How will climate change affect us?
People seem to want to link just about every malady known to humans to climate change — more precipitation, less precipitation, droughts, blizzards, insect infestations, floods, heat waves, extreme cold to name a few. The reality for now is far less dramatic than that. But my expertise is economics, so let me focus on how climate change might affect our economy here in Ohio.
Ohio is an interesting case because our temperature, economically speaking, is currently a bit cooler than optimal. Global economic activities appear to be optimized at an annual average temperature of around 54 degrees Fahrenheit, and Ohio’s current average is a bit less than 51 degrees. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Ohio has historically played such an important role in our nation’s economy. Given this, Ohio may actually gain a bit from climate change in the near term, although as things continue to warm, we’ll pass the peak.
Actually, though, Ohio is not terribly imperiled because most of our economy is not climate sensitive. We build steel, cars, trucks, plastics, chemicals, banking, insurance, electricity and now natural gas. Nearly all of this is done in climate-controlled factories or offices, and it can be accomplished anywhere. In fact, as we have discovered the hard way the last few years, much of what we used to do in Ohio can just as easily be done in far hotter places like Mumbai, Rio or Kuala Lumpur. Industries in Ohio will rise or fall based on the acumen of their leadership and the skills of their employees, not climate.
Will any industries in Ohio be harmed?
One industry in Ohio that is sensitive to climate change is agriculture. Corn and soybean yields (the two dominant crops in Ohio) are estimated to decline by up 50 percent or more by the middle of the century as climate changes. This is a big impact. The center of the corn belt has already shifted north by about 100 miles in 50 years. It will continue to move. Ohio farmers will have to adapt with different varieties, different crop mixes and new farming techniques if they want to remain competitive.
The most heavily affected industry in Ohio will be tourism because it so often involves outdoor recreation — boating, golfing, bicycling, swimming, hiking, fishing, hunting, attending sporting events and outdoor concerts, etc. These impacts should weigh heavily on people in Ohio because, frankly, we all are spending a larger proportion of our time in leisure activities than ever. Climate change will have mixed impacts on tourism. Some warm-season activities may benefit from longer seasons, while cool-season activities will lose. If climate change leads to more droughts, windstorms or harmful algal blooms, then most of the impacts are likely to be negative.
How worried should we be in Ohio?
The biggest changes in climate are expected in the arctic, but the biggest economic and social impacts are expected in the tropics. This of course is where the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people live. Agricultural output in Africa is expected to fall, in some places substantially. Sea level rise will inundate many areas currently inhabited by a whole lot of people. Rainfall patterns will shift and tropical rainforests could experience large forest fires. Availability of freshwater, a large problem in many areas of the world already, could become a bigger problem. Ohioans should be enormously worried about these impacts because inevitably problems in those regions become our problems. I’m doubtful we’ll act because of these impacts, but we should.
Does it matter that the earth has accumulated 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere?
Well, that concentration in and of itself is not all that bad. The problem is we’re still adding around 2ppm of carbon to the atmosphere every year. This means that every five years, we increase the earth’s temperature by about 0.1 degrees C on average. Because our rate of emissions is still increasing, though, we are likely to increase the concentration to over 700 ppm by 2100, and our temperature by about three more degrees.