Addressing Our Looming Climate Bankruptcy

Written by Frank Lowenstein on . Posted in Act, Extreme weather

Editor’s Note: With the mercury soaring in summer 2012 and climate studies in the news, today’s post, co-authored by Frank Lowenstein, Climate Adaptation Strategy Leader, and Climate Senior Scientist Evan Girvetz of The Nature Conservancy, considers our climate challenge in familiar economic terms.

The economic crash of 2008 motivated many of us to pay closer attention to our finances, and we are beginning to see the benefits: Americans’ savings rates have increased roughly four-fold since the record low of 2005; debt-to-income ratios are down 22 percent since late 2007. This makes good common sense. None of us want to join the wave of millions of Americans who have had to file for bankruptcy as their personal finances collapsed in the face of unexpected stresses – loss of a job, collapse of a home’s value, decline in stock prices. Sometimes bankruptcy came when stresses piled on, as when the loss of a job deprived a family of health insurance and then a medical emergency hit.

The financial crisis took most of us by surprise, even though economists and experts in the banking industry had been warning of looming disaster for months or even years. And it was not a pleasant surprise; those bankruptcy statistics translate into homelessness, suffering, and anxiety.

Just as unsustainable debts, freewheeling lending practices and ignored financial warnings led up to the economic melt-down of 2008, so as a nation we have ignored warnings of climate change’s impacts. But this latest season of heat and drought, is driving home to many of us, that in order to protect our families from needless impacts, we need to take steps to avoid looming climate bankruptcy.

Much as people spent freely from savings and allowed their personal debt to climb in the early 2000s, as a society we are rapidly depleting carbon stored in our forests and in deposits of coal and other fossil fuels underground. By releasing too much carbon dioxide into the air, we are tipping the atmosphere’s balance sheets into the red — causing our air, lands and waters to heat up. July was the hottest month ever in U.S. history; triple-digit temperatures have been common across the West and the Southeast.

And that heat is more than just uncomfortable — it threatens the lands and waters we depend on and disrupts our economy and our lives.

Last month, the Des Moines River in Iowa hit 97 degrees and tens of thousands of fish died. Temperatures in a 2,500-acre lake that cools a nuclear power plant in Illinois surpassed 100 degrees, threatening the ability of the plant to keep operating. Corn and soy yields are down and food prices likely headed up as excessive heat has baked the soils of the Midwest. Barges are grinding to a halt on rivers too low to move them. Extraordinary forest fires in the American West have been blazing since June. And high school football players in Georgia are finding their practices curtailed — it’s just too hot to play safely.

This is what climate bankruptcy looks like: charred homes from fires in Colorado; suffering in stifling, power-less homes across the East; barren fields in the parched, baked breadbasket of the Midwest. And new research from NASA scientists documents what most Americans already realize: that climate change is the only credible explanation for the extreme, destructive heat waves we have experienced around the world over the past decade.

And as we see the impacts of excessive heat on of power production, food and water, it becomes increasingly clear that the more CO2 we pump into the atmosphere, the more changes we’ll need to make in our lives to stave off disaster and discomfort.

So what should we do to keep ourselves out of climate bankruptcy?

First, we need to reduce our personal and national carbon emissions. We are making progress: Carbon emissions in the United States are down 7% from 2007 to 2011 as utilities shift from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas, consumers buy more efficient cars and businesses realize that saving energy saves money.  But we can and must do much more, starting with putting a price on carbon and pursuing other societal incentives (such as new fuel efficiency standards) to reduce carbon pollution from all sectors of our economies. California has led the way, with laws that sharply drive down that state’s carbon emissions through 2050, and analyses published in Science showed that the economic costs of those policies will be modest.

Individual actions can also make a difference. You can get ideas to address your own carbon habits and contribute to collective belt-tightening, by visiting The Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Footprint Calculator.

Beyond that, our cities and communities need to be prepared for the “new normals” we are already experiencing. To that end, many large cities — Chicago, Boston and New York, for example — have developed climate adaptation plans. Get in touch with your municipal officials to find out what they are doing to plan, and how you can help.

And then there’s making your own plans to adapt. As Sarene Marshall suggested in a recent blog, climate change may require us to adjust the timing of family activities —whether that’s to consider a September vacation instead of one in July, or swapping your lunchtime tennis game for a night-time one under the lights.

As the recent heat and the latest science both make clear, we need to move quickly to adjust our use of carbon. Otherwise, the adjustments we’ll need to make in our lives and our economy to cope with climate bankruptcy will make those needed to prevent it look trivial.

Frank Lowenstein is Climate Adaptation Strategy Leader for The Nature Conservancy.

Evan Girvetz is Senior Scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Program.  

Photo by: Flickr user agrilifetoday (Texas AgriLIfe Research photo by Kay Ledbetter) (Hot, dry winds and drought conditions lead to dirt storms in Texas’s Panhandle).

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Comments (1)

  • Terry Floyd


    Dr Alvin Weinberg, visionary in climate change threats and remedies, warned and accomplished many unappreciated advances in posturing our National Labs to vigorously seek and propose
    realizable scientific strategies to confront climate change, said the following in 1977;

    “But the point is that, farfetched as it may seem to some, C02 may be another Sword of Damocles that hangs over our industrial society, and that may end the fossil fuel era much sooner than would be expected simply from depletion of coal. Above all it injects a somber note of uncertainty into our energy future, one that we ignore at our peril. I believe it is time for our political people to recognize this possibility. I do not believe it premature for the appropriate United Nations agency to form a group of international experts who can better define the C02 problem, assess global and national consequences, and propose credible responses.”

    (Excerpt from a speech given by Dr Alvin M Weinberg titled Toward an Acceptable Nuclear Future presented on May 5, 1977. Source: Towards an Acceptable Nuclear Future – Alvin Weinberg)

    Dr Jim Hansen recognizes the merits in the Thorium Molten Salt Technologies in his 2008 letter to President elect Obama.

    “The Obama campaign, properly in my opinion, opposed the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository. Indeed, there is a far more effective way to use the $25 billion collected from utilities over the past 40 years to deal with waste disposal. This fund should be used to develop fast reactors that consume nuclear waste, and thorium reactors to prevent the creation of new long-lived nuclear waste. By law the federal government must take responsibility for existing spent nuclear fuel, so inaction is not an option. Accelerated development of fast and thorium reactors will allow the US to fulfill its obligations to dispose of the nuclear waste, and open up a source of carbon-free energy that can last centuries, even Millennia.”

    Let’s not wait for another radioactive plume from a LWR reactor, 10 more endangered species to vanish, an hellacious drought parching innocence livestock and families to wither to skin and bone,
    or more tons of fossil fuel emissions to pursue the effort Dr Weinberg developed at Oak Ridge in the 1960s known as the Thorium Molten Salt Breeder Reactor


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