By: Nora Germain
We have no choice but to face climate change. This piece, which is blog 10 of my climate and coordination opinion series, is all about some of the ways that the climate crisis may have consequences for our families, businesses and homes. There are a lot of misconceptions about who and what will be affected by this challenge, usually as a result of environmental implications being severely underestimated and underappreciated, especially on the long term.
In general, most people are unaware of how much our nations, economies and lives rely on a healthy planet for basic functions. They appreciate the beauty of nature, love to go on a refreshing weekend hike, or when they plan a vacation, choose to go somewhere that has a rich natural landscape. However, it’s lost on most of us how much we really need a thriving planet, and how much value nature gives beyond our basic enjoyment. Aside from that we have also lost our basic empathy for the natural world, and its right, if you will, to exist with or without humans. In short, we have taken our planet for granted.
Before going into the different areas of the economy that will be affected by climate change, it’s important to recognize that we maintain our economy based on the natural wealth of our planet, and that our planet is finite. If we don’t innovate drastically in a wide array of areas, we will imperil our extremely globalized society.
Think about your typical morning. You wake up wearing clothes and sleeping in sheets that are made from some blend of natural and unnatural fibers. Much of these materials are plants, like cotton or bamboo or others. You may have a wooden floor, or a wooden bed. That’s trees. You walk to your bathroom and take a shower. The water comes from a local aquifer or another natural source. Then you eat your breakfast. You have a glass of orange juice. That requires a healthy orange tree. You have a cup of coffee. That requires a healthy coffee plant. You eat a piece of toast. Toast requires a healthy wheat field or something similar.
Keep going through your day, to your devices, to your other groceries, and you’ll soon realize that our planet Earth provides us with everything that we need to live. These materials/ goods/ foods don’t fall from the sky or come from the internet, where they are in infinite supply. They come from a finite place which is our singular planet. Earth does all of this before we even think of the miracles on a molecular level like regulating our atmosphere so we can breathe.
Of course, vast innovation will be required in order to continue providing technologies, cars, clothing, food and water for the world’s growing population. There is a lot that can be done to innovate, and every way that we can conserve energy and minimize waste will be of vital importance, because our societal demands on what Earth provides us are not, as of yet, diminishing. This is to say nothing of our fossil fuel use and the separate but connected crisis of trash and pollution.
Because of this reality, we must all understand that our changing climate is not something that can be ignored. It’s not something that will just happen to someone else’s country or to someone else’s farm. It’s not just something that makes someone else’s family move, but never yours. It’s a challenge that we must all face because it touches all aspects of life and the economy. It doesn’t serve us to ignore this challenge or to assume that we are immune or will only be mildly inconvenienced 50 years from now.
The first sector that climate change could drastically damage is infrastructure, specifically internet infrastructure. National Geographic published a piece in 2018 called “The Internet is Drowning.” This piece explains that sea level rise is threatening the cables and power stations that millions of people rely on to work, communicate and so forth. The sea level is rising, and much of this infrastructure will have to be moved or waterproofed, if that’s even possible, to ensure that these complex and vital systems can endure.
The article continues to explain. “Within 15 years, thousands of miles of fiber optic cable—and hundreds of pieces of other key infrastructure—are likely to be swamped by the encroaching ocean. And while some of that infrastructure may be water resistant, little of it was designed to live fully underwater.”
Furthermore these events are not only a long term future risk. “Cities like New York, Miami, and Seattle are likely to see up to 12 inches of extra water by 2030—well inside the time range of a mortgage on a house, or the planning horizon for big public infrastructure projects. A foot of extra water wending through some of those cities, the researchers say, would put about 20 percent of the nation’s key internet infrastructure underwater.” If that doesn’t sound like a crisis, I don’t know what does.
The next sector that will continue to be affected by climate chaos is human health, and it’s a huge subject but here is one recent example. We saw in Texas and in other neighboring areas this past February that local infrastructure was not prepared for outlying storms, and this caused dozens of deaths. Millions of people went without some combination of heat, electricity or water for days and the result was catastrophic. The stress and PTSD could have lasting consequences as well.
