Climate Change is the Global Disruptor
Climate Change is the Global Disruptor
What was once a hotly debated topic has now become a regular part of life in the twenty first century. Climate change and its impacts are seen and experienced everywhere, giving us extreme weather events, earlier springs, frequent flooding in coastal areas, and, of course, less ice in the arctic. In turn, these unpredictable variations in natural processes are causing serious disruption for individuals, countries, and the economy.
Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, massive floods in Thailand, drought in Central America and parts of Africa, altogether cost hundreds of billions of dollars and forced millions of people from their homes. And as we circle around into summer, the Midwest is already facing raging wildfires which are damaging crops and killing cattle. With extreme weather events happening more frequently and less predictably, many of us are waking up to the fact that climate change is not a future dilemma, but a very present reality.
The nature of climate change’s disruption of our economy is harder to pin down than the effects of technological innovations. While much of the dialogue has dealt with the damages directly resulting from singular incidents such as floods, fires, or storms, this leaves many of us thinking that climate change is “out there,” affecting only those people who happen to be caught in the middle of nature’s wrath. But as we move past the third consecutive hottest year on record, the everyday strains of warmer temperatures are beginning to drag down productivity and increase costs for individuals, companies, and governments trying to adapt to what some scientists have labeled the “Anthropocene” (the “human epoch”). This article highlights a few ways in which climate change is already disrupting the economy and daily life and explores the implications of these disruptions and their connections to broader political and economic trends.
The agricultural sector, which accounts for 34% of the global labor force, is the most at risk. Since crops and livestock have optimal temperatures for growth, they are highly sensitive to climate variability. Farmers in all regions of the world are accustomed to adapting to weather and market changes over time, but the effects of rising average global temperatures are pushing their adaptive capacities to the limit. The impacts differ by region, but farmers everywhere are dealing with a greater frequency of weather extremes including longer droughts, torrential rains, and in many places, salt water intrusion.
So, what will happen?
In some cases, farmers will be forced to switch to different crops and livestock to optimize production. Drawing data from 10 African countries, authors Seoa and Mendelsohn (2008) predict that farmers in Africa will switch from cows to either goats, sheep, or chickens depending on whether the climate is warmer or wetter to mitigate revenue losses due to climate change. Importantly, they conclude that these adaptive strategies will be most successful for small farmers that can change livestock more easily, but that larger farms stand much to lose in the face of harsher environmental conditions.
In developed countries, farmers rely heavily on technology and best practices to adapt to the climate. Genetic modification, enhanced irrigation and pesticide/fertilizer use, geographical barriers, and sophisticated monitoring techniques are just a few of the ways that farmers in Ontario, Canada use to manage environment-related risk (“Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation” 2011).
Technological advances alone will not prevent both farmers and consumers from facing significant costs, however. For one, the costs associated with more intense use of technological inputs, switching crops or livestock, or simply suffering a blow due to a natural disaster are very high. In 2016, a Kansas county spent over $1.5 million just fighting one wildfire, not to mention the damages to property and agricultural assets. Another important issue is that agricultural adaptation will not be evenly distributed because the effects of climate change vary by region and “financial support, infrastructure, and technology and supplies, are unevenly distributed or available to farmers” (“Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation” 2011).
Though climate challenges and solutions manifest locally for farmers, the consequences of these issues resonate globally. It is now widely accepted that climate change poses a huge threat to food security worldwide, disrupting food availability, access, and quality (EPA n.d.). Furthermore, the disruptions felt by agriculture carry consequences for related sectors as well. PVH, a global apparel company, has stated that, if their “supply chain were exposed to similar price increases [to India’s 10%] in cotton due to drought and extreme weather conditions, the business could be exposed to increased indirect costs of over $14 million” (CDP U.S. Climate Change Report 2016). As a result, many companies have joined citizens in clamoring for greater policy and legal responses to help mitigate the risks presented by climate change.
