What are the hidden costs of climate change?

| 17th July 2018
Luxury homes submerged in flood water

Damage on the Jersey Shore seen during a visit by Army Gen. Frank Grass, the chief of the National Guard Bureau; Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Denise Jelinski-Hall and other National Guard senior leaders to areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York and to Guard members supporting recovery operations on Nov. 2, 2012.

Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill
Implementing measures to reduce the effects of climate change may cost money, but the results of global warming can be far more costly, particularly the rise in natural disasters, writes EMILY FOLK

Natural disasters, for example, will be a prominent cause of economic damage due to rising global temperatures.

When people argue against taking action to fight climate change, they usually cite the economic impacts of such measures. Yes, fighting climate change does cost money, but the financial implications of letting it go unchecked could eventually be much worse.

Recent research found that for every degree Fahrenheit that global temperatures rise, the US could loss around 0.7 percent of its Gross Domestic Product. Part of what makes this situation complicated is that much of these costs won’t be visible for many years and won’t be distributed evenly among geographical regions and sectors of society.

It also might not be obvious that climate change caused some of these costs. Natural disasters, for example, will be a prominent cause of economic damage due to rising global temperatures. Let's take a look at just how much these catastrophic natural events may cost.

Large-Scale Storms

In recent times, billion-dollar hurricanes such as Harvey, Irma and Sandy have devastated various parts of the US. These kinds of events have been increasing in frequency, and if climate change continues to progress, they're only going to become more common.

While hurricanes are not expected to become more frequent overall, scientists do believe they will become more intense and will last longer in the future.

Other storms, such as tornados, hailstorms and thunderstorms, may follow similar patterns, further adding to the economic damage.

Warmer ocean temperatures lead to stronger hurricanes, so as ocean temperatures continue to rise, the formation of stronger storms becomes more likely. Increasing water vapor in the air due to increased air temperatures also gives hurricanes additional fuel.

The rising sea levels could also make hurricanes more destructive, as the storms will have a higher starting point, enabling them to reach further inland.

Heat Waves

In some areas, the frequency of heat waves has been increasing. The US set twice as many record highs over the last decade than record lows. In the past, the ratio was about one to one.

Some of these heat waves have led to costly droughts. At the peak of the drought in 2012, 81 percent of the contiguous US was experiencing unusually dry conditions. In 2011, Texas had its driest 12 months ever.

Heat waves cause significant human health risks, especially to the elderly. They also increase demand for energy, which exacerbates the rise of global temperatures if energy is generated using fossil fuels.

Droughts and heat waves can harm various industries, especially agriculture. In extreme droughts, crops wither. Livestock may also experience heat stress, which, in cattle, decreases milk production.

When droughts occur, the electricity sector may have an especially hard time meeting the increased demand caused by heat waves, as many plants require cooling water, and hydroelectric generation may run dry.

Massive Floods

Conversely, flooding may increase in other regions, even if total precipitation declines there.

Floods can be both costly and deadly. Damage to property and crops in the US averaged around eight billion dollars per year from 1981 to 2011. From 1959 to 2005, floods caused 4,586 deaths in the U.S.

Rather than increasing total rainfall, climate change may increase the frequency of instances of very heavy precipitation. In the Northeastern United States, for example, the heaviest storms produce 67 percent more rain than they did 50 years ago.

The reason for this change is that warmer air holds more moisture, so as global temperatures increase, so does heavy rainfall during precipitation events.

If emissions remain at current levels, scientists predict that precipitation during the heaviest events will increase by around 40 percent by the end of the century.

Winter Storms

Skeptics sometimes use the occurrence of extreme winter storms to question whether climate change is real, but scientists say that it could actually be causing more extreme winter storms.

Like with rain, weather like snowfall, hail and other forms of winter precipitation rely on moisture in the air, which climate change is increasing.

Another factor that could be contributing to the growing number of severe winter storms is the North American winter temperature dipole, a winter weather pattern that causes temperatures in the West to be abnormally warm and those in the East to be abnormally cold.

Research suggests that, as greenhouse gas emission increase, the dipole is becoming more common. Over time, though, global warming is expected to reduce the contrast between east and west and temper the effects of winter weather overall.

A warmer, moister atmosphere in the winter could also increase the strength of cyclones. Scientists emphasise, though, that changes in weather do not necessarily mean changes in climate and that the link between winter storms and climate change is especially tricky to decipher.

Devastating Wildfires

Wildfires have become more common in the Western United States. Today, US wildfires burn twice as much area as they did in 1970, and the average wildfire season has extended by 78 days.

Scientists project that this trend will continue if global temperatures continue to rise. For every one degree Celsius of temperature increase, the median areas burned each year could increase by 600 percent for some forest types. The hot and dry conditions caused by rising temperatures increase wildfire risk and make it easier for fires to spread.

Increases in the area burned would increase the already-high costs of forest fires. Since 2000, the US has experienced 11 billion-dollars in fires. As forests cover about a quarter of the land in North America, or about 500 million hectares, the potential for damage from wildfires is immense.

These fires have heavy consequences, from the destruction of homes, other facilities and infrastructure to the costs of fighting the fire. Wildfires can also cause substantial injury and loss of life.

Climate change can cost us in many different ways. One prominent way is through the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters. To protect against this damage from natural disasters, we need to take steps to mitigate and stop climate change today.

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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