Arguably the most frustrating part of this story was that Texas experienced a similar event in 2011, and after calls to weatherize the grid and to take other actions to prevent a future disaster went unanswered, millions of people were left physically vulnerable, and some dead, because officials chose to ignore the threat of climate change. They likely assumed a similar storm would never happen again, and if it did, it wouldn’t be as bad. So we are already seeing the consequences of ignoring this crisis, and in raw financial terms, it’s costing families upwards of thousands of dollars — each.
The next area of the economy that has already been hit and will continue to be hit by climate change is agribusiness or farming. In 2019, flooding of about one million acres of farmland in the midwest region of the United States caused widespread devastation. This caused huge financial losses to local farmers and had much wider economic implications. The flooding continued for the better part of a year, and for some individuals, took many months to resolve. The Chicago Tribune estimated total flood damage costing about $6B, which is no small price tag for a single climate disaster.
The report continues to explain. “A warmer atmosphere can convey more moisture to meteorological systems that develop, meaning they can deliver more rainfall potentially… We see the largest events getting larger.” It’s important to understand that in some areas, climate change can cause excessive rain, and in others, excessive drought. Both result in a huge disruption of the systems that our societies have counted on for thousands of years.
The next sector of the economy to be disrupted by climate change is the financial sector. The Washington Post reports that climate change could cost up to 10.5% of the United States’ entire GDP by 2100, which sounds a long way away, but many people already living will still be alive then. It’s only 79 years away.
Climate disasters involving floods, droughts, fires and sea level rise are already costing governments hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and that is money that could otherwise be put into education or other worthy pursuits. Ignoring climate change is a plan for long term financial disaster. Many of the world’s largest money managers and investment firms understand this. As some criticize government spending to get the climate crisis under control (for example, investing in clean energy or strengthening infrastructure), the pure financial cost of doing nothing is sure to be much higher, nevermind moral costs and others.
Finally, the last way that climate will affect our way of life is through the climate refugee or climate migrant crisis. This challenge is already underway in many parts of the world including the United States, and it is at its most basic, a coordination problem. Many human migrations of the past two decades or so have been in part, caused by climate change.
For example, The Syrian refugee crisis was exacerbated by a long term drought which caused economic problems and destabilization in general. We have seen this pattern in other places, like South America as well, or after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Aside from the cultural and political clashes which frankly, the world does not have time for, this is a logistical challenge which will become larger and more complex with time.
Fortune Magazine published a piece several years ago which quoted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson saying, “We don’t have a system — we don’t have a civilization with the capacity to pick up a city and move it inland 20 miles [32 kilometers].” However you feel about any individual scientist’s opinion, the challenge of moving cities inward will be immense, and we are not presently prepared.
There are of course many more sectors of the economy and of human existence that will be affected by climate change like tourism, availability of water resources and others, but in order to keep this blog at a readable length, I only wanted to outline a few. Some of these sectors even have sectors within them, like was mentioned before in the case of human health. Freezing to death in your Texas home is not even one of the more likely human health risks of the climate crisis. Heat stroke, dehydration, and air pollution from fires are much more common, for example, but it becomes difficult to touch on them all.
The scope of these challenges is huge, and my hope is to inspire people to find ways to face these challenges rather than minimizing, ignoring or hoping them away, which is only a short term (and mostly ineffective) strategy. We build our businesses on land that we assume won’t burn, won’t flood or erode. We feed our children and ourselves with food that we assume will continue to grow unimpeded. We use data and banking systems with internet infrastructure that we assume will stand forever.
It’s time for our global society, more connected and interdependent than ever before, to understand the collective pressures we’ve put on our planet, the coordination challenges that we now face, and the consequences of our willful inaction. It’s very likely that no matter where you live or how much money you make or what sector you work in, that the climate crisis will affect your life if it hasn’t already. You are one of the lucky ones if your present moment offers time to prepare.