Mounting costs of climate change

Models are often invoked when talking about climate change. Skeptics argue that the models are not sophisticated enough and are therefore wrong, which is technically true about any model, but other scientists argue that what has not been included in the models would make the outcomes in the future much worse. Still, the debate often sounds like one over how bad this is going to be for our grandkids.

But there is all too much evidence that we are already experiencing climate change. Consider Australia, a continent that is drying up with farmers walking away from their farms due to recent years of drought (see this article). Here in BC, a hot and dry summer has led to a summer of forest fires across the province, feeding on trees killed by the mountain pine beetle (itself an outcome of climate change as winters are not cold enough to kill them off). For two days running in July, Vancouver set all-time records for temperature.

True, one cannot blame a really hot day or a given storm on climate change, but it is the pattern across many parts of the world that matters. Too frequently are we hearing the refrain that this event was the worst of its kind in 30 or 70 years. The effects are not uniform with oscillations from a record warm winter to a record cold on the next year. I did not hear this but apparently Rex Murphy, the CBC’s resident curmudgeon, was ranting that global warming could not be happening because Ontario’s summer was so cool. Rex, it is less about the mean temperature and more about the variance.

And these changes are the result of the stock of emissions in the atmosphere 30-50 years ago. Today’s much higher concentrations mean the weather is going to get even worse another half-century onward, due to feedback loops that take a while to play out.

All of this is costing us money. BC’s fire fighting budget will close near half a billion dollars, about ten times what was budgeted. Below are some excerpts from the top weather stories of 2008 via Environment Canada (I did a post on the 2007 stories here), and I have flagged the items where a price tag was attached to the story to give a sense of costs. The top story was “the east’s big summer soak” and impacts on agriculture are notable:

For every region of Canada, it was the summer of our discontent. Residents on the Prairies witnessed a record number of weather warnings due to tornadoes, intense rainfalls, wind storms and hail storms.

… The rain spelled ruin for many growers in Eastern Canada in 2008. There was no question it was the worst year ever for hay growers. In Eastern Ontario and parts of southwestern Ontario, the first hay crop came in mid-August or later, never so late before and of poorer quality. In Cape Breton, hay production was down 50 to 80 per cent. Potato blight emerged. Blueberries were knocked off the vines, vegetables were bursting with too much water and grain crops lay flattened. At times, farmers in Atlantic Canada were up to their ankles in water, unable to drag machinery through the muck. Partial compensation helped Maritime farmers offset millions in losses. Quebec’s major commercial crops, which earn more than $1 billion for the province’s farmers, were adversely affected by the excess moisture. Because of frequent rains and limited sunshine, summer staples such as lettuce, strawberries, raspberries and tomatoes were big losers.

… A series of hailstorms hammered crops and orchards across Canada this summer. Ontario growers of tender fruit and grapes couldn’t remember more pelting times. In British Columbia’s Okanagan, growers – already big losers from April cold – saw fruit badly bruised and trees rattled by hail in early July that caused some orchardists to lose 40 per cent of their fruit. Across the Prairies, the Canadian Crop Hail Association made record payments to western producers of more than $341 million.

… Loss ratios were very high in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but considerably lighter in Manitoba. Albertans filed in excess of 4,800 hail claims, edging past the record set last year. Further, it was the highest total payout to Alberta producers at $98.6 million (47 per cent more than that collected from premiums). In mid-July, hail wiped out roughly half of the famous Taber corn crop and much of the grain and specialty vegetable crops. Taber farmers lost millions of dollars when entire fields of corn were shredded by the hail. Hail insurance payouts to Saskatchewan growers were the highest in history, at approximately $228 million, for a loss-to-premium ratio of 129 per cent. Nearly 21,000 claims were filed – 7,000 more than last year. The acreage affected was also a record. On virtually every day in July, hail occurred somewhere in Saskatchewan. Massive storms on July 9 and 10 pounded many of the same areas. Claims from those two days alone were estimated at $80 million.

… In late July, flash floods triggered by a torrential downpour of 70 mm in nine hours—prompted evacuation of dozens of families in Gambo, Newfoundland and Labrador. Rescue officials used canoes and heavy equipment to get around. Some homes had half a metre of water in their basements on ground levels. Some of the town’s byroads became impassable in gumbo-like mud. Small streams became raging rivers. The mayor of Gambo reported it would cost millions of dollars to repair the town’s flood-damaged infrastructure.

And then there was winter:

Ontario and Quebec endured one of the longest and snowiest winters in years. … All that white stuff made it an expensive year for snow removal. Snow dumps were full and city and provincial highway departments started rationing salt and sand supplies in February. Retailers sold out of snow shovels and salt early in the season. And with so much snow shovelling and pushing the “good old-fashioned” way, a 60 per cent increase in the number of musculo-skeletal injuries was noted.

Winter’s relentless snow also led to dozens of roof collapses. The roof of a small warehouse in Morin Heights, about 85 km north of Montreal, collapsed under the added weight of accumulated ice and snow, killing three women. In Shawinigan, a fallen roof smothered a homeowner to death under several layers of snow just seconds after he directed the rest of his family outside to safety.

… Winter 2007-2008 was one of the worst years ever for ice storm assaults on [Prince Edward] Island’s electricity grid. Combined with ice storms in December, January and again in February, repairs to Maritime Electric infrastructure totalled well in excess of $3 million.

