A bucket list trip to Alaska that my partner Bette and I took this month enabled us to see the effects of climate change.
Jeff Orlowski’s 2012 film, “Chasing Ice,” raised the concern, showing us in a Kansas City theater how glaciers in Alaska, Iceland, Greenland and Montana have been melting dramatically. From the Norwegian cruise ship Jewel, we saw the effects of climate change on the Sawyer glacier.
Long before the boat arrived at Sawyer, we saw chunks of ice floating in the water. The mountains we passed bled with waterfalls from melting snow and ice. As we neared Sawyer, we encountered debris fields of ice from the glacier. The damage from human consumption of fossil fuels is obvious. Greenhouse gases are depleting the Earth’s ozone layer, causing temperatures to rise.
It already is affecting our way of life. A new report warns that the “U.S. faces significant and diverse economic risks from climate change.” Hank Paulson, former U.S. secretary of the Treasury, joined former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and others to produce the study, saying business as we know it will be altered if climate change goes unchecked. Rising seas will claim shorelines in the U.S. and worldwide, storm damage will increase, and drought and extreme heat will be mainstays.
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The report, “Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States,” says agriculture production will be hurt, and higher temperatures will affect worker productivity and public health. It projects conditions through 2100.
“Alaska is ground zero for U.S. climate change impacts,” the study notes. On the current path, people should expect the average temperature in that state to rise as much as 19 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. “The bulk of this warming is likely to happen in the winter months, significantly decreasing the number of extremely cold days that Alaska now experiences,” the report says.
Midwestern and southern counties could see agricultural yields drop more than 10 percent in the next five to 25 years with the continued planting of corn, wheat, soy and cotton “with a 1-in-20 chance of yield losses of these crops of more than 20 percent,” the report notes. In 15 years, higher sea levels and storm surge will increase the average annual cost of coastal storms on the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico by $2 billion to $3.5 billion.
With potential hurricane activity, the increase in annual losses could be up to $7.3 billion. Because of climate change, the annual price for hurricanes and other coastal storms could grow to $35 billion.
By 2050, $66 billion to $106 billion in “existing coastal property will likely be below sea level nationwide with $238 billion to $507 billion worth of property below sea level by 2100.” By the end of this century, more than $701 billion of additional property will be below sea level.
By mid-century, the average American will likely experience 27 to 50 days above 95 degrees every year — two to three times the average annual number of 95-degree days that we’ve had in the past 30 years. By the end of the century it will likely grow to 45 to 96 days above 95 degrees.
“Over the longer term, during portions of the year, extreme heat could surpass the threshold at which the human body can no longer maintain a normal core temperature without air conditioning,” the report says. That will cause greater demand for electricity production, necessitating construction of new power generation capacity in the next five to 25 years. That’s the equivalent of 200 average coal or natural gas-fired power plants costing residential and commercial ratepayers billions of dollars by the middle of this century.
The U.S. will depend more on Alaska’s oil and gas production. But that will only add to the problem.
From the ship, it was clear that the ecosystem of our planet is fragile, and the damage continues to grow. We must do more to reverse course, harnessing solar and wind as energy sources. The time to act is now.