Climate Change Hurts Our Economy

How many times have you heard a politician say that the United States just can’t afford to take strong action against climate change? Anyone who takes that position should assign his best number-cruncher to a cost-benefit analysis.

That number-cruncher might want to take a look at the heat wave that hit the Southwest recently. In Phoenix daily highs ranged from 112 to 119 last week. You could argue that this creates jobs for emergency room staff treating people with heat stroke, for firefighters in burning forests, and for construction workers rebuilding homes that those fires destroy.

But, seriously, extreme heat exacts a significant toll on our economy--not to mention on our health. And the less we do to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) that are considered a major factor in climate change, the greater the odds that we will experience these temperature spikes.

"Heat waves like the one we are seeing in the Southwest are becoming much more frequent," said Robert E. Kopp, director of the Coastal Climate Risk and Resilience Initiative at Rutgers University. "Looking forward, we expect the amount of extreme heat on the planet to continue increasing even more."

According to the National Academy of Sciences, the hottest days are now hotter. Since 1950, the number of heat waves has increased across the globe, lasted longer, and covered a wider area. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report noted that "most global land areas analyzed have experienced significant warming of both maximum and minimum temperature extremes since about 1950" and concluded that it is "likely that human influence has more than doubled the probability of occurrence of heat waves in some locations." 

American Airlines delayed and canceled 50 flights to and from Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport June 20 as the temperature hit 118 degrees, breaking last year’s record of 116.

...Even when the temperature is below the maximums, engines don’t perform as well in the less-dense hot air and the heat can damage brakes and tires, according to Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and aviation blogger.

More ominous than cancelled fights are the wildfires that rage in such hot, dry conditions. In Arizona there were 15 active wildfires as of June 23, each of which had burned at least 1,000 acres, according to federal fire-tracking data. Approximately 200 miles east of Phoenix more than 800 firefighters were battling the 21,000-acre Frye Fire descending Mount Graham. In Utah, a fire that started June 17 grew to over 27,000 acres, destroying 13 homes. The burned homes were among the 400 homes near the ski town of Brian Head, which was evacuated on June 22, according to state officials.

So far this year, California has seen 1,800 fires that have burned about three times more acreage than at this time last year, according to a Wall Street Journal story by Covey E. Son. New Mexico has reported 11 wildfires, the largest of which has burned 17,000 acres so far. And Nevada has reported seven wildfires, the largest of which has burned over 15,000 acres. 

Electricity production also is a concern. In California, where San Diego County set a record at 124 degrees, some communities faced power outages as air conditioners ran non-stop. Arizona utility APS set a record for power demand, and said it would have been even higher without the recent increase in rooftop solar, which has added more midday power for homes and businesses.

“Heat waves… are the No. 1 cause of U.S. weather-related fatalities on average over the last 30 years, more than tornadoes, more than floods, more than lightning,” said Kim Knowlton, assistant clinical professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The 2003 European heat wave was blamed for more than 30,000 deaths, and the three-day 1995 Chicago heat wave killed more than 700 people.

Anyone trying to calculate the total economic impact of all this heat should include crop loss, livestock deaths, buckling highways, and reduced worker productivity, to name just a few.

If you think our country should take action to reduce climate change’s threat to our economy and our health, we have a suggestion: Urge your senators and House member to support a carbon fee. Such a fee is the quickest, most efficient way to tackle climate change. The fee also would create a sizable revenue stream that could “pay for” tax cuts or other federal legislation.