Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Climate change science gets some powerful support

The climate change deniers have some big, generous sponsors—most notably the fossil fuels industries and some of their crazier owners / CEOs like the Koch brothers.  And goodness knows, they HAVE screwed up the public debate on climate change.  But in truth, the public debate doesn't matter all that much.  For one thing, climate change is a scientific fact and really doesn't matter one bit what people think about those facts.  Those who actually stayed awake during their science classes will probably understand how climate change works and why it is important to address it.  Those who slept through class won't.

But since most meaningful solutions to this massive problem involve changing how we do very important things like grow our food and heat our homes, these solutions can only come from the efforts of people who understand how things are already done and then make serious suggestions as to how to improve them.  People who cannot build a house will probably have very few helpful suggestions as to how that house should be made differently so that it uses less energy. ETC!  Oh sure, legislation that demands homes use less energy can always be passed and enforcement mechanisms can be put into place to punish offenders who do not build those better houses, but these are of absolutely no use unless methods for building those better homes have been invented and perfected.  ONLY people with skills can get better at something—which is why climate change conferences, marches, consciousness raising, and the other forms of human futility have accomplished almost nothing for over a generation.

On the other hand, people with skills, training, motivation, and resources can make a significant difference.  Someone (or in this case, a large collection of someones) was able to reduce the price of solar cells from $75 / watt to $0.75 / watt.  Someone actually got wind turbines to work.  Considering how utterly pathetic the resources devoted to actual problem-solving have been, these are remarkable accomplishments.

So it interesting to see that some very large actors have entered the climate change debate.  The insurance industry has been at least talking a good line for a couple of decades now.  They haven't used their clout to change the economic assumptions of their business models, mind you, but they are a LONG way from being the Koch brothers.  But the most interesting newcomer, by far, is the USA military.  Considering that they have been arguably the biggest environmental bandits of all time (they have demanded the production of so many dangerous toxins it is rare to find any long-term military operation that is not a superfund site), this IS a big change.

It is fun to speculate on what exactly made the military wake up to the climate change ramifications of their mission, but my vote goes towards the moment when they realized their gas-guzzling weapons systems required fuels that cost $400 / gallon delivered in Afghanistan.  And we can probably bet that the number of folks in the military who actually get it is still quite small.  Even so, it looks like there are small groups who have been officially assigned to the problem.

This is an enormous development.  Not only can folks with guns get their way more often than not, but the military excels at squeezing funds from the government.  Part of those funds go to hiring the elites of the Producing Classes.  One of the interesting arguments made in the 1980s was that Japanese cars were getting better than cars made in USA because the US auto industry had to compete for engineering talent with the military-industrial-complex and the Japanese did not.  The MIC has monopolized the A-pool of technological talent for so long here in USA, hardly anyone alive can remember when this was not considered normal.  What this means is that if the military decides climate change is a serious problem, they have the organizational skills to muster talent and resources into creating solutions that actually work.  Of course, anyone who has watched the debacle that is the F-35 may not consider military technological expertise all that helpful.  But even with that obvious example, it is still far more likely that a motivated MIC will produce more real-world solutions than the PoliSci profs, community organizers, and well-intentioned environmentalists, etc. that attend climate change conferences.

Climate worries insurers and military

By Alex Kirby  May 15, 2014

Powerful voices in finance and the armed forces raise concerns about the risks of increasingly extreme weather events causing billions of dollars of damage and potentially igniting humanitarian disasters and regional conflicts

LONDON, 15 May − The risks associated with climate change have got some very important people worried − the people who pick up the bills, and those who clear up the mess or try to prevent it happening.

The world’s biggest and oldest insurance market, Lloyd’s of London, has published a report that urges insurers to include climate risks in their models. It says: “Scientific research points conclusively to the existence of climate change driven by human activity.

“Nevertheless, significant uncertainty remains on the nature and extent of the changes to our climate and the specific impacts this will generate. Many of the effects will become apparent over the coming decades and anticipating them will require forward projections, not solely historical data.”

Quoting the Munich Re insurance group , the World Bank says damage and weather-related losses around the world have increased from an annual average of $50bn in the 1980s to nearly $200bn over the last decade.

Causing havoc

The Lloyd’s report was published the day after the US National Climate Assessment (NCA) warned Americans that climate change is already causing havoc across the country. John Holdren, the White House science adviser, said the NCA was the “loudest and clearest alarm bell to date signalling the need to take urgent action to combat the threats to Americans from climate change”.

The most expensive year on record for natural disasters was 2011, when insured losses cost the industry more than $126bn. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy caused $35bn of insured losses, making it the most expensive hurricane in US history after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Lloyd’s report says a 20cm rise in sea level at the southern tip of Manhattan Island increased Sandy’s surge losses by 30% (up to $8bn) in New York alone.

John Nelson, chairman of Lloyd’s, told the Guardian newspaper in London: “The destruction Sandy brought to the eastern US seaboard was responsible for claims of up to $300m in lost fine art, a consequence of the many expensive US beachfront homes damaged.”

Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated much of the Philippines and other parts of south-east Asia in November 2013, was one of the strongest tropical cyclones on record.

Trevor Maynard, head of exposure management and reinsurance at Lloyd’s, said: “Climate change is very much here to stay. Hurricanes are getting stronger worldwide, and especially over the north Atlantic. . . At the moment we are heading for a rise of four degrees by the end of the century.”

Mission reality

IT’S NOT ONLY the insurers who believe that climate change is a real and growing risk. Increasingly, the prospect is preoccupying military planners.

Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman, said: “This is a mission reality, not a political debate. The scientific forecast is for more Arctic ice melt, more sea-level rise, more intense storms, more flooding from storm surge, and more drought.”

A former US Navy officer, retired Vice-Admiral Lee Gunn, is reported by NBC News as saying that the 2011 Arab Spring uprising could in part be traced to a winter drought in China, plus record heat waves and flooding in several other countries, including Russia.

Gunn concluded: “There was a drought and a wheat shortage that resulted in an increase in wheat prices and, therefore, an increase in bread prices − a staple in North Africa.”

NBC says US security experts are also concerned by possible threats to the rice harvest in south-east Asia, and specifically in Vietnam. They say the melting of the Himalayan glaciers would add to sea-level rise, ruining rice production and ravaging Bangladesh. If it did, they believe, that could create a flow of refugees into India, and also threaten fresh water resources in India and Pakistan.

Dennis McGinn, the US Navy assistant secretary for energy, installations and environment, told NBC that there were also worries in military circles about unstable governments and fragile societies.

“The last thing in the world these nations need are the severe and more frequent effects of bad weather, including crop failures,” McGinn said. “Therein is a recipe for the kind of instability that will inevitably involve the United States in humanitarian assistance, disaster relief or, indeed, in a regional conflict.”

A further report, by 16 retired generals and admirals, says climate change is a direct threat to national security and the US economy. The authors, members of the Military Advisory Board of the not-for-profit CNA Corporation, blame rising temperatures for, in part, worsening international tension.

Their study says that the impacts of climate change are already intensifying instability in vulnerable regions, especially the resource-rich and rapidly changing Arctic. It says the projected impacts within the US will threaten its homeland security and major sectors of its economy. more


  1. In related news, Farmers Insurance is doing this--http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/05/19/3439048/insurance-climate-class-action-flood/

    1. Thanks for the heads-up. While no one will probably ever accuse the insurance industry of benevolence, at least they are not part of the climate denial business.