threaten crops and increase the risk of economic losses for farmers. More rapid sea level rise and more intense storm surges will threaten coastal communities. More frequent and intense heat waves will threaten public health as the risk of heat stroke rises, potentially killing people or making them ill.
Vicksburg, MS, May 12, 2011  (Photo credit:  Howard Greenblatt/FEMA)
Common sense planning and smart risk management demand that communities anticipate and prepare for these impacts. However, some people have suggested that actions taken to anticipate and adapt to climate change could cost jobs and hinder economic growth. Does this make sense to you?
  • How does the development of heat-resistant crops that enables farmers to cope with heat waves and avoid financial losses hurt the economy?
  • How can the establishment of early warning systems hinder economic growth when they are designed to warn people of approaching storms and hurricanes to protect lives, homes, and valuable infrastructure?
  • How can efforts by a community to increase water-use efficiency to prepare for more frequent droughts be a bad strategy? Isn’t the efficient use of scarce resources a smart thing to do if one wants to promote economic growth?
  • How would the elimination of perverse economic incentives that encourage people to build in harm’s way (such as in coastal areas increasingly vulnerable to sea level rise, hurricanes, and storm surges) hurt the economy?
Adaptation isn't free, and common sense dictates that the resources used to support priority adaptation efforts not be wasted. But if used effectively and efficiently, society will be better off than if it doesn't take the actions necessary to avoid the negative impacts of climate change. Following the 1995 heat wave that killed over 500 people in Chicago, the city developed a new Extreme Weather Operations Plan.  It’s true that the tax dollars the city used to develop and implement this plan could have been used for some other purpose. But the choice the city made saved lives. Several hundred fewer people died when the next major heat wave occurred in 1999.
Would you have made the same choice as the city of Chicago, especially knowing the frequency of intense heat waves will rise as the climate continues to change? Or would you have argued that the expenditure of funds to pay people to develop heat response plans is wasteful and costs jobs?
The consequences of not adapting to climate change could be economic hardship, the loss of lives, and the loss of jobs. Adaptation is simply common sense planning and good risk management. It’s the smart thing to do.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Were the recent catastrophic storms in the southern United States caused by climate change?

Catastrophic storms roared through the southern United States during the past two weeks, killing dozens of people and destroying property in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland.
When weather-related disasters like this strike, people often ask whether they were caused by climate change. The answer climate scientists invariably give is that no single weather event can be attributed to climate change, but the types of extreme events just seen are consistent with the predicted effects of climate change.
This response is unnecessarily equivocal. The climate that exists today in the southern states is the result of changes that have occurred over time. These changes have resulted in a climate that is now conducive to the formation of intense storms like the ones that just occurred, and in which intense storms are likely to occur more frequently than in the past. Similar changes are occurring around the country.
Are the recent catastrophic storms in the south a result of climate change? Yes.
Asking someone whether a particular storm was due to climate change is like asking Steve Jobs whether the invention of the Apple iPad was due to technological change. I've never had the chance to ask Mr. Jobs the question, but if I did, I'd hope he'd respond, "Of course it was! We're able to make dramatic breakthroughs like the iPad today because of advances in electronics and computer technology that have occurred over time. And the likelihood that we can make dramatic advances like this on any particular day is a lot higher than it was 20 years ago."
Questioning whether a particular weather event is due to climate change is no different than asking whether a technological breakthrough by Apple is due to technological change.
The next time someone asks you whether a particular weather event is due to climate change, your answer should be yes. And to the extent you believe humans are partly responsible for ongoing changes in climate, you should consider that we must take some responsibility for the disastrous weather events that are occurring today. They're not all just "acts of God."

Monday, April 11, 2011

Preparing for climate change: It's the smart thing to do

Do you believe the climate is changing? Actual measurements of temperature and precipitation changes taken across the United States for more than a century indicate that the country has generally become warmer and wetter, and we've seen a dramatic increase in the frequency of intense storms. Do you find this evidence convincing?

If you're still skeptical, perhaps your own observations, or those of people around you, will convince you. Farmers are already seeing a lengthening of the growing season and changing their farming practices. Commercial shipping companies are seeing ice cover the Great Lakes for shorter periods of time every year, making it possible for their ships to travel more days. Power companies in California are seeing changes in the availability of water for hydropower at different times of the year as snowmelt in the mountains is occurring earlier and earlier. Anglers are seeing cold water fish like salmon disappear from waterways. Tribal communities living in coastal areas of Alaska are seeing their homes destroyed as sea level rises and the ice that protected them against storm surges disappears. Public health officials are seeing infectious diseases like Lyme disease spread to new areas as the climate in those locations becomes more conducive to the spread and survival of the diseases.

Are these observed impacts of a changing climate enough to convince you? If not, what would?

Perhaps you believe the climate is changing, but find it hard to believe humans are part of the cause. Does the extent of a human influence really matter when deciding whether to prepare for the potential impacts of climate change? The climate has been changing for millions of years. Regardless of the influence of humans, it will continue to change because of natural variations. If this is the case, doesn't it make sense to anticipate and prepare for ("adapt to”) the risks and opportunities a future climate may hold? And isn't the argument for "anticipatory adaptation" even more compelling if there's a chance humans are in some way accelerating the changes?

If you're a public health official and you know Lyme disease may spread into a previously unaffected area, are you going to start educating people about precautions they can begin taking now, or are you going to wait until the first outbreaks of the disease occur?

If you're running an insurance company and you know million dollar homes built in coastal areas will be at increasing risk of destruction over time, are you going to wait to factor those risks into your rate base? Won't you want to discourage people from building "in harm's way"?

