Why Climate Change Really Is Our Most Urgent, Number One Priority Right Now

A little over a week ago Bill Nye (the Science Guy) was on CNN’s “Crossfire” segment where he “debated”, and I hesitate to use this word when describing the following people, pundit S. E. Cupp and the Heritage Foundation‘s Nicolas Loris on the impact that climate change has on our lives. Amidst Bill’s clearly superior understanding of climate science and Loris’ “>muh federalism” cries, Cupp stepped up and did make one interesting point when she said

[Y]ou can look at entitlement reform which will bankrupt this country long before climate change destroys us, heart disease kills 7 million a year worldwide, 870 million suffer from hunger; I want you to look me in the eye and tell me in good conscience that climate change is our most urgent, number one priority right now.

While I loved Bill’s response and her reaction, I feel like he could have run with it more. Specifically, climate change directly affects the root cause of each of those issues and solving climate change is a prerequisite to solving any of the issues Cupp brought up. You see, climate change really is our most urgent, number one priority because it will not only be a huge blow to the economies of the world due to flooding and relocation issues, but it will disrupt global food supplies due to crop failures and ocean acidification, and the increased temperatures will create higher outbreak rates for diseases. All these, which will be fleshed out below, are reasons why climate change is a prior question and answers the impacts of Cupp’s claims.

My aim in writing this is not to provide a comprehensive list of the impacts of climate change, rather to point out that climate change comes before every issues that Cupp claims is more important.


The Economics of Climate Change

The first, and most noticeable affect that climate change has on average citizens is a spike in extreme weather conditions (from hurricanes to wildfires to intense floods). This spike is correlated not only with increased relocations, but a massive economic toll that will only get worse.

Specifically, as the severe weather conditions increase, the infrastructure in developing countries that is not able to withstand massive changes will crumble and thus irrigation and other essential agricultural infrastructure will be lost. In Bangladesh alone, climate change has caused a “10% productivity loss” which translates to a loss of $2.5 billion dollars (Harvey).

What’s worse, looking at empirics we see that climate change has already (in contrast to Cupp’s assertion that the impacts are only in the future) cost the world 1.6% of its GDP or $1.2 trillion dollars, according to the DARA group and the 50 some scientists, economists, and policy experts they employ. The study, entitled “Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of A Hot Planet”, takes data points and uses current models of growth and  production and calculates that by 2030, climate change will deal a blow to global GDP to the tune of a 3.2% loss and an 11% loss directly to developing countries. In the context of the US, the study finds that with the increasing intensity of storms, the US could lose 2% of our GDP due to repairs and production failures (Chinery-Hesse).

(To compare, the US defense budget in 2011 was $718 billion)

Also, for those who have a decent amount of time to read a study, an assessment published by the Center for Integrative Environmental Research (CIER) at the University of Maryland entitled “The US Economic Impacts of Climate Change and the Costs of Inaction” outlines the impacts and costs by region of the US from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, to Hawaii and US Affiliated Islands.

The Food Politics of Climate Change

As lightly touched upon above, climate change has ramifications that extend far beyond the realm of pure economics. The increase in severe weather as well shifting weather patterns are already affecting global output of food and subsequently food prices. In fact, the UN’s top panel on natural resources finds that food supplies will be directly affected by climate change.

Specifically, the IPCC found that climate change’s erosion of coral reefs and melting of ice caps are fundamentally changing the way weather patterns work to such a large extent that crop yields are sharply dropping and ecosystems are being destroyed and, by 2050, food prices could rise by 84%. This is caused by many factors, but a large part is decreasing fish catches which are predicted to drop by at least 40% (Goldenberg).

And sticking with my love empirical data, let’s see what has happened in the past. According to a study by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, average food prices have spiked. Between 2006 and 2008 (granted a tad old but it is the cause of the hunger Cupp cites) the price of rice rose by 217%, the price of wheat rose by 136%, the price of corn rose by 125%, and the price of soybeans has risen by 107% (Mazhirov).

