Scott Pruitt and global warming – John Reilly

MIT Sloan Sr. Lecturer John Reilly

Many news outlets are questioning how long Scott Pruitt will hold onto his job at the EPA as criticism of his spending continues.  However, even if Pruitt loses his position, it’s likely that his views and positions will continue to live on at the EPA and elsewhere—especially if, as expected, his deputy director were to take over. This, of course, is cause for concern. It may therefore be worthwhile to consider the continued resistance to views on global warming.

For example, The Chicago Tribune recently reported that Pruitt has once again questioned the scientific consensus that rising levels of carbon dioxide from human-fueled activity are warming the planet.

But now, according to the Tribune, he’s also taking a different tack. Even if climate change is occurring, as the vast majority of scientists say it is, Pruitt is questioning whether a warmer atmosphere might not be bad for human beings.  While it is unclear exactly why Pruitt thinks things won’t be so bad for humans, it’s worth considering his arguments.

Indeed there is evidence that some things may do better with global warming—as Pruitt has suggested —poleward areas where the growing season is short, would likely benefit from longer growing seasons and crops could benefit from higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. In general, CO2 enhances growth and can increase water use efficiency.

But low lying coastal areas, such as Florida and the Gulf coast will surely suffer from sea level rise.  Amplified by likely stronger tropical storms—some low lying island nations are almost certainly destined to disappear even if we hold the temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees.  With large populations centers on the US coasts and coasts around the world, its pretty clear that coastal damage will outweigh the benefit from longer growing seasons in poleward areas.  In addition, crops toward the equator including southern areas of the U. S. would likely suffer.

Our own military has called out the threat sea level rise poses for its bases such as the Navy’s Norfolk Station where adapting to the rising seas will cost hundreds of millions of dollars that could instead be spent on protecting our citizens.  The military also sees climate change as a threat multiplier, aggravating tensions in unstable regions, contributing to the immigration problems Europe is facing and problems that ultimately may spill over into the US or demand US military presence.

The threat multiplier concept recognizes that unrest and instability does not have a single cause, but climate induced crop failures and resulting food insecurity clearly can contribute.

Sure, tennis and golf may benefit from shorter winters, leading to more sales of tennis racquets and golf carts at least until it is too hot during parts of the day to even be outside.  (Having lived in the DC area for a while, even now its uncomfortable to play tennis mid-day in the summer.)

Of course skiing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling may lose out, cutting into sales of winter sports equipment.   But these types of economic pluses and minuses are pretty trivial compared to threat of planetary change if greenhouse gases are unchecked.  We are due for at least a couple feet of sea level rise this century, but if left unchecked much of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets could melt adding twenty feet or more of sea level and if warming continued the addition of water from the entire Antarctic could total 200 feet of sea level rise.  The altitude above sea level for some major cities:  Miami: 6.5’, Galveston & Corpus Christi: 6.9’: Houston: 80, San Francisco: 52, Tampa: 48’, Orlando: 82′, New York: 33’, Richmond VA: 166, LA: 305, Chicago and Charlottesville: 594, Denver: Mile high.

These are single point altitudes for these cities—obviously there are higher and lower points within these metropolitan areas.  It’s possible that Denver, Atlanta, Chicago, and Charlottesville would “benefit” from increased growth if large numbers of people from coastal cities arrive when damaging coastal storms eventually destroy their homes in coastal areas.

The other grave danger we face is acidification of the ocean—which could wipe out marine organisms that produce calcium carbonate shells.  These shells are the basis of many food chains in marine ecosystems and their demise could lead to a nearly dead ocean. With tens of thousands to millions of years some new forms of life would likely evolve and create new ecosystems, but that timescale is largely irrelevant to us today.

It seems a hard case to make that climate change will be beneficial, especially coming out of a devastating 2017 hurricane season with estimated record damages of $200 billion and a total tax bill to taxpayers of $90 billion that will contribute to widening government deficit.  While hurricanes are a natural phenomenon, there is good scientific evidence that because of the warmer climate, precipitation in, for example, Harvey was significantly enhanced.

Tens to hundreds of feet of sea level rise are likely centuries or much more in the future, but changing the trajectory of global warming is like the proverbial ocean liner, if we wait until the catastrophe is right before us, it will be too late to turn away.

John Reilly is a senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management at MIT and an energy, environmental and agriculture economist.

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