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Betting the farm against climate change

Global warming is extracting real costs, even in states where the governors are in denial.

August 28, 2011|By Eugene Linden

Leon Trotsky is reputed to have quipped, "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." Substitute the words "climate change" for "war" and the quote is perfectly suited for the governors of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, all of whom have ridiculed or dismissed the threat of climate change even as their states suffer record-breaking heat and drought.

In his book, "Fed Up!," Texas governor and presidential aspirant Rick Perry derided global warming as a "phony mess," a sentiment he has expanded on in recent campaign appearances. Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico, has gone on record as doubting that humans influence climate, and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma dismissed research on climate change as a waste of time. Her solution to the extraordinary drought: Pray for rain (an approach also endorsed by Perry).

Although they may dismiss climate change, a changing climate imposes costs on their states and the rest of us as well.

In Texas, the unremitting heat has been straining the capacity of the electric grid, killing crops and livestock, and threatening water supplies. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the grid's governing body, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, bases its forecasts on the average demand over the previous 10 years. In a world without the threat of global warming, this is an entirely reasonable approach. But what if climate change makes the past an unreliable guide to the future? Then Texas is left with the present situation, in which the grid operator is forced to procure power in a tight market where wholesale prices have skyrocketed to 60 times normal.

Grid problems in Texas are but one pixel in a vast panorama of weather-related costs. In 2010, extreme drought in Russia and floods in Australia contributed to a doubling of grain prices. This year, floods from the Dakotas to Louisiana, and drought in the American Southwest and parts of Europe, have kept grain prices high.

The floods in Australia also contributed to a rise in steel prices in 2010 by closing Brisbane's port and interrupting the shipment of iron ore. The Mississippi floods this spring affected the delivery by barge of materials ranging from grain to such basic manufacturing chemicals as caustic soda and cumene. This year may surpass the 2008 record of $9-billion-plus weather-related disasters, and it probably will be the costliest in U.S. history in terms of tornado damage. Add it all up — well, you can't because, as in the case of the Mississippi floods, it's hard to pry apart weather-related damage from the compounding effect of dunderheaded human actions such as walling off the river from its natural flood plain.

Politicians who dismiss the risk of climate change like to talk about the uncertainties of the science. And, at least in one sense, they're right. It's impossible to assert that global warming contributed X amount of damage to this year's floods, much less finger climate change as a precise component of the extraordinary violence of this spring's tornadoes. The best climate science can say is that a warming globe provides a nurturing context for more intense storms and weather extremes. Scientists can offer only scenarios, rather than a script, as to how that will play out.

Richard Seager of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory labs offered one such scenario in a much-discussed paper in the journal Science. It postulated that a warming globe would shift upper-atmosphere circulatory patterns and lead to "perpetual drought" in the American Southwest and other subtropical regions around the world.

Given that events on the ground have been playing out in a way that supports Seager's hypothesis, one would think, for instance, that planners for electrical grids and other sectors likely to be affected would stress-test their models for situations in which prolonged heat and drought became more frequent events. Via email, Seager told me that, indeed, the study had prompted concerned government officials to contact him. But how likely is any follow-up action if the very highest elected officials in the affected states dismiss the threat with scorn?

Though there have yet to be political costs to adopting an anti-scientific posture on the threat of climate change, the real economic costs of mispricing this risk have caught the attention of a good segment of the business community, from commodity traders to insurers. Reinsurers in particular (companies that insure the insurers against catastrophe) see risks on a global scale and have the data that allow them to sort out local effects from global trends. Insurers also are the best equipped to price those risks — when politicians let them.

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