If you have money to invest in a recreational facility, are you going to open a ski resort somewhere the amount of snowfall is likely to decrease as the local climate becomes warmer?

Savvy individuals interested in making sound investments and policy decisions tend to consider all factors that could have a significant impact on their efforts. Wouldn't they be remiss if they didn't account for the potentially significant impacts of climate change?

What do you think they should do? Is anticipating and adapting to a changing climate the smart thing to do?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In Praise of Government Service

I'm a federal employee. A public servant. I work for the American people. And I'm proud to serve them.

Like the men and women in our armed forces who are also federal employees, I work to protect the well-being of the American people every day. I work for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. We help ensure the air you breathe and the water you drink is safe. We make sure you aren't exposed to dangerous chemicals and pesticides that can make you sick or kill you. We work hard to ensure your health is in no way threatened when you swim or fish in our nation's lakes, rivers and streams.

Because of our efforts, you can sleep soundly at night knowing that invisible threats to you and your family - many of which you may never have known existed - are no longer lurking around you. You no longer have to worry about inhaling dangerous lead with every breath you take because we compelled the oil companies in 1973 to stop using lead as an additive in gasoline. You can sleep easier knowing that the EPA banned the use of asbestos in many products in 1989, reducing the chances of you inhaling asbestos fibers and developing potentially fatal lung disease.

We stand watch vigilantly every day to protect you against unseen threats. The dedicated public servants at the EPA, however, are only a small part of the larger army of people throughout the federal government who are motivated by a desire to make a positive difference in the lives of the American people; to provide them with benefits they want, and in many cases, have come to expect.

All too often people take for granted the services provided by dedicated public servants. It is so easy during hard economic times to point a finger at government workers and blame them for our hardships, claim tax dollars are being wasted, and demand cuts in federal spending, without stopping to think about all the things we want and need that these workers provide to us every day through their hard work.

When you board an airplane to take a trip, do you take comfort in the knowledge that air traffic controllers will ensure that your plane won't collide with another plane and you’ll reach your destination safely? Is it reassuring to know that the aircraft is maintained to strict standards to avoid catastrophic mechanical failures while you're in mid-air?

These services are provided by federal employees at the Federal Aviation Administration. Are they services you want? Would you prefer to forego them to avoid paying for them with your hard-earned tax dollars?

That's for you to decide.

Does this vigilance cost something? Of course it does - in the same way food and clothing and shelter have a price. It's your choice if you want this protection. It's your choice whether you're willing to pay, or forego, all the protections and services you receive from federal agencies.

Pretend for a second that the EPA didn't exist. Imagine you woke up one morning to discover your water was unsafe to drink because a factory in your neighborhood was dumping toxic waste into your water supplies. If you were at a town meeting confronting the owners and managers of the factory, would you hesitate to demand they stop their actions? What would you do if they refused? What recourse would you have? Would you have the resources to fight the protracted court battle while the wealthy factory owners stood their ground? If the factory owners said it would ruin their business and they'd have to fire employees - people you might know - to find a way to comply, would you back off of your demands?

If another company could hire people from your town to produce gadgets that would stop the pollution coming from the factory, would you hesitate to let them do it? Would you hesitate to demand that the cost be incurred by the factory owners if they said someone would have to pay for the gadgets? That’s for you decide.

The EPA deals with problems like this every day to protect you, your family, and your communities. The EPA fights the court battles for you when factories refuse to stop polluting drinking water supplies and the waters our fish live in. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire 40 years ago because it was filled with oily waste and industrial pollution. Thanks to the EPA, Ohio residents living along the Cuyahoga River now enjoy a cleaner and safer environment.

When the EPA takes these actions on your behalf, are jobs in the polluting industries put in jeopardy? Perhaps. Are jobs created in other industries developing the technologies to clean up the pollution? Perhaps. By keeping you healthy by providing these safeguards, is the EPA helping ensure you won't miss work (and perhaps lose your job) because you've gotten sick from the pollution? Probably.

It's all about choices. Choices you have to make and then demand your political representatives enact. It's your right to choose whether you want your precious tax dollars used to support federal workers trying to protect you, your family, and your communities from risks you can’t avoid yourselves (such as the threats posed on an entire fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico when the BP oil spill occurred). Alternatively, you can choose to have those funds diverted to other federal programs that compensate wealthy individuals for losses they could have anticipated and avoided (such as multimillion homes that are built in “harm’s way” in coastal areas and then destroyed by hurricanes). 

Hundreds of choices like these exist. I only ask that as you make these choices, you think about all the benefits you've already received and will continue to receive from our hard work in the federal government. The amount of poisonous mercury that is being released into the environment and that can harm children and pregnant women has been significantly reduced. Homeowners are now aware that radioactive radon - the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers – may be present in their homes, and understand there are practical steps they can take to eliminate the health risks it poses. Dangerous manmade chemicals (chloroflurocarbons) that were damaging the Earth’s protective ozone layer, threatening to bathe people in harmful UV radiation, have now been eliminated. Federally-mandated safety devices like seat belts and air bags that save thousands of lives every year are now installed in all new cars. Communities all around the country now have advance warning of approaching hurricanes and tornadoes so people can seek safe shelter. And people have the comfort of knowing that when disaster strikes and homes in their communities are destroyed by floods, hurricanes, tornados, or earthquakes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be there to provide temporary shelter and help them rebuild.

Are these the benefits you want to give up? Do you really believe the dedicated public servants who labor away every day to ensure you receive these benefits are the source of our nation's economic ills?

Please. Support your public servants. We are here to serve you.