Per Capita Davis: What’s the cost of silence?
Not too long ago it was fashionable for those who deny or doubt the climate crisis to argue that although scientists had early on predicted that one of the first visible effects of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would be increases in extreme weather events, there was no way to determine if a particular flood, drought, hurricane was caused by the climate crisis.
That changed with the evolution and increased precision of “extreme weather attribution.” Scientists can now analyze these events and determine the degree to which higher ocean and atmospheric temperatures contributed to the increased frequency, severity, and duration of specific disasters.
Two things about this appeared in the recent news. First, there was the report of two studies that extend attribution science to economics: given that the climate crisis amplifies the destructive effects of, for example, a hurricane, what percentage of the costs of that damage can be attributed to the climate crisis?
The authors of the report examined extreme weather events in New Zealand (droughts and floods) and in the United States (Hurricane Harvey). The New Zealand government estimated droughts in 2007 and 2013 together caused $3.4 billion (US dollars) in economic damage. Of this, they estimated $568 million, about 17 percent, could be attributed to the climate crisis.
Additionally, they looked at a dozen extreme rainfall events that resulted in $334 million in insurance losses and estimated that $99 million of that (almost 30 percent) was “attributable to human influence on the climate.”
In terms of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, they estimate that of the $90 billion in costs $67 billion (nearly three-quarters) could be attributed to the climate crisis. This estimate did not include four other hurricanes that year. Nor did the estimate include costs associated with adverse health, disruption of lives, or displacement experienced by individuals.
The authors of the report list five potential uses for information of costs attributable to the climate crisis. One, banks could use the information to judge risk in making loans. Two, Similarly, insurance companies could factor it in to their determination of risk in issuing policies, something many insurers have been attempting to do already. Three, policy makers would benefit in “assessing the social cost of carbon” and in setting goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Fourth, less developed countries that contribute little to the production of greenhouse gases and which have been advocating for compensation from wealthy nations that are the major source of those emissions could include these estimates in calculating the extent of that compensation. Fifth, investors would have additional information to guide their placement of funds into non-greenhouse gas producing enterprises.
In summary: “In the long run, the integration of quantitative social science and climate change event attribution will help decision-makers have a richer, better, and more accurate understanding of the effects of climate change on the economy.”
All good stuff. It certainly would seem to be worthwhile and positive to have this information available for all those purposes above.
This brings us to the second item in the recent news: an article in the New York Times titled, “Midlevel Staff Stifles Science About Climate.” The lead paragraph reads as follows: “Efforts to undermine climate change science in the federal government, once orchestrated largely by President Trump’s political appointees, are now increasingly driven by midlevel managers trying to protect their jobs and budgets and wary of the scrutiny of senior officials, according to interviews and newly revealed reports and surveys.”
Pause on that for a second.
The article includes information from surveys indicating, for example, that hundreds of workers agreed they had “been asked to omit the phrase ‘climate change’ from their work” and that “they avoided working on climate change or using the phrase.”
One scientist whose paper addressed how the carbon reduction targets in the Paris Agreement would affect extreme weather events (linking us back to the first item in the news above) was told his report was “solid on the science” but contained “red-flagged words” like Paris Agreement.
The article indicates that in addition to Paris Agreement, and “extreme event attribution” there were other red flags, including ”the social cost of carbon” and the Obama era “Clean Power Plan.” The agency writing the email helpfully indicated it “was trying not to put too much of this in writing, but the concern here is avoiding the impression that B.E. R. (the Energy department’s Biological and Environmental Research program) is supporting research directly focused on policy evaluation.”
The point of this is that the president’s dismissal of the climate crisis, coupled tightly to his instinct for and record of vindictiveness and punishment, has apparently cowed some or many of those in government agencies who should be serving the public’s interest instead calculating that to do so could cost them their jobs.
This is essentially turning “peer review” on its head. Rather than ensuring accuracy the process instead appears to be being bent towards obfuscation or omission of information the country and the world might find useful in addressing the climate crisis.
At what cost will this attempted silencing of science be to our future?
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears in the print edition of the Davis Enterprise twice each month. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise
Published online on June 16, 2020 | Printed in the June 16, 2020 edition on page A7
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