Climate Change and California's Multibillion-Dollar Problem

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Climate Change and California's Multibillion-Dollar Problem

Postby Wilberforce » Tue Apr 07, 2015 10:50 am

Drought, Climate Change and California's Multibillion-Dollar Problem
4/03/2015 @ 3:25PM 16,948 views

Two weeks before California Governor Jerry Brown’s announcement on Wednesday that residents and businesses in the Golden State — which is withering amid one of its worst droughts in modern history — would be subjected to unprecedented restrictions on water usage, he issued a blistering attack on those who continue to question fundamental climate science.

Such thinking, Brown said during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press late last month, “borders on the immoral,” and the Democratic governor offered particular opprobrium for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. Brown described McConnell’s actions to protect coal interests as risking “the health and well-being of America.”

Whether Brown had the devastating drought in his home state in mind when he lashed out is impossible to know, and the governor stopped short of attributing California’s woes to human-driven climate change — a point of ongoing scientific debate.

But a new report published Thursday by a nonprofit risk-analysis organization suggests that what California is currently experiencing will only get worse — with tens of billions of dollars hanging in the balance — if global greenhouse gas emissions aren’t soon curtailed and adequate adaptation measures aren’t put in place.

As California enters its fourth year of severe drought and the state’s snowpack is at record lows, little water runoff is reaching reservoirs and recharge ponds that capture water and that percolates through the soil to replenish underground aquifers. (Photo: AP)

Short of such measures, the study — produced by the Risky Business Project, which is co-chaired by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and hedge-fund manager and environmental advocate Tom Steyer — suggests that California will likely face “multiple and significant economic risks from climate change,” over the 21st century.

This includes a likely doubling, and perhaps even a tripling, of the average number of days above 95ºF and a 60 percent to 90 percent decline in the average number of days below freezing across the state. That would further reduce crucial high-mountain snowpack, which accounts for as much as 30 percent of California’s freshwater supply in nominally normal years.

This year’s snowpack measured in at a mere 5 percent of normal — a key catalyst in triggering Brown’s emergency water restrictions this week.

The combination of high temperatures and reduced precipitation — particularly snowfall — could trigger large disruptions in agricultural output in the state, the Risky Business analysis suggests. “Without significant adaptation by farmers, several regions will likely see yield losses for heat-sensitive commodity crops like cotton and corn, with potentially high economic costs,” the authors noted. “For example, the Inland South region will likely take an economic hit of up to $38 million per year due to cotton yield declines by the end of the century.”

Other climatic shifts, including rising seas, could cost the state billions of additional dollars in property losses and infrastructure damage. This could include between $8 and $10 billion worth of property that will likely be underwater by mid-century. An additional $6 to $10 billion of property would be threatened by high tides in 2050, the report suggested, and as much as $20 billion of California real estate will be entirely below sea level by 2100.

“Climate change is a dire challenge facing California and our nation,” said Paulson in a statement accompanying the release of the report. “As droughts and wildfires plague California, we are already seeing the devastating toll that climate change is taking on our economy and way of life.”

Of course, just what role anthropogenic climate shifts are playing in California’s three-year stretch of record low precipitation is a matter of fertile scientific discussion. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration suggested in a detailed report earlier this year that the drought could well be a function of the regular give-and-take of Mother Nature.

What’s clear, however, is that climatic shifts tied to rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — a direct result of burning fossil fuels — can only make matters worse. The authors of the NOAA study confirmed as much, stating that “record-setting high temperature that accompanied this recent drought was likely made more extreme due to human-induced global warming.”

A recent study spearheaded by scientists at Stanford University found that human emissions have increased the probability that years with lower-than-normal precipitation in California are increasingly coinciding with higher-than-average temperatures — a relationship linked to periods of drought.

This, the researchers found, suggests that “anthropogenic warming is increasing the probability of the co-occurring warm–dry conditions that have created the current California drought.”

Tom Zeller Jr. has written on energy and environment for The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, HuffPost and Bloomberg View. You can follow him on Twitter @tomzellerjr.

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