How global warming could cost you

While there is considerable debate on what is causing global warming, there is little doubt it is happening. And the impacts are not just environmental but also financial.


Scientists' portraits of continued global warming are not a pretty sight: intensified hurricanes, droughts, floods and dramatic shortages of clean air, water and food supplies.

But if you think that's bad, wait until you get the bill.

"Global warming will cause profound changes, and it will be costly for people," says Chris Miller, the director of U.S. Climate Campaigns for Greenpeace USA. "Things we've been taking for granted for so long in this country will be hard to take for granted -- from driving big cars we can afford to fuel to turning on the tap."

Though no one is predicting water will stop running altogether, many global-warming experts predict it will be scarcer in some areas and more expensive across the board.

Signs of the early damage from warming are appearing, according to a growing number of scientists and environmentalists. "There's likely going to be an increase in droughts and floods," says Stephen Schneider, a climatologist and professor at Stanford University. "We're just beginning to show that emerging," he adds, in the form of more intense, destructive and deadly storms.

"You can never say with any one storm, 'We caused that,'" Schneider says. "But you can also never say with any one storm, 'We did not cause that.'"

Unchecked, continued climate change could mean big lifestyle changes in the next 30 to 50 years. And it could also mean that life for your children and grandchildren will be more difficult and more expensive.

What's up weatherwise?

With global warming, "dry areas are likely to get dryer, and wet areas are likely to get wetter," says Chris Field, the director of the department of global ecology for the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University.
And that can wallop the pocketbook.

Take homeowners insurance, for example. "One of the things that has already started is the difficulty of getting insurance along the coast," says Joe Romm, the author of "Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- the Solution and the Politics -- and What We Should Do" and a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress.

And it's going to get worse, he adds, making it more difficult for people who own coastal or even inland property, even if they are not hit by storms. "Thousands of policies could be canceled as climate models begin to show that part of the world is more impacted by storms in the North Atlantic," says Miller.

And that could have yet another financial impact, Romm says, predicting, "If we don't get serious about global warming in the next 10 years to 15 years, coastal property values will crash."

Those who are studying global warming see two problems emerging that will have sizable economic impact. First, because the water is warmer (which fuels hurricanes), there is the potential for the storms to cause more damage. And second, if sea levels are already higher (due to warmer water, plus the effects of melting ice sheets), a storm surge could be even worse.

If there is a rise of 5 to 6 feet in the sea level "over the next century or two, one-third of Florida is gone," Miller says.

The Carnegie Institution's Field agrees: "With every meter (39.37 inches) of sea level, you lose a substantial amount of South Florida."

In an area such as New York City, which sits close to the ocean, if you combine rising levels and a strong storm such as a nor'easter, "you'll have things like the subway filling with water," Field says.

Another problem with warming is the heat. By the end of the century, heat waves in Los Angeles or San Francisco could stretch from 12 days to 100 days, Field says. That heat also magnifies smog problems, meaning there are "more kids with asthma, more people who can't go outside," he says. "There will be a greater number of people who have air-pollution-related health conditions."

What's more, warming fosters some types of ragweed, as well as bug-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever, he says. So America could expect to see "more serious impacts from hay fever," as well as more malaria and dengue fever cases.

Short supplies?

Drought, climate changes and storm damage could also lead to shortages or disruptions in food, water and energy supplies.

"We've already seen impacts of warming on the yields of corn, wheat and barley," Field says. "Worldwide, for every degree the temperature goes up, the yield goes down 8%."

An aging water and sewer infrastructure, melting snowpacks in the Western mountains and increasing heat and drought in the West have several experts predicting struggles over the water supply -- and an end to cheap water.

By 2020 -- just about the time today's toddlers are in high school -- "I think it's untenable for water to be free or as cheap as it is in many places," says Romm, of the Center for American Progress.

There would likely be "increased water prices and shortages in some areas, first affecting agriculture in the West," says Greenpeace USA's Miller. "It would have a profound effect on the economy in the West."