(In case you can’t infer this, that’s kinda a big deal)

But that’s not all, water is a pretty important thing to life and thus increases in water scarcity will increase malnutrition. And who would have guessed, climate change is a direct threat to water security. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled “Multimodel assessment of water scarcity under climate change” found that changes in weather patterns, specifically rainfall and evaporation patterns, are directly putting 40% more people at risk of water scarcity. Currently the ratio of people with water scarcity is 2:100 but if unmitigated climate changes continues, that figure could jump to 10:100 (Bidwell)(Schewe et al.).

But that’s just the beginning: the mere release of Co2 causes tons of problems for marine life. Once Co2 is released, some of it is absorbed by plants, some stays in the atmosphere contributing to the greenhouse effect, and some gets dissolved into the oceans. This occurs much the same way oxygen gets into the water, but Co2 directly affects the acidity of water. On a small scale this would be fine, but on a large scale and over time, we see a downward trend in the pH of the oceans because more and more Co2 is getting dissolved. This drop in pH leads to the oceans being slightly more acidic in what scientists call “ocean acidification”. Ocean acidification isn’t some “oh, the water is slightly more sour” type of thing, rather it affects organisms at the bottom of the food chain and the impacts reverberate upwards. Specifically, the acidifying of the oceans leads to a decrease in coral growth, some types of snails that are crucial first level food sources are unable to construct their calcium shells and thus die before being a food source, and ultimately sensitive fish like salmon die as well. These deaths directly contribute to dropping number of fish that are being caught and the increase in fish prices (Romm).

This is a net bad thing for biodiversity because species of fish that live amidst coral are deprived of protection and thus die off. Organisms that feed on the small snails (called sea butterflies) are unable to eat because their food source, the sea butterflies, are dying (Whitty). And obviously, organisms that depend on salmon and the habitats they create will die. In fact, we’re seeing this right now with the Pacific Ocean’s increasing acidity and the drop in sea butterfly populations due to damaged shells. This loss of the base source of food for many marine creatures will lead to food shortages because it risks entire ecosystems collapsing (Chow). So when Cupp says “870 million suffer from hunger”, remember that this figure is this high because we have destroyed fertile land and climate change is making ecosystems less sustainable. If we continue this trend, Cupp’s figure will most certainly rise.

What’s worse though is that we don’t fully understand the complex relationships of oceanic organisms and thus far too often, our predictions of “it won’t be that bad” are dead wrong – that is, we have a tendency to downplay the risks even in current risk assessments. By continuing to pour Co2 into the atmosphere and subsequently acidifying the oceans, we are quite literally playing Russian Roulette with nature (Hendriks et al.).

And, at risk of sounding like an alarmist, there is one other implication and that is habitat destruction. As the temperature increases and water becomes more acidic, increased pressures are placed on animals in their habitats and those with already fragile ecosystems due to human intrusion will suffer the most. Scientists predict that with the loss of one species, another will go, and another and another in a cascade effect. This will be detrimental not only to human life, but to all life because organisms will no longer have food or a place to survive. If more habitats are destroyed, that directly trades off with food supplies because animals begin to die off and simple foods start to cost more and more (Hansen).

(Keep in mind, all the above is ignoring the fact that a total collapse of the ecosystem is possible which would put us in a much worse situation than just being hungry.)

The Epidemiology of Climate Change

What’s worse, climate change has a very real affect on the mutation and spread of new diseases. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, infections such as malaria, cholera, and others are climate sensitive and are increasing in prevalence.

Specifically, as the climate changes and more people are displaced, population density in already crowded cities increases and as that occurs, the instances of tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and dengue/Lyme disease increase as well due to the close proximity of people. What’s more, the changing climate creates a more “mosquito-friendly habitat” which will increase the number of vectors that are linked to cases of malaria and dengue (Schnackenberg).

This increase in already dangerous diseases affects the poorest people who, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), already number almost 1 billion that are infected with one or more tropical disease…and this is just going to increase. But there are direct implications for citizens of the United States as well. In 2009 dengue was detected in Florida due to an increase in the number of vectors that transport the disease. Specifically, the changing climate increased communicability such that the infection rate rose to 5% (Irfan).

