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Sorting Out Winners and Losers in Climate Change

The study of economics is a lot like a film by Joel and Ethan Coen – you know the ending will be bad, very bad for somebody, but you can’t look away as the story rolls on and sorts-out the winners and losers.  I need to admit two things right up front:  sometimes I hang out with economists (having joined that “club” years ago in college), and I haven’t seen a Coen Brothers’ film I didn’t like.

An economist friend recently loaned me the book Climatopolis.  Judging from its title, you might think the book is science fiction.  Well, not exactly (we economists are non-fiction biased).  Climatopolis  is a unique look at human adaptation to global warming.

The book’s author, Matthew Kahn,  is. . ..you guessed it – an economist.  Kahn begins with the premise that global warming is in fact occurring and that over the next century global temperatures will increase despite human efforts to mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases.  Not that we won’t try to break our bad habits, but we are doomed to be unsuccessful on that front.  Kahn, the economist, makes the case for how cities around the globe will fare in the face of global warming.  As you might guess, some places do better than others.  According to Kahn, geography will play a vital role in determining adaptability, but so does a city’s willingness and ability to plan now for a much hotter future. 

The bottom line:  if you want to live in a climate-friendly place in the next century (assuming that medical science finds a way to lengthen the average life spans of our generation by about 70 years), you might consider Salt Lake City, Fargo, Detroit, or Moscow (Russia, not Idaho).  You might want to avoid New York City, where rising sea levels pose a threat of flooding.  And, you might want to avoid Phoenix, where rising temperatures coupled with extended drought will diminish already scarce water supplies.  Venice and Calcutta are definitely out because they’ll be inundated with water – and, not the good kind.

But, Kahn tells us, it’s not all doom and gloom for the losers, or windfall for the winners.  Human ingenuity together with a strong dose of capitalism will lead us to adapt and prosper in a hotter world – and to make at-risk places (like Phoenix) safer and more livable.

Some climate-at-risk cities, like San Diego are already looking ahead to what a hotter future holds. 

“. . . by 2050 its sea level will be 12 to 18 inches higher and the average annual temperature will increase
4.5 degrees F.  The region will require 37 percent more water. .  but the supply of water from sources such as the Colorado River will be smaller by 20 percent or more.  Climate change will cause the fire season to start earlier,
and the annual number of days with ideal conditions for big wildfires will increase by up to 20 percent.” 1

Clearly, predicting the outcomes from climate change isn’t enough to solve the problem, but it does provide a basis for averting calamity.

Pushed by movie stars, environmental groups, academics and scientists, California seems to be jumping on the climate planning bandwagon in a big way.  In 2008, Governor Schwarzenegger directed state agencies to plan for rising sea levels due to climate change.  Last December, the 2009 California Climate Adaptation Strategy was released which provides recommendations for preparing California for the effects of rising temperatures.   One recommendation was that an advisory panel be formed to work with the Pacific Council on International Policy to examine three critical areas:

- Increased wildfires and extended fire seasons
- Rising sea levels along 1,100 miles of coastline
- Reduced availability of water with reduced snow pack in the Sierras and extended periods of drought

In a recently released report, the California Adaptation Advisory Panel and Pacific Council on International Policy call for stepped-up data gathering, the establishment of a Climate Risk Council, and monitoring and coordination among state agencies and the private sector to prepare for the effects of climate change.

As world leaders and climatologists meet once again this year in Cancun, Mexico to discuss global efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions, it appears unlikely that a global accord will be reached.  More and more, the discussion about climate change is emphasizing the need for adaptation rather than focusing solely on mitigation.

An article appearing in the December 3, 2010 issue of Economist concludes that events like this year’s flooding in Pakistan make climate disaster planning an immediate necessity.  Without planning and preparation, future climate disasters will have devastating consequences.

So, by now you’re probably asking --- what’s the point of this post?

A few things.

First, I recommend Climatopolis – it’s an interesting read, and even if you aren’t moved to buy real estate in North Dakota, it will give you a lot to think about.  If the climate predictions are reasonably correct (whether or not man-made greenhouse gases are the principal cause,) to survive and thrive in the future, humans will need to adapt to a warmer climate.  For inhabitants of the desert Southwest, it means that we had better be prepared to deal with long-term drought and ever shrinking water supplies to serve our growing population.  If we think it’s an issue now, just wait 50 years, when our children and grandchildren face summer temperatures that regularly exceed 120 degrees.  We need strong leadership to bring together the best and brightest minds to plan for our water future.  And we need to get moving now.

Oh yes, here is my second point, I can’t wait to see the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit, coming soon to neighborhood theaters.  Be sure to bring your canteen, pilgrim, you might get thirsty!  

1. The San Diego Foundation Regional Focus 2050 Study

Written on Friday, 10 December 2010 00:00 by Gary Yaquinto

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