Climate Change and the Long Term

25 Sep

I’m presently reading Mark Hertsgaard’s new book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.

It’s a good summary of the science and a good view of what some companies and countries are doing to prepare for a hotter Earth. Basically, there are three ways to handle climate change:  mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. Mitigation essentially means to stop emitting carbon as fast and as much as we can. Adaptation means that we will have to deal with the consequences of past, present, and future carbon emissions. And suffering, of course, means that these consequences will be painful. Hertsgaard makes the point that we will likely do all three.

Of course, how much suffering we will do depends on how much mitigation and adaptation we are able to accomplish. The lethal Chicago heat wave of 1995 and Hurricane Katrina of 2005 showed how much suffering extreme weather events can cause.

An excellent way to understand what climate change is likely to do to us over the next century is to look at the reinsurance industry and The Netherlands. The reinsurance industry is insurance for insurance companies. They backstop insurers who underwrite our homes and businesses. They are directly concerned with long-term consequences of climate change, since their business model depends on understanding it. Here the company discusses the links between global warming, extreme weather, and insurance losses.

The Netherlands offers a model of how a country can respond to the long-term consequences of climate change. The country has launched a 200-year plan to adapt to rising ocean levels and increased river flooding. (Four major European rivers drain to the sea through the Netherlands.) The Dutch are no strangers to long-term planning–they have lived with flooding and ocean surges for centuries and have built an elaborate system of defenses. Their planning for global warming deals with flood and sea surge defenses, ensuring supplies of fresh water, and climate-proofing their urban areas.

Mitigation and adaptation efforts are stalled in the U.S. because of opposition by climate-change deniers bankrolled by the fossil-fuel industry. This is highly irresponsible and gambles with the future lives of our descendants. We need to take seriously what Munich Re and the Dutch are planning for.

In a future post, I’ll look at what local communities in the U.S. are doing to become climate resilient.

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