And this is quite literally only the tip of the iceberg. Peter Hotez of the National School of Tropical Medicine commented on the lack of data and detection methods when he said “[i]n most cases, we don’t know. We’re just really getting our arms around how pervasive disease is” (Irfan). We haven’t just open Pandora’s Box, we’ve smashed it.

All that being said and in all fairness, it’s hard to make concrete claims or predictions given the nature of epidemiology and the lack of current data regarding climate change and infectious diseases. But, if you have time, I suggest you give this WHO chapter entitled “Climate Change And Infectious Diseases” a read, it has some good information on past data.

Conclusion/Letter to Sarah Elizabeth Cupp

Dear Sarah,

Given the sourced information above linking climate change, which you don’t dispute is anthropogenic (human caused), to drastic drops in global and country specific GDP, massive spikes in food prices and destruction of environments which provide us with food, and increased communicability of some of the most deadly diseases in the world, I have a request.

I want you to look me in the eye (be it on TV or through email) and tell me in good conscience that, given the evidence above, climate change is NOT our most urgent, number one priority right now.

Sincerely,
Peter Heft
(piotr.heft@gmail.com)

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References:

Bidwell, Allie. “Study: Climate Change Could Put Millions More at Risk of Water Scarcity.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 16 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 May 2014. <http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/12/16/study-climate-change-could-put-millions-more-at-risk-of-water-scarcity>.

Chinery-Hesse, Mary, Helen Clark, Simon Maxwell, David Nabarro, Atiq Rahman, Teresa Ribera, Johan Rockstrom, Jeffrey Sachs, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Javier Solana, Andrew Steer, Margareta Wahlstrom, Jose Maria Figueres, Michael Zammit Cutajar, And Others, Robert Glasser, Saleemul Huq, Yolanda Kakabadse, Ashok Khosla, Ricardo Lagos, Loren Legarda, and Micahel Marmot. “Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2012 – DARA.” DARA Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2012 Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 May 2014. <http://daraint.org/climate-vulnerability-monitor/climate-vulnerability-monitor-2012/>.

Chow, Denise. “Acidic Oceans Are Dissolving Tiny Snails’ Shells.” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 30 Apr. 2014. Web. 12 May 2014. <http://www.livescience.com/45256-ocean-acidification-snail-shells.html>.

Goldenberg, Suzanne. “Climate change ‘already affecting food supply’ – UN.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 31 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 May 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/31/climate-change-food-supply-un>.

Hansen, James . “Tipping Point.” Columbia. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.

Harvey, Fiona. “Climate change is already damaging global economy, report finds.” theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 25 Sept. 2012. Web. 12 May 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/sep/26/climate-change-damaging-global-economy>.

Hendriks, I.e., C.m. Duarte, and M. Álvarez. “Vulnerability of marine biodiversity to ocean acidification: A meta-analysis.” Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 86.2 (2010): 157-164. Web.

Irfan, Umair. “Exotic Diseases from Warmer Climates Gain Foothold in U.S..” Scientific American Global. N.p., 4 June 2012. Web. 13 May 2014. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/exotic-diseases-warmer-climate-us-gain/>.

Mazhirov, Anna . “Climate Change to Exacerbate Rising Food Prices.” Climatechange-Foodsecurity. N.p., 22 Mar. 2011. Web. 12 May 2014. Web.

Romm, Joe. “Science: Ocean Acidifying So Fast It Threatens Humanity’s Ability to Feed Itself.” Earth Law Center . N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.

Schewe, J., F. T. Portmann, L. Warszawski, Y. Masaki, X. Liu, H. Kim, J. Heinke, D. Gerten, I. Haddeland, N. W. Arnell, D. B. Clark, R. Dankers, Y. Satoh, S. Eisner, B. M. Fekete, F. J. Colon-Gonzalez, S. N. Gosling, P. Kabat, T. Stacke, Q. Tang, Y. Wada, D. Wisser, T. Albrecht, K. Frieler, and F. Piontek. “Multimodel assessment of water scarcity under climate change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.9 (2014): 3245-3250. Web.

Schnackenberg, Kristen. “Global warming may intensify disease.” Yale Daily News. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.

Whitty, Julia. “Snails Are Dissolving in Acidic Ocean Waters.” Mother Jones. N.p., 27 Nov. 2012. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.

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