… A record-long ice jam, the largest in 10 years, caused the ice-choked Nechako River in Prince George to overflow its banks in the middle of December 2007. … The flood threat persisted into February, forcing the evacuation of two dozen families from riverside homes and scores of businesses, including several saw mills and a fish hatchery. One veteran mill operator said that in three decades, he had never seen such bad flooding. While not unusual for Prince George, which has had 27 ice jam events since 1917, this year’s ice jam stretched as long as 35 km at its peak. The Nechako ice jam began retreating on February 7, thanks to rising temperatures and warm water pumped into the river from a nearby pulp mill. In total governments spent $6 million trying to rid the Nechako of the ice jam.


  • I refer often to Skeptical Science for the latest in climate-change denial arguments and their refutations. The author is excellent at replying to them, and this one keeps coming up – that is, warming stopped in 1998, or 2002, depending on what short-term moving-average graph you look at. Looking at the last season or years, instead of at the long-range trends, it’s possible for a little while to imagine it’s not happening. But it is, as the general upward trend (and drastic changes -up or down – in local climates) clearly illustrates.

    And it’s going to keep costing us money.

  • I’m confused … you’re arguing about devastating consequences of global *warming* yet you’re using examples of hailstorms and an excessively long, snowy winter.

    I don’t claim to have a good understanding of the science at all because I’m an economics student, not an environmental science student, but wouldn’t hail and long, snowy winters be examples of global cooling rather than warming?

  • David,

    That is exactly right. It is the extreme weather events like hail storms, wind storms, as well as increased floods, droughts, insect invasion and so forth that are part and parcel of global warming, not a general warming trend. Think of it as more heat equals more energy and that leads to more powerful dynamics in weather.

    As an economics student, you should seek to grab a greater understanding of this. There are many resources out there, but I might recommend the Stern review for the British government, published a few years ago by the former chief economist of the World Bank.

  • economists of the future should be required to take a handful of ecology and environmental courses.

    it should be mandatory in the junior years.

    but that would suggest a whole lot of change in the field, like the field actually accepting that climate change exists, I would say the field is still far from such unity in thinking.

    It still is treated as an externality in the main, and that is pathetically inadequate.

    For example-
    Increase in variability of weather patterns and the increased costs associated with production will become a common theme within the vocabulary one day. Some will most likely try to fit some kind of statistical model that will minimize costs associated with weather variabilty on production curves.

    Rather than dealing with the externalities we will just try and minimize costs.

    THere are some progressive voices and hopefully they will grow.


  • Thanks for the clarification Marc. I’m reluctant to read more on the topic, because the material I have read on climate change and global warming seems to provide conflicting assessments. I feel like I don’t have enough of an expertise to decide which assessments of global warming are reliable and which ones aren’t.

    As economists, I feel like it’s our job to leave the science to the scientists, and then take the scientists’ findings and develop policy solutions to them. It’s a comparative advantage thing; sure, I could invest lots of time developing a better understanding of the science, but I have better things to devote my time to and scientists can evaluate the science far more efficiently.

  • David,

    I’d still encourage you to check out the Stern Review. He starts with an overview of the science then translates that into the language of economics. I don’t pretend to be a climate scientist by any means but I’d argue that good economics must think about energy and materials as key inputs to production, and pollution and waste (especially greenhouse gas emissions) as non-market outputs (pervasive externalities).

    That intersection, generally known as ecological economics, will become increasingly important in the years to come, I suspect. Good luck with your studies.

  • the most frustrating thing for farmers about climate change is that we can’t predict, in even general terms, for reasonable crop management/planning.

    Marc you’re bang-on about the variance issue, and it a variance that has seen more extremes between localities as well as regionally, nationally, and internationally. the differences, even between some farm locations and others in the same district, are exagerrated as compared to the past.

    its hard to know what to plant for next year.

    we’ve had good rainfall so far this season in ontario, but then a few weeks of drought. people’s soybean fields are dead dry and farmers are out with watering trucks.

    farmers and indigenous peoples who still live off the land know that climate change is happening, the predictability of weather and dependent life is fundamentally gone.

    melting glaciers kind of provide evidence as well..!

    what people like Rex Murphy don’t understand is the nature of water in the water cycle, it’s behaviour in terms of temperature in sea, lake, and air currents, which are all quite fluid. the exact location of the water is what is key- water itself is a moderating influence on temperature generally, unless heated or cooled in its movements through atmospheric or polar extremes, evaporation is a cooling process, etc.

    GHGs ‘cook’ the atmosphere and the earth/waters, but the shifting of the waters through existing poles and seasons still interact with significant temperature differences. The result in localized experience is wildly swinging extremes within an overall general temperature rise at the global level.

    its kind of like a stock market graph of many connected ‘W’s, within an overall ‘L’ economic slope, except in the case of temperature, its a graph of many connected ‘W’s within a gradual slope rise.

    if one superimposes these graphs of economy and temperature one gets a very bad ‘X’.

    anyway, its been reported locally that there’s a website that has been set up to mount a global activist challenge to climate change ahead of the Copenhagen summit, called three hundred (put the numbers in rather than the words -my ‘three’ key on this computer doesn’t work which is why i can’t type the numbers in here).

    the three hundred 50 refers to parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is needed, rather than the current three hundred 90 ppm. apparently its a better measure of GHG reduction goals. i haven’t had a chance to check out the site yet, to look at important things like who is sponsoring it, etc., but maybe its worth a look.

  • 350 is a safe goal, but before the industrial revolution the number was around 280 ppm.

    couple of good links below

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