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Beware El Nino Combined With Global Warming? Nah!

April 19, 1998|Patrick J. Michaels | Patrick J. Michaels is a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute

WASHINGTON — Federal climatologists are going to have to 'fess up pretty soon that El Nino has been a remarkable boon to the U.S. economy. And they are going to have to admit the same about global warming.

That's because the Clinton administration has been hell-bent on conflating the two. Last fall, Vice President Al Gore went to vote-rich California to deliver the news: El Nino's coming. It's going to be bad; I'm from the government and I'm here to help. Further, I know a climatologist who told me that El Nino will be made worse by global warming. In other words, if you think this is bad, wait till you see what happens if you don't eat your vegetables and don't pay your carbon taxes.

Gore didn't mention that this is an extreme view that flies in the face of archaeological evidence that shows that when the Earth was a few degrees warmer, some 4,000 to 7,000 years ago, El Nino may have been less frequent. But as the 20th century warmed, the phenomenon became slightly more frequent. When the planet cooled 300 years ago, according to coral records in the Pacific, El Nino was present, too. Maybe El Nino just doesn't care what the planetary temperature is.

How much has El Nino cost? According to Gov. Pete Wilson's office, El Nino caused about $500 million in damages last winter, only a quarter of the price tag for the big one in 1982-83, which rang up $2 billion in costs. Moreover, this year's figures are about half those for last year's non-El Nino winter. Sounds more like El Weeno.

In Florida, there has been about $100 million in El Nino-related damages, mostly from the recent tornado outbreak. The damage/death ratio was far too low to support all the carnage. Consider 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which cost $14 billion in Florida alone, and killed half as many. There's no doubt that the Florida tragedy, which could have been mitigated by a warning-siren system that would have awakened everyone and saved 40 lives, will be the bitterest memory of El Nino. The recent horrible tornadoes in Alabama occurred at the peak time for tornado-related deaths. Trying to blame these fatalities on El Nino is like trying to find the needle after the haystack blows away.

Winter death rates typically far exceed those in the summer. Many deaths are a direct result of the cold--hypothermia, heart attacks from shoveling snow, pneumonia after slip-and-fall injuries. A good cold spell, such as those of the early 1980s, kills hundreds one way or another. A Christmas cold snap in 1983 froze 40 people in South Carolina alone.

But slowly freezing to death or dying in a hospital isn't as newsworthy as getting spun to kingdom come by an El Nino tornado. When the homeless die, as they often do in the cold, the news footage isn't as heart-wrenching as photographs of the bereaved outside a wrecked million-dollar home.

What about financial benefits? Let's start with hurricanes. The average damage cost a year is now up to $5 billion. An intense or extreme hurricane (category 4 or 5) will produce around $25 billion in damages, depending on where it hits. Climatologists generally agree that El Nino reduces the likelihood of that kind of hurricane by at least one-third and probably more. Given the average frequency of these monster storms (about one every seven years), this works out to an El Nino saving of about $1.25 billion this year.

Recent pronouncements indicate that the overall demand for heating energy last winter was down by about 10%--people are blaming El Nino, which cuts off Arctic air and bathes the nation in Pacific moderation. Americans, on average, pay a cool $50 billion in heating costs a year. So credit El Nino with a saving of $5 billion.

Been to the 7-Eleven recently to pick up some $1-a-gallon gas? Thanks in large part to the glut of petroleum that didn't get burned up rescuing us from Old Man Winter, the average car is using about a dollar less in gas every week. Let's conservatively say that 200 million cars are regularly on the road, and that El Nino is only responsible for half the price decline. That works out to another $2 billion or so over the winter. The irony that El Nino will increase emissions of greenhouse gases by lowering fuel prices must warm Gore's heart.

Suppose this savings winds up on the corporate bottom line, where it gets taxed. Given the portion of heating energy used by industry (about 40% of the total), this works out to about $600 million back to the Feds. Just enough to pay the bills in California and Florida. Who says there's no Gaea?

What about your retirement account? It's probably invested in some airlines, railroads or trucking companies. The Dow Jones transportation average, a virtual mirror of fuel prices, shot ahead at twice the rate of the industrials in the fall and early winter. Given the phenomenal stock holdings in this country, an estimate of $5 billion in total account appreciation is probably conservative.

Then there's vegetation. California is currently greener than a blackjack table, and the rest of the country is about to follow suit. Ground-water levels, thanks to the prodigious rains that folks want to blame on El Nino, are so high that anyone who runs low on water this summer better not say it was an act of God. Futures prices for the current winter wheat crop are hanging around their life-of-contract lows. Where are the news stories about the bin-busting small-grain harvests that are likely to begin in two months?

There you have it. Stretching the envelope, we can probably come up with $2 billion in damages. Balance that against a demonstrable $15 billion in benefits, and you see why El Nino strikes fear in the hearts of global warmers. Thank you, Mr. Vice President, for bringing us the good news. If we can expect more of the same, the next presidency will be warmer, greener and richer.

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