I finagled an invitation from Governor Jerry Brown (we had known one another in high school and for the brief time he was a Jesuit seminarian) to attend his, by invitation only, conference on extreme climate risks and California's future, held Dec. 15th at the Academy of Science, San Francisco. The topic is of longstanding interest to me and I am committed to write a chapter on climate change for a book this coming spring.
The one day conference gathered 300+ participants, representing climate scientists, public safety officials, insurance representatives, public health and public utility representatives, farrmers, those responsible for emergency responses. In his initial keynote to the conference, Govenor Brown argued that " The main thing we have to deal with in climate change is the skepticism, the denial and the cult-like behavior of the political lemmings that would take us over the cliff." The anomaly is that 97% of scientists in peer reviewed articles all agree that: (1) Climate change is occurring; ( 2) While it is, partially, a combination of natural cyclical behaviors and human activity, the human activity is the main cause of rising climate and ( 3) If we do not take measures to mitigate the climate rise, the costs of addressing it or adjusting to it rise exponentially. Moreover, at some point, a catastrophic turning point may make the impact of climate change almost impossible to adjust to. But a large proportion of the American political class are in denial. As one speaker at the conference put it, we know when we insure our houses against fire or earthquake, we act with some uncertainty. But when we know the risks are real and the potential costs of those risks are large, we are irresponsible not to act to protect our house. Why should the logic differ about climate change ? Another speaker, wittily, remarked: the birds do not read the scientific literature but somehow they are migrating earlier because of a change in weather patterns.
There were some debates at the conference about emphasis on mitigation versus adaptation. Both seem necessary. When asked by Felicity Barringer who writes about climate change for The New York Times whether the emphasis should be mitigation ( i.e. forestalling a rise of above 2 degrees Celsius) or adaptation, Governor Brown said he wanted to " make California the leader in renewable energy." This points more to mitigation. Yet much of the conference addressed the issues of adaptation to changes already under way and likely to accelerate: snow pack melting earlier in the year, causing floods and water depletion; sea level rise which endangers salt water intrusion (especially in the Sacramento Delta which supplies so much fresh water to the San Joaquin Valley for drinking and agricultural purposes); a dramatic expansion of the fire season in California; the equal expansion of the number of extremely warm days in the state--with its threats of heat exhaustion and also the outbreak of fires; the danger that fires could jeopardize the California electrical grid.
All of these changes ( already evident) are putting severe pressure on California's infra-structure at a time when a budget crunch makes it harder to come up with the money needed. Protection of the Delta fresh water from contamination is pressing and needs imminent action by raising the sea-wall protections against sea water intrusion from rising sea level. Other infra-structure issues include improved drainage systems; transportation; early warning systems to help people take useful precautions against fire, floods; information systems. It is not clear hospital emergency systems are up to par if the number of extreme heat days increase exponentially , e.g., when extreme heat waves hitherto happening once in 20 years begin to occur once in 2 years.
Brian Murphy, Executive Vice President and Chief Claims Officer for Farmers' Insurance group, recounted that there were more extreme weather events ( fires, floods, tornadoes) in 2011 than any other time in the past twenty years. He noted that he has seen, in his thirty years at Farmers' Insurance, already four extreme weather events calculated as happening only once a century. He argued that strong action to mitigate or adapt to climate change makes very good business sense. Losses due to weather changes now range in the 200 billion dollar a year range.
Not all was doom and gloom, however. Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, placed as much emphasis on the opportunities ( including green jobs and manufacturing) as the risks. He was quite optimistic that alternative fuels ( including bio-fuels and a re-catching and re-use of spent carbon dioxide from steel mills) could easily dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of international air-flight. He urged a sector by sector emphasis for mitigating climate change. He got asked, however, what he would do when the ordinarily predicted sea rise floods the San Francisco and Oakland Airports ?
Dr. Rajenda Pachauri, Chief of the United Nations' Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change ( the group had been meeting, for the first time, in the United States, in San Francisco, at the time of the Governor's Conference) put a great emphasis on retro-fitting and building more energy efficient new buildings. A very large proportion of greenhouse gases comes from wasted energy use in buildings. He noted that some 95% of the detrimental impact of climate change will occur initially in the third world which lacks the kind of money to jack up the dykes ( as The Netherlands is now doing) or building protective sea walls as many in California are contemplating.
While much that I heard during that day was not terribly new to me since I have been following the debates and literature about climate change somewhat closely for some six or so years, I did come away with a renewed awareness of two factors. One, the impact on the economy of not acting is quite dramatic. Productivity of workers can be reduced by as much as 60% on extreme heat days. The possible impact on California's prime industry ( agriculture) of increased heat could be drastic. Climate change seems to have deleterious impacts on California special crops, such as apricots, almonds, grapes for wine, artichokes, figs, kiwis, olives and walnuts. One study at the University of California, Berkeley estimated that economic costs to the state from climate warming could total from $7 to $46 billion a year. All sectors could suffer extreme losses: water resources ( $5 billion); energy ( $2.7 to $6.3 billion); tourism and recreation ( $98 billion); real estate ( upwards to $3.9 billion); agriculture and forests and fisheries ( a possible $4.3 billion); public health ( $3.8 billion). Of the state's $ 4 trillion in real estate assets, $2.5 trillion would be at risk from extreme weather events. I also became more aware of how much needs to be done at local levels, preparing emergency rooms for extreme heat days, protecting the grid from fire damage etc.
Jesus once said that we should look around and learn from the birds of the air. Paradoxically, by changing their migratory patterns due to weather shifts, they are showing us that skepticism about climate change is, indeed, only suitable for the lemmings who would lead us over the cliff!
John A. Coleman, S.J.