Time for dithering is over: heat domes are a red-hot warning on ...


Time for dithering is over: heat domes are a red-hot warning on climate costs

It’s not our grandkids who’ll be affected by climate change, it’ll be us if we don’t heed unpredictable weather events

Noah Smith

The unprecedented heatwave that recently gripped North America’s Pacific Northwest demonstrates a crucial fact about climate change that most people don’t seem to appreciate yet: this will not be a smooth, predictable event. In addition to new costs that can be anticipated, climate change creates enormous risks that may result in a far higher price tag to the global economy, which greatly increases the urgency of eliminating greenhouse emissions as quickly as possible.

A meteorological event known as a “heat dome” sent the temperature at Portland International Airport in Oregon soaring to a record 46.7°C last week. Climate change is almost certainly involved, but it isn’t as simple as average temperatures rising; scientists also believe that a warming climate can shift existing atmospheric patterns in ways that make extreme heatwaves like this more likely. Heat brings with it a host of other risks. Wildfires, of the sort that blasted both Portland and the entire state of California last year, are more likely now in part because of climate change drying out vegetation. Droughts are also intensifying, which threatens crops. The net effect might be to make parts of the western US unlivable — or at least, far less attractive as destinations for workers and capital investment. If this happens, that would incur a huge economic cost. Nor is the West Coast the only area threatened by the chaos of an altered climate — river areas are in danger of flooding, any region could theoretically dry out or swelter, and disruptions to agriculture can reverberate in markets throughout the world.

It’s important to realise that events like this were not what people generally talked about in previous decades when they envisioned the costs of climate change. The talk was mostly of a gradual sea level rise as the polar ice caps melted — a terrible problem for our grandchildren, but something we wouldn’t have to live to see. Climate scientists knew, of course, that all kinds of environmental chaos might result from a warming world; they just didn’t know exactly what would happen, so they weren’t able to make definite predictions to capture the public imagination. And so the punditry focused on slowly rising oceans, and talked less about fires, droughts, inland floods, storms, crop failures, diseases and other potential dangers...

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