$43 Trillion: What Scientists Calculate a Warming Arctic Will Cost
The melting permafrost in the Arctic could cost the world dearly. New research calculates that the economic damage that would flow from loss of permafrost and the increased emissions of greenhouse gases would add up to $43 trillion.
This is very nearly the estimated combined gross domestic product last year of the U.S., China, Japan, Germany, UK, France and Brazil.
Melting permafrost has made this Alaskan road sink by 10 feet. Photo credit: Dr. John Cloud / NOAA
And, British and U.S. scientists say, this would be in addition to at least $300 trillion of economic damage linked to other consequences of climate change.
The attempt to put a cumulative economic value on natural changes in climate that have yet to happen is part of the bid to get governments to take climate change seriously. In the latest attempt to cost the impact of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and the continuous rise in global average temperatures, all as a consequence of fossil fuel combustion and other human action, the economist Chris Hope of the University of Cambridge and the polar expert Kevin Schaefer of the University of Colorado have turned their sights on the Arctic.
The Arctic is the fastest-warming region of the planet. It was once much warmer and its now-frozen soils are home to huge quantities of vegetation that never had a chance to decompose.
The two scientists report in Nature Climate Change that if emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise as they are doing now, the thaw of the permafrost and the loss of the ice caps could release 1,700 billion metric tons of carbon now locked in as frozen organic matter.
What would follow would include a higher chance of catastrophic floods, wind storms, heat waves and drought, the accelerated melting of the Greenland (and West Antarctic) ice sheets, rising sea levels, the loss of agricultural land and rising energy demand as more and more people began to depend on air conditioning.
So the total cost of permafrost thaw would be $43 trillion, which is about half the annual global domestic product of the planet right now. The predicted total cost of climate change by 2200 could reach $369 trillion, an increase of 13 percent on all calculations so far.
Scientists calculate that emissions from thawing permafrost could cost the world $43 trillion http://t.co/9ZgJuCExCb http://t.co/aLzHeCGRZQ— Greenpeace USA (@Greenpeace USA)1442862241.0
Governments—and industry—have tended to resist steps such as a switch to renewable resources and greater care for the remaining forests, on the grounds that change on such a scale imposes economic costs. So estimates of the economic costs of climate change are part of an attempt to persuade nations that to do nothing would be far more expensive.
Researchers have tried to derive the true social costs of, for instance, fossil fuels and the economic setbacks associated with specific climate events such as heat waves in single countries or even the possible costs in lives and income of multiple impacts across a continent.
Their conclusion: an extra $43 trillion bill for inaction. An aggressive strategy to limit thaw in the permafrost, on the other hand, could save the world $37 tn.
The two scientists used a computer model to simulate the impacts of what is now known as the business-as-usual-scenario, in which the world goes on burning more and more fossil fuels, until the concentrations in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide reach 700 parts per million.
Right now, the concentration has just tipped 400 ppm. For most of human history, it has hovered around 270 ppm.
“We want to use these models to help us make better decisions—linking scientific and economic models together is a way to help us do that,” said Dr. Hope. “We need to estimate how much it will cost if we do nothing, how much it will cost if we do something and how much we need to spend to cut back greenhouse gases.”
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
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