Global Warming, Its Effect on the Economy and You

Who Wins and Who Loses

Hurricane Harvey
••• People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Global warming is the increase in average temperatures of the world's atmosphere and oceans. The warmest 30-year period in the Northern Hemisphere over the last 1,400 years was between 1983 and 2012. Each of the past 16 years was among the warmest on record. 

How much has it warmed? Since the 1880s, the earth’s average temperature has risen 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit. That's 1.2 degrees Celsius. In the 2016 Paris Agreement, nations agreed temperatures shouldn't exceed 2.0 degrees Celsius.

The last time the planet was this warm was 11,000 years ago. That warming was caused by shifts in the earth's orbit. It soon led to the Little Ice Age. This time, temperatures are caused by the greenhouse effect. Temperatures will only get warmer.

In 1975, Professor William Nordhaus first warned about the economic impact of global warming. He predicted that doubling carbon dioxide would increase temperatures 2 degrees Celsius. Temperatures above that level risk hitting a tipping point. A large portion of the polar ice caps would melt, and increase sea levels. This would create a feedback loop that could raise temperature 5 degrees Celsius in the long-term.

In 2014, the World Bank predicted that temperatures will increase 4 degrees Celsius if nothing is done. At that temperature, the ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica melt. Combined, it raises the sea level 33 feet. Once sea levels rise just 10 feet, 12.3 million people who live along U.S. coastal areas would be flooded.

Instead of heeding Professor Norhaus's warning, man has allowed temperature increases to accelerate. For the last 45 years, the Earth's average temperature rose 0.17 degrees Celsius, or around 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit, per decade. That's double the average 0.07 degrees Celsius per decade increase that occurred during the entire period of recorded observations (1880-2015).

 

Temperatures in colder zones are rising even faster. In the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed by 1.7 degrees Celsius. That's twice as fast as the rest of the United States.  In 2016,the amount of sea ice in winter fell to a record low. In February 2017, temperatures at the North Pole rose 45 degrees above normal.The Bering Strait was ice-free. This "Arctic Amplification" will accelerate global warming elsewhere. The absence of sea ice contributes to further warming as the dark water absorbs the sun's radiation. 

Glaciers in Antarctica are losing their mass at an "unusually rapid" rate. For example, satellite pictures taken between 1992 and 1996 showed that the Pine Island Glacier lost thickness at a rate of 1.6 meters per year. That’s 42 times faster than 3.8 centimeters annual loss over the last 4,700 years. 

Global warming cost the U.S. government more than $350 billion between 2007 and 2017. It will cost $112 billion per year in the future, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Global warming will affect each area differently, creating winners and losers. This assumes that temperatures don't exceed the 2 degree Celsius goal. 

Winners

The colder areas of the U.S. farm belt will receive a longer growing season.

Alaska could become open to new development. The same goes for Scandinavian countries. Already, the growing season in Greenland is two weeks longer than in the 1970s. Washington, DC has an earlier tourist season, as the cherry trees have started blossoming a week earlier than 20 years ago.

Russia and Canada might become the biggest benefactors because they have the largest frozen land masses. That could significantly change the balance of power.

Shippers along the Northwest Passage will benefit from the melting ice cap. New channels will create cheaper shipping costs.

Losers

Longer summers have lengthened the allergy season. In some sections of the country, the pollen season increased by 25 days between 1995 and 2015. As a result, the 50 million asthma and allergy sufferers will pay for increased health care costs.

Higher levels of greenhouse gases encourage plants to produce more pollen. It creates "super pollen" that's larger and therefore more allergenic. Scientists predict that pollen counts will double by 2040. Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson estimated that 1,000 people would die from air pollution for every 1 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures. 

Shorter winters mean that disease-carrying pests have a lower die-off rate. As a result, places that were once immune to West Nile virus, malaria, and even bubonic plague are seeing breakouts. 

A longer growing season is not always good for crops. Early springs are often accompanied by seasonal frost. It kills buds and destroys the plant's productivity for the season. Even though the temperatures are warmer for longer, levels of sunshine don't change. Those levels are more important to thriving plants than is the temperature. Many plants need the longer winter to rest and restore their vitality. They need cooling fall temperatures to signal them to go into dormancy. Without that, they are exposed to cold temperatures when they do arrive. 

More frequent and stronger natural disasters create more infectious diseases.  The World Health Organization reported higher rates of hepatitis C, SARS, and hantavirus. Sufferers came in contact with contaminated water from flooding sewage systems during floods.

Forests throughout the United States have been suffering for years. A shorter winter means that many pests, such as the pine bark beetle, are not dying off in the winter. As a result, they are killing millions of trees. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 100,000 beetle-infested trees fall daily. This level of damage has never before been seen in U.S. recorded history.

Warmer summers have led to an increase in wildfires. The dead trees have increased the intensity of these fires. It destroys timber and is dangerous to people, property, and wildlife. 

Global warming has expanded the dry western Plains region 140 miles eastward. The "100th meridian" runs north to south through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. It separates the humid East from the dry West. It's now at the 98th meridian. As a result, farmers used to growing corn will have to switch to hardier wheat.

Droughts in the Midwest killed off corn crops, raising the price of beef. The California drought increased wildfires and increased the cost of nuts and fruits.

Warming temperatures are thawing the Arctic permafrost. It contains twice as much toxic mercury as the rest of all soils, atmosphere, and ocean combined. As the permafrost thaws, it also releases centuries of frozen greenhouse gases. It could cause a chain reaction of increased heating and thawing that would be unstoppable.

The warming Arctic increases the frequency of blizzards in the northeast United States and Europe. When the Arctic suddenly warms, it splits the polar vortex. That's a zone of cold air that circle the Arctic at high altitudes. When it splits, that cold Arctic air descends upon New England and Europe. Warmer ocean temperatures, also caused by global warming, adds moisture to the air. The result is a bomb cyclone that dumps massive amounts of snow.

