Any person who really doubts that our world’s climate has undergone tremendous changes, and that greenhouse gases are a major culprit, must have been on another planet for the past decade. A recently-released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should get the attention of those who have been denying climate change. What can’t be disputed are the freakish weather disasters — from the sudden October snowstorm in the northeastern part of the United States to the record floods in Thailand — that have become commonplace occurrences.
Global warming, which is worldwide, is likely to spawn more similar weather extremes at a huge cost, according to the IPCC report. The panel of the world’s top climate scientists, who did the research, paint a scary future for a world already being hit with weather catastrophes costing billions of dollars. According to the report, costs will rise and some locations may even become “increasingly marginal as places to live.”
I have to wonder how some political leaders are still taking the “ostrich approach” when it comes to the climate change issues. If they have children or grandchildren, surely they are concerned about what the future holds for them. If they aren’t concerned or simply don’t care, I recommend they read the IPCC report. According to this report, there is at least a two-in-three probability that weather extremes have already worsened because of man-made greenhouse gases. That’s a pretty high percentage by any recognized standard.
The findings in the report mark a change in climate science from focusing on subtle changes in daily average temperatures to concentrating on the harder-to-analyze freak events that grab headlines, cause economic damage and kill people. Jerry Meehl, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, made this observation:
The extremes are a really noticeable aspect of climate change. I think people realize that the extremes are where we are going to see a lot of the impacts of climate change.
The climate panel report measures the confidence scientists have in their assessment of climate extremes, both past and future. The report didn’t detail which regions of the world might suffer extremes so severe as to leave them only marginally habitable. But the report does say scientists are “virtually certain” – 99% – that the world will have more extreme periods of heat and fewer of cold. It’s predicted by the scientists that heat waves could peak much hotter by mid-century and with even more intense heat waves by the end of the century.
The conclusion that heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are building up so high, so fast, some scientists now believe the world can no longer limit global warming to the level world leaders have agreed upon as safe. New figures from the U.N. weather agency reveal that the three biggest greenhouse gases not only reached record levels last year, but were increasing at an ever-faster rate, despite efforts by many countries to reduce emissions. It’s now believed by a number of scientists that it’s unlikely the world can hold warming to the target set by leaders just two years ago. Jim Butler, director of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Global Monitoring Division, observed: “The growth rate is increasing every decade. That’s kind of scary.”
Scientists can’t say exactly what levels of greenhouse gases are safe, but a great number fear a continued rise in global temperatures will lead to irreversible melting of some of the world’s ice sheets and a several-foot rise in sea levels over the centuries — the so-called tipping point. The findings from the U.N. World Meteorological Organization are consistent with other grim reports issued recently. Figures from the U.S. Department of Energy last month showed that global carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 jumped by the highest one-year amount ever. That simply can’t be allowed to continue.
The top two other greenhouse gases — methane and nitrous oxide — are also soaring. The U.N. agency cited fossil fuel-burning, loss of forests that absorb CO2 and use of fertilizer as the main culprits. Since 1990 — a year that international climate negotiators have set as a benchmark for emissions — the total heat-trapping force from all the major greenhouse gases has increased by 29 percent, according to NOAA.
The accelerating rise is happening despite the 1997 Kyoto agreement to cut emissions. It’s reported that Europe, Russia and Japan have about reached their targets under the treaty. But the United States, China, and India are all increasing emissions and that’s not good. The treaty didn’t require emission cuts from China and India because they are developing nations. The U.S. pulled out of the treaty in 2001, the U.S. Senate having never ratified it.
Let’s consider what the climate disasters in the U.S. have cost us over the last decade. Deaths and health problems from floods, drought and other U.S. disasters related to climate change cost an estimated $14 billion during that time, according to a study found in the Health Affairs Journal. Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a co-author of the study, said: “When extreme weather hits, we hear about the property damage and insurance costs. The healthcare costs never end up on the tab.”
The study looked at the cost of human suffering and loss of life due to six disasters from 2000-2009. It was pointed out by Dr. Knowlton that the study didn’t attempt “to capture all of the climate-related events that happened in the U.S. over that time period.” To put all of this in context, 14 weather disasters in the United States so far this year have cost at least $14 billion, according to Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground website. He says that health costs and deaths are considered in some of the data used to reach this figure. Scientists and economists from the non-profit NRDC, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of California-San Francisco estimated the health costs for the following events from 2000 to 2009. These costs were:
• U.S. ozone air pollution, 2000-2002, $6.5 billion;
• West Nile virus outbreak in Louisiana, 2002, $207 million;
• Southern California wildfires, 2003, $578 million;
• Florida hurricane season, 2004, $1.4 billion;
• California heat wave, 2006, $5.3 billion; and
• Red River flooding in North Dakota, 2009, $20 million.
The study’s authors stressed that they chose events in the middle of the severity spectrum and left out some notably costly disasters, such as the 2005 hurricane season that included the devastating Hurricane Katrina. For example, in the case of Katrina, the healthcare costs were said to have been difficult to pinpoint. But in any event, the authors said that the six case studies used are examples of events related to climate change that are projected to worsen as the planet warms.
These six events, according to the study, resulted in an estimated 1,689 premature deaths, 8,992 hospitalizations, 21,113 emergency room visits and 734,398 outpatient visits. In dollars, the largest cost by far was for premature deaths at $13.3 billion, which number was based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s value of a statistical life, which is $7.6 million. This was not meant to put a value on any one life but to calculate how much people in aggregate would be willing to spend to lessen the risk of death from certain causes, including the events cited in the study.
Considering the state of the world economy, I sincerely hope that our elected leaders will soon realize that the costs related to weather-related disasters in the future will be huge. Hopefully, those leaders will soon realize failing to recognize the reality of climate change for political gain – ignoring the consequences of inaction – will be disastrous!
Sources: Birmingham News, guardian.co.uk, and Insurance Journal
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