With climate change, the concern is not just that weather is becoming more extreme, but that the extremes are happening with increasing regularity. Even if the world manages to limit warming to the recommended 2 degrees Celsius, weather is expected to remain volatile and often dangerous in many parts of the globe. This is especially concerning for countries located near the equator, since researchers have predicted that they “will experience more than 50 times as many extremely hot days and 2.5 times as many rainy ones” compared to the averages before a 2-degree warming (Mathiesen 2015).
Near the equator or not, weather extremes, coming in the form of powerful storms, heatwaves, droughts, and floods, disrupt local lives and economies by damaging property, lowering productivity, and affecting jobs. Two clear examples in the United States are Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Sandy (2012); the first hit New Orleans, causing $108 billion in damages, and the second tore through the northeastern US, causing more than $50 billion in damages (Toro 2013, Zimmerman 2015). Once the damage is done, it can take years for communities to recover, and they often never fully do – the population of New Orleans in 2014 was only 72 percent of what it was pre-Katrina (Liverman and Glasmeier 2014). This aspect of climate change is particularly complicated given the year to year unpredictability of weather risks and the consequent difficulties in making adequate preparations.
What is notable now, however, is that climate change is not only disrupting communities through dramatic storms, but also through chronic flooding. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOOA) characterizes ‘nuisance flooding’ as flooding that “leads to public inconveniences such as road closures” but is not caused by heavy rains or a storm. Rather, with sea levels on the rise, all it takes in many cities is a simple high tide and valuable properties are inundated with several inches of water. Also according to the NOOA, “global sea level was 2.6 inches above the 1993 average – the highest annual average in the satellite record (1993-present)” in 2014 (NOOA n.d.). Researchers have found that, due to anthropogenically induced sea level rise, most coastal cities in the United States will experience at least 30 days each year of this nuisance flooding.
One of the major concerns with these nuisance weather events is infrastructure, and whether cities will be able to keep up with the constant need for repairs. Additionally, many of these coastal cities depend on tourism and have valuable hotels and businesses located directly on the coast. According to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (2014) which used data from Climate Central, “a one-foot increase in sea level is estimated to threaten up to $6.4 billion in taxable real estate in [Miami Dade] county overall.” In response to this threat, Miami Beach is prepared to spend $400 million over the next five years to “raise streets, install pumps and elevate seawalls” (Corum 2015). These types of issues and expenses are only expected to grow as sea levels continue rising.
In a recent panel discussion held at Georgetown University, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Patricia Espinosa, highlighted how the framing of climate change as a security issue played a key role in the recent international negotiations (culminating in the 2015 Paris Agreement). Indeed, there are at least two consequences of climate change that are linked to security concerns: mass migration and conflict over resources. The International Organization for Migration estimates that there will be around 200 million “environmental migrants” by 2050 due to displacements arising from natural disasters, famine, desertification, and sea level rise (eds. Hummel, Doevenspeck, & Samimi 2012: 8).
A key example of this climate-induced migration comes from the semi-arid Sahel region in West Africa, where farming is a primary source of income. The traditional variability of the Sahel which is marked by recurring droughts and floods, has reportedly become more frequent and extreme since the 1980s, along with a dramatic increase in temperature (Hummel, Doevenspeck, & Samimi 2012: 21). Because of these climactic disruptions, large numbers of migrants are leaving the landlocked countries of Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali to seek out employment, land, and food in other countries. According to editors Hummel, Doevenspeck, & Samimi (2012), most of these migrants head towards coastal African countries such as Cote d’Ivoire. Still others end up in Europe, the Gulf states, North America, and China.
It is evident that there is great potential for mass migration from small island developing states (SIDS) as well. Each of the 51 countries considered part of the SIDS is particularly vulnerable to rising seas and natural disasters due to their low elevations and remoteness. In Papua New Guinea, communities living in the Cateret Islands have already been forced to move from their homes thanks to destructive sea level rise (Bartlett 2012). Further, SIDS rely heavily on marine resources and tourism, both of which will suffer as a result of climate change. Though we are not experiencing a diaspora from SIDS to other countries just yet, the possibility looms and the potential disruption to the international community is hard to predict.