As the oceans warm, they hold less oxygen. Fish avoid some sections of the ocean because they are suffocating. These "dead zones" have expanded by 4.5 million square kilometers since the 1950s.  As a result, many popular species of fish stay near the oxygen-rich surface. 

Warmer and rising oceans could shift the North Atlantic current away from Europe. Most of Europe is north of the state of Maine. Without the warm waters of the current, Europe will become as cold as Newfoundland.

Here's What Happened the Last Time the Earth Warmed Quickly

Global warming is occurring at a faster rate than at any other time in the Earth's history. The closest comparison is the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum. It was the era between the end of dinosaurs and the rise of mammals. Over 5,000 years, between 4 trillion to 7 trillion tons of carbon was released. Humans are releasing the same levels of carbon over hundreds, not thousands, of years.

As the planet warmed, it triggered a chain reaction. It released reservoirs of solid methane buried seafloor sediments. Wildfires released more carbon dioxide. It increased global temperatures by at least 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Large animals went extinct, and smaller ones thrived. The horse evolved into a smaller version of itself. It went from the size of a large dog to a small house cat. It took more than 150,000 years for the carbon dioxide levels to recede to more normal levels.

Increased Hurricanes Cost Billions

More than half of Americans believe that global warming increases the size and frequency of hurricanes and other extreme weather events. That's more than the 39 percent who said so 10 years ago. 

Here's a record of hurricane damage to the economy. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina created $108 billion to $250 billion in damage. It caused GDP to decline from 3.8 percent in Q3 to 1.3 percent in Q4 2005. In 2008, Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Ike hit the United States. Though they did not cause as much damage, they support the trend of more frequent and more severe hurricanes caused by global warming.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy flooded New York City at its 500-year flood mark. It cost $70 billion in damage. That means flood insurance could increase by $2,000 per person per year

Scientists predict that hurricanes like Sandy will occur every 25 years on average. By 2030, they will hit New York every five years. That's because rising sea levels make storm flooding that much worse. As a result, New York's subway system would experience regular flooding.

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey dropped 51 inches of rain on Texas in four days. It forced 30,000 people out of their homes in Houston. Experts predict the damage will be at least $150 billion. Then Hurricane Irma devastated Florida, creating $100 billion in damage.

Climatologists agree that global warming make hurricanes like Harvey worse. First, it raises temperatures. Warm air holds more moisture, so less rain falls during normal storms. Instead, it dumps buckets during the strongest storms. In the last 50 years, the amount of precipitation that fell in the heaviest one percent of storms has increased in the United States. Some regions saw a 71 percent increase in the precipitation from their heaviest storms. 

Second, warmer global temperatures melted more polar ice and glaciers. That raised the sea levels around Houston by six inches over the past 20 years. 

Third, global warming has stalled weather patterns in the region. That allowed Harvey to hover over Houston instead of moving back out into the ocean. The convergence of all three effects allowed Harvey to drop feet of rain instead of inches. 

How Global Warming Contributed to Trump's Victory

An article in Der Speigel, Germany's newspaper, observed how global warming might impact U.S. elections. In 2007, the Nobel Committee awarded Al Gore a Peace Prize to send a signal to U.S. policy makers. It was a warning to the United States to live within its means. 

But the Gore factor is having its most powerful effect in a sphere beyond partisan politics, penetrating deep into the insecure American middle class. Its way of life – and this is the real message behind the Nobel Committee's decision – is no longer sustainable.

 

The newspaper predicted that there would be more green party candidates as a result. At first, it seemed to work. In 2007, the Department of Energy invested $1 billion to spur the biofuels industry to reduce greenhouse gases. Over 100 biofuel factories produced 6.4 billion gallons of ethanol using 18 million acres of corn. This was 20 percent of total U.S. corn production, which drove corn prices to a record $4 per bushel. Since most of corn production is used to feed livestock, this caused food prices to increase four percent. (Source: "Biomass 2008: Fueling Our Future," Department of Energy, April 2008. "The Price of Biofuels," MIT Technology Review, January/February 2008.)

But 10 years later, America's "insecure middle class" rebelled against the "Gore factor." In 2016, it elected Donald Trump to the presidency.

On June 1, 2017, Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. His 2018 budget slashed funding for climate change research. It cut the Environmental Protection Agency's budget by 31 percent. He ordered the EPA administrator to reverse standards on tailpipe emissions. 

Trump and other Republicans believe sustainable practices will hinder economic growth. But even conservative Newt Gingrich disagreed in his book A Contract with the Earth. He argued that environmental sustainability and economic prosperity are far from mutually exclusive. He said, "if environmental quality declines enough, the economy won’t be able to function at all.”

What You Can Do

A majority (71 percent) of Americans believe global warming is real.  Almost two-thirds (64 percent) believe it is affecting U.S. weather.  Almost half (45 percent) believe it poses a serious threat in their lifetime. More than one in five are very worried about global warming. Fifty-four percent of Americans believe global warming is caused by humans. Only a third believe it is from natural causes. 

If you want to support efforts to reduce global warming, there are some simple steps you can take. Cut your heating bill by living in a small house and ensuring it has good insulation. Buy EnergyStar home appliances. Eat less meat. Purchase more local products to cut down on emissions from shipping. Turn off lights and unplug appliances when not in use. 

The way you drive and maintain your car can significantly improves mileage. Keep the tires inflated, change the air filter, accelerate slowly after a stop, and drive under 60 miles per hour. That will reduce your emission of greenhouse gases. For more great tips, see "Mean Machine," The Economist, April 9, 2007. (Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014.)