Paying the Price for Global Warming

Debate over global warming really heats up when it comes to money. Because industry contributes a lot of the excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, some governments, such as the United States under President George W. Bush, worry that cutting greenhouse gases would have an adverse effect on the economy.

To be honest, reducing greenhouse gas emissions will have a financial impact. In 2006, Sir Nicholas Stern, former Senior Economist to the World Bank, reviewed the economic impacts of the climate crisis at the request of the U.K. government. His report, "The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change," looked at the financial impact that global warming would have on the world's economy. In his most recent report, "Key Elements of a Global Deal on Climate Change," he calculated that acting now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would cost the world a cut of 2 percent of global gross domestic product (also known as GDP, the global measuring stick of economic wealth) annually over the next several decades. India already spends 2 percent of its GDP on adapting to climate change impacts.

Stern's report also examined the cost to the world if people did nothing and greenhouse gas emissions weren't reduced. If humanity doesn't reduce greenhouse gas emissions now, the report found it will cost Earth's population five times more than if it does, resulting in a cut of 5 percent of the GDP — every year. And that's one of the better-case scenarios. The worst-case scenarios show that waiting to reduce emissions could cost the world 20 percent of global GDP or more. Failing to reduce greenhouse gases could cost the world economy $7 trillion!

¿¡SMs Despite the projections in the Stern report, the GDP has continued to grow an average of 34 percent in industrialized countries, even as those countries cut greenhouse gas emissions (by 3.3 percent between 1990 and 2004, for example). Germany cut greenhouse gas emissions by 17.2 percent while watching its GDP rise 28.6 percent in that time frame.

¿«jABEft Many European countries have benefited with continued GDP growth because they started acting on climate change decades ago. The Stern reports give a clear message: The longer humanity waits to act on climate change, the more serious the impacts become, and the more it costs humanity to adapt and recover.

Highways, waterworks, and the other stuff humans build

In Chapter 8, we talk about natural systems at risk because of climate change, but human-built systems are at risk, too. Governments call it infrastructure — such as the roads that you drive on and the waterworks that take away sewage and deliver potable (suitable for drinking) water. It's the stuff that humans have built to make modern life easier. And civilization built all of this stuff for the climate it used to have.

No matter where you are in the world, the costs from extreme weather — major flooding, fires, landslides, and storms — have been increasing for the last three decades. These natural catastrophes, brought on by civilization's unnatural addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, endanger the infrastructure that's the backbone of our cities. The repair bill for the following damages won't be cheap:

i Buildings: Storms and flooding can quickly damage unstable buildings. People living in inadequate housing that is easily damaged by strong winds or storms are especially at risk from the extreme effects of climate change.

i Electricity demand: Hotter days mean cooler buildings when people run their air conditioners to the max. Heat waves come hand in hand with skyrocketing electricity demand and, often, major blackouts.

i Sewage systems: Storms and flooding can also cause the sewage systems in cities to overflow.

i Transmission lines: You've likely seen downed telephone poles and power lines after a big storm. Damaged transmission lines could become a more common sight for many parts of the world.

i Transportation: Highways, roads, and railroad lines will all require more frequent maintenance and repair when they're subjected to extreme weather.

Although everyone will be affected by the physical impacts of climate change, some people will be more vulnerable to negative changes. The poor are particularly at risk. Poverty, combined with a lack of social support, was the main cause of heat wave deaths in the Chicago heat wave of 1995. People in coastal cities — accounting for 10 to 23 percent of the world's population — are vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding from storm surges because of their proximity to the ocean. Cities that don't have much green space will be at greater risk, too; without soil and trees that stabilize the ground and absorb water, these concrete cities are more vulnerable to landslides and flooding.

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