The question of security is more speculative, however. While the conditions that give rise to conflict are many, climate change is generally regarded as a factor that will only serve to exacerbate these issues. Locally, worsening environmental conditions such as drought lead to further scarcity of resources, which in turn leads to more competition. Though the causal relationship between environmental conditions and conflict is debated, there still exists an important relationship between resources and violent conflict, particularly in regions that are more economically dependent on the climate (Adano, et al. 2012). According to Sayne (2011), anticipated structural risks of climate change include low economic opportunity, worsening social ties and relations between governments and citizens, and destructive self-help (i.e. theft and organized crime). This aspect of climate change is complicated, but important to note because, even if the consequences are primarily felt in vulnerable regions near the equator, the ripple effects of mass migration and more violent conflict will be felt globally.
Climate change is often referred to as a “wicked” problem – overwhelming, complex, and difficult to solve. To briefly summarize, some of the most glaring disruptive features of climate change are 1) the impact on agricultural sectors and the global food supply, 2) the economic damages frequently inflicted upon cities victim to the climate’s intensifying variability, and 3) the amplified flows of migration and security threats due to worsening environmental conditions. While not exhaustive, this list encapsulates the difficulties we face as we reckon with the consequences of the industrial revolution and the carbon-hungry mode of development which it spawned.
On the flipside of this, however, are the many developments in policy, technology, and cultural attitudes which have begun shifting towards sustainability and alternative sources of energy. Even with the recent change in the U.S. administration, the feeling among the international community so far seems to be one un-phased by President Trump’s anti-regulatory agenda. In fact, China has emerged as a global leader in this arena with its commitment to renewable energy and carbon emissions cuts.
Cultural and technological trends also offer hope in both limiting carbon emissions and adapting to climate conditions. The rise of information and communications technology (ICTs), discussed in this edition by author Jameson Spivak, presents us with at least three important capabilities relevant in the age of climate change: 1) the opportunity to share more and consume less, 2) the ability to easily enter and exit markets as a result of a new service oriented economy, and 3) the capacity to quickly disseminate climate related information that could help people either avoid catastrophe or better adapt to their circumstances. Furthermore, massive data collection, analytics, innovation in energy technologies and sustainable production alternatives are just a few tools that are and will continue to be essential as society transitions toward a low-carbon economy.
Lastly, a discussion of justice is warranted here because, as with many other recent “disruptions,” climate change carries serious impacts to the socio-economic landscape in many parts of the world. One of the more perverse observations of the effects of climate change is that the most vulnerable people happen to also have contributed the least to the problem itself. Seen in this regard, the disruptions to developed countries are not simply those that occur within their borders, but also stem from the ripple effects of climate-induced catastrophes which occur in the developing world.
The global community has responded loudly to the threat of climate change by applying significant pressure on their home governments to take measures to cut carbon emissions and address adaptation. There have been, and will likely continue to be, many promising policy and technology responses to climate change as a result of this pressure. Even with these responses, however, climate change has clearly and irrevocably disrupted life as we know it – and the way forward will certainly look a lot different than the way behind.
Olivia Cook hails from central Florida where she received her Bachelor of Arts in International Relations in 2015. While pursuing her degree, she developed a love for policy, research, and critical dialogue. Her primary area of interest is climate change and the environment, but she is particularly interested in how social and economic issues intersect with environmental challenges. In the past, she has interned for organizations such as the Edible Peace Patch Project and Better Future Project, where she developed garden science curriculum and led environmental advocacy events, respectively. Ever the generalist, Olivia also enjoys a good old-fashioned discussion on post-modern and post-colonial theory. Currently, Olivia is pursuing her Masters of Public Policy full-time while also working as a Research Assistant and serving as an Outreach Coordinator for McCourt Energy and Environment (when she isn’t busy chopping paragraphs and eliminating passive voice for GPPR, of course). After completing her studies, she plans to work in the field of environmental policy so that she can continue exploring ways communities can live more sustainably.
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