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Why do we care?

09/05/2011

- Robert Cooper

Google News fed me an interesting article last week, a Sunday op-ed in the Philly Inquirer by Jim Geraghty (Climate change offers us an opportunity, 8/28/2011).  The author accepts that climate change is real, but argues that we should welcome it because it will only harm those he does not care about (“those in the poorer, developing world”), while bringing only good to the United States.  Even setting aside, for now, advocacy of more famine in the developing world, that analysis was simply too one-sided and ignorant for me to ignore.  Worse, for someone who takes Geraghty’s claims at face value and isn’t familiar with the real research, he makes a potentially compelling argument and raises an important question: why do we care about climate change?  I decided to take advantage of my hurricane day and draft a response, which the Inquirer promptly ignored.    However, because it’s important to think about why climate matters, I’m posting a version of my response here.

The most obvious problem with Geraghty’s op-ed is that completely ignores the threats posed to America by climate change.  Would climate change swallow America in a giant fireball?  Of course not – we will survive and the Earth will survive – but climate change would cause a heck of a lot of avoidable damage, suffering, and economic losses along the way.  Perhaps more importantly for the short term, even while Geraghty invents an economic opportunity from climate change, his analysis overlooks the true opportunity for American prosperity this century.

Geraghty’s first argument is that America would see increased crop yields.  While it may be true that some crops grow better with more CO2, crops and livestock are generally not fans of extreme heat and droughts.  Just ask Texas, which has lost $5.2 billion to heat and drought so far this year, making 2011 the fourth time in six years that the state’s farmers and ranchers lost $1 billion or more.  The more greenhouse gases we emit, the hotter and drier the Western U.S. will become.  This is not a good thing in states already struggling to find enough water.

Climate change doesn’t just make America warmer, it shifts rainfall around the country.  As the West dries, northern states will see more rain.  Unfortunately, precipitation will shift in intensity as well as in space, with fewer light rains and more heavy downpours or intense snowstorms.  That means more record floods like those that recently devastated Americans living along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

It’s not just the nation’s heartland that would suffer from climate change.  Since Hurricane Irene is the news of the day, consider that her storm surge of around 3 feet could be considered a normal tide by the end of the century.  That would mean large-scale losses of coastal property.  We would have to move entire neighborhoods of coastal cities to higher ground, at huge expense.  In cities, hotter summers would mean even worse air quality, causing more asthma, lung disease, and heart attacks.

Returning now to the claim that climate impacts might be worse in other countries, let’s remember that we live in an interconnected world.  Crop failures elsewhere drive up food prices here too.  And given the spread of nuclear weapons and terrorist proselytizers, do we really want to foster global instability?  The Pentagon doesn’t think so.  Besides, if the rest of the world is flooding and starving, who are we going to sell our products to?

In my opinion though, the truly scary danger from climate change is in the unknowns.  A look back at the climate over the past million years shows a history of huge fluctuations and inhospitable conditions over much of the globe.  Over the past several thousand years, coincidentally just when human civilization arose, the climate has been unusually stable and human-friendly.  So at the moment, the climate system is a sleeping dragon.  Do we really want to keep poking it in the eye and see what happens?

Fortunately, America does have a huge opportunity this century, if we have the will to seize it.  No, that doesn’t mean waiting a decade or three until “the harmful effects … force the hands of governments, NGOs, and businesses” into the last-ditch crapshoot of geo-engineering, so we can sell cloud-sprayers or giant orbiting mirrors as Geraghty suggests.  Our real opportunity is here and now.  We can take the lead in developing clean, safe energy that poses no threats and is immune to price fluctuations.  We can use American innovation and entrepreneurship to create jobs developing and installing real solutions that will prevent the harmful effects of climate change, and export these to the rest of the world.

All we need is for our leaders to create energy policies that provide long-term support to help renewables make their final push to prices cheaper than fossil energy.  And don’t believe renewables aren’t close – why else would fossil energy be protesting so loudly?  This doesn’t mean we all have to drive Priuses and turn off our heat and A.C.  This just means ensuring stable markets and credits for renewable energy, and providing appropriate market signals to help the innovation happen.  American ingenuity created the light bulb, let’s help American ingenuity come up with the next way to power it.

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