October 28, 2012

The Climate IS the Economy, Stupid

On a recent milk pickup, I heard a customer ask "my" milk farmer when the organic apple cider would be for sale: after all, it's October. The answer was chilling: my farmer's neighbour, who grows the apples, has been hit by this year's drought, and his harvest is about 10% of what it normally is. He's not sure he will be in business come next year.

My milk farmer tells me the price of organic hay for his dairy cows has just about doubled this year. I'm a huge fan of my milk farmer and all his family, and I intend to support them, even if it means dealing with rising milk prices. But I expect our path will only get more difficult as time goes on.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned that, following the reduced harvest in the US and other grain producing countries this year, global grain reserves are now so low that any further crop failures could cause a serious food crisis.

The people who will be hardest hit are those who can least absorb such a shock: nearly a billion people are already chronically malnourished: if food prices double, as they did in 2008, hunger will strike in a big way. The humanitarian reasons alone should be enough motivation for us to curtail our consumption (and the accompanying production of greenhouse gases). Moreover, because grain and other foodstuffs are traded on a global market, we in the US will feel the effects directly as well. This is just one way in which climate ties in with the economy: our economy.

You can argue over whether the erratic weather patterns we've seen all over the planet in 2012 are a collective fluke, or whether they signal a serious onset of climate change. Either way, they can be taken as a foretaste of what is to come when climate change occupies the planet in earnest. And I don't like what I see.

Because while it is poor people in faraway places who will bear the brunt of climate change, none of us will escape its consequences. Indeed, Munich Re, the re-insurer (who insure "retail" insurance companies against catastrophic losses) have recently published data showing that over the past few decades, climate-change driven extreme weather events leading to huge financial losses have occurred in North America significantly more than in other parts of the world.

Next disaster up is hurricane Sandy, which is slated to hit the East Coast this week somewhere between Philadelphia and New York, a densely populated region that hardly ever gets visited by hurricanes and is therefore relatively unprepared. Just to stack the cards further, it is exactly on the US East Coast that sea level rise due to climate change is the highest on the planet. The last hurricane to hit this region, Irene (by then "only" a tropical storm), left millions of homes without electricity, many for more than a week, and inflicted damages estimated to be $15.6 billion.

Update 2NOV2012: Total damages wreaked by Sandy is now estimated to be $50 billion. Of that, $10-20 billion is covered by insurance; the rest is borne by individuals and businesses.

Try to tell me that climate change has no economic consequences!

Yet, throughout the 2012 US presidential election campaign, there has not been a single mention of climate change. Both candidates have been focusing on the domestic economy - but their silence on climate change has been deafening.

Why is that? The EPA itself, an agency not particularly given to hyperbole, sketches a soberingly dark scenario of the consequences of climate change throughout the United States. The outlook is bad everywhere: from declining water resources in the already arid Southwest; to more frequent droughts in the nation's breadbasket; to more intense hurricanes battering the Southeast, and increasing human health problems associated with insect vectors (think West Nile virus) throughout the eastern states.

If you click on the map above, it links you to EPA's page where you can find out in much more detail about the consequences of climate change for your particular region. It's all you'll need to scare the daylights out of you; after you're done with that, you won't need Halloween. (Of course, if you live in the Mid-Atlantic region, your Halloween will be seriously scary this year).

In January 2012, the USDA released an updated map of plant hardiness zones, which is significantly different from the 1990 version. The map on the right is a graphic illustration of how, by the year 2100, summers in the state of New Hampshire will be more like summers in North Carolina are today: hot and humid. If we put the brakes on carbon emissions, New Hampshire's climate in 2100 will be more like that of Maryland today.

So let's put the brakes on already!

Because every single one of those EPA scenarios will impact the US economy. Adversely. As one example, think of the apple farmer losing 90% of his harvest.

Here is one thought scarier than Halloween: is it possible that the candidates are so reluctant to speak of climate change, because it is already here, and is already taking a toll on the economy? Is it possible that both are afraid to spell out the consequences to the electorate: that we need to consume less, that we need to eat less meat, that the cars we drive are dinosaurs that consume ridiculous amounts of fuel - in short, that we need to make painful changes, and we need to do that, not even yesterday, but last year? Are they afraid of being the proverbial messenger that gets shot for delivering the bad news?

Ladies and gentlemen, let us not wait for our elected leaders to show us the way: they are not likely to. We need to take matters in our own hands. We need to wake up from our comfortable slumber, and make our own resolutions: that we need to buy fewer things, eat less meat, and move ourselves around in a more sustainable way.

If we're smart about it and play the energy efficiency card, we can go a long way towards reducing our carbon emissions without giving up too many of our creature comforts. That way, reducing our carbon footprint also means reducing our expenses. So: time to start counting our carbs! - our carbon emissions, that is.

It's that, or we'll be contributing to the cost of health care for those who are affected by tropical diseases previously unseen in this land. We'll be bailing out farmers struck by persistent drought - while suffering skyrocketing food prices. We'll be helping to re-build flooded areas, whether on the coasts or in the low-lying lands surrounding the Mississippi. Disaster relief is paid for by the national pocket book. That is to say, by the tax payers. That's you and me.

The climate IS the economy, stupid.


This post is part of a linky party hosted by Green Lifestyle Consulting and Crunchy Farm Baby.




  1. Wow ... excellent article! I frankly don't understand the argument about whether or not climate change exists ... the evidence is everywhere. But I suspect that it's not really about that, anyway ... it's more about how much money the "big guys" can make before everything falls apart. It simply isn't in their best interest to tell people to consume less and live in an environmentally-sound way. But if we don't makes changes now, the human population, like so many other species, will be seriously reduced or even eliminated. And I'm quite sure, that if that happens, it won't be pretty ... it'll be the ugliest death possible. Time for everyone to "get real".

  2. Excellent article once again! For some reason, many people don't see the link between our consumption and climate change. I don;t really get it either. My honest opinion on why the candidates aren't talking about reducing our consumption.... it is not the American way. Spend more, eat more , buy a bigger house, better car....THAT is the "American Dream". Unfortunately, I'm sure they feel like it will be political suicide to send this message - IF, that is, they believe climate change is to blame.

  3. We really would rather not hear, would we? We've had it so good for so long; it's really really hard to see why we should take a step back now, especially when the (high) costs occur 5-10 or more years in the future.

    While the presidential candidates (who both do believe that climate change is real) are politically precluded from explicitly mentioning climate change, you can still glean information from their campaigns' statements. For instance, MIT hosted a debate between reps from both campaigns, in which the energy policies of both candidates are discussed. The press release has a link to the video, so you can see and judge for yourself (http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/obama-romney-reps-debate-energy-1009.html). There is also a BostInno article which is sympathetic to the Obama camp: http://bostinno.com/2012/10/06/mit-hosts-the-best-possible-debate-between-romney-obama-campaigns-on-energy/ - I would be grateful for pointers to an article covering this debate from the Romney perspective.

  4. I had a chat with a friend the other day (a useless, what-if type, but still...) about how different our world might be had we not been dealing with the electoral college and the person with the most votes won - and therefore Al Gore would have won back in 2000. :(

    1. That is an intriguing thought! But in the end, the buck stops at the consumers' door. It's us (you and me) that Gore would have had to convince to reduce our carbon footprint. Politically, that's probably easier to do as ex-VP Gore than as President Gore: what do you think?


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