But Mother Nature is also throwing some curveballs.

"In a lot of cases, the effects from climate changes interact in unexpected ways," Field says. For example, as water levels in San Francisco Bay rise, seawater is flowing upriver, which is a big problem because that water is used to irrigate fertile California farmland.

"After a big storm, you already have salt levels that are unacceptable," he says. "The concern is that instead of getting it once every five years, you get it once every month, and eventually the water will be too salty to use."

What that could affect: the supply and cost of water and food.

And expect energy prices to continue climbing, says Romm.

"The days of cheap oil are gone," he says. "I do think the days of the gas guzzler are going to be reduced."

And, as the country learned during the gas-price increases after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, "a third or more of the oil and gas comes from the Gulf of Mexico area," Miller says. "That puts a lot of eggs in one basket, and it's a basket that is more likely to be disrupted."

A solution many environmental groups have proposed: meeting more energy needs locally through renewable, fixed-rate solutions such as wind- and solar-power stations.

A wind farm that Greenpeace is working to have permitted now off the coast of Massachusetts could provide 75% of the power to Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket and Cape Cod, Miller says.

Because the costs are fixed ahead of time, residents would have power at a fixed rate for the next 20 years, he says.

Where's the fun?

Outdoor recreation, such as baseball and golf, could look markedly different, too, Romm says. What's at stake: anything that depends on lush, green spaces and outdoors access.

Tourism could take a hit, especially in places such as Florida and Arizona, where warm-weather outdoor activities are big and global warming changes are predicted to be especially profound, Field says.

In the West, skiing and other cold-weather activities could also suffer, as scientists predict that warming will affect the snow accumulation and, consequently, the water supply in the region.

Even for folks who just sit at home in the easy chair, life could get more problematic. "By the end of the century, a city like Washington, D.C., or Houston might see 60-plus days at 98-plus-degree temperatures," Romm says. "That's pretty grim stuff."

In addition to the expense of rocketing electric bills to cover the cost of air conditioning, hotter temperatures combined with dirtier air could pack a one-two punch for a lot of people with asthma, allergies, emphysema and other medical problems who will be forced to spend more time indoors.

The folks hardest hit? Children, senior citizens and anyone with existing health problems, Schneider says.

Then there are the social effects that scientists really can't measure. How will the stresses and strains of supply shortages, hotter summers and more-expensive goods affect tempers? How will the aftermaths of more-frequent violent hurricanes, floods and fires impact American businesses struggling to stay competitive on the world stage or small companies operating on already tight margins?

Scientists and environmentalists agree there is time to prevent all this from happening. But it's a small window of opportunity.

"The kind of changes you see in 30 years to 50 years depends on the path we move down," Miller says. "If we get our stuff together soon and make the kind of changes scientists tell us are necessary, we're insuring our ability to live in the quality of life we have."

What about offsets?

Global warming is like slow-acting poison, several scientists warn. Inaction will set the planet on an unchangeable course. But the antidote, administered quickly, would affect a cure.

Though opponents complain about the cost of solutions, there will be an economic cost exacted from individuals either way, he says. "The cost of doing nothing is greater than the cost of doing something," Miller says.

One idea that's gotten a lot of ink, carbon offsets, is also controversial.

Here's how it works: Individuals, companies or even countries pay some other person or entity that pollutes less or practices behavior that would remove carbon from the atmosphere (like planting trees). Some scientists and environmentalists believe it's cheating or that, because it's largely unchecked, there's no way to know if people are really getting what they are buying.

"The best thing they do is reduce our emissions," says Field. But, he adds, they are not great as a first line of defense. "It allows the person with the SUV to spend an extra $150 that may or may not be worthwhile and make them feel a little less guilty."

Others see it as a good stopgap or a way to at least get everyone engaged in solving the global warming problem.

"What offsets do is get you into the game," says Schneider. "That alone makes offsets useful to me."

That said, "you have to make sure an offset is real and not a pig in a poke," he says.

This article was reported and written by Dana Dratch for



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