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Confronting the Climate Reality, and Learning to Rebuild in the Wake of Disasters
Ninety-nine degrees Fahrenheit in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in February. Fifty-five inches of rain in Houston, Texas. Two-hundred million dollars a day spent by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) since the recent hurricanes. This is a look at what is ahead under a warmer climate, said Alice Hill, the former senior director for resilience policy for the National Security Council under President Obama. Hill was joined by Amir Jina, an assistant professor at the Harris School, at a panel event on November 9 hosted by EPIC and the Chicago Council.
Hill, who is now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, called the events over the last year—flooding, hurricanes, wildfires—a “wake-up call.”
Jina, an environmental and development economist who studies the impacts of climate change, described the impacts of these climate events on the United States.
“Even in the U.S., the richest country in the world, somewhere you would expect to have the least vulnerability to these types of exposures, you see that there are big effects on health, on labor productivity, on agriculture that still persist even today,” Jina said.
When studying the impacts, Jina and his co-authors expected that the amount of warm days would be balanced out by the amount of cold days across the United States and there would be only a modest impact on the economy from climate change. But, what they found surprised them. The overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) takes a hit. For every one degree Celsius of warming, GDP declines by about 1.2 percent. The southern portion of the United States fairs the worst, according to Jina, because of a “perfect storm” of climate risks: sea level rise, hurricanes and warmer temperatures. His research predicts these portions of the country would lose about 20 to 30 percent of their local incomes.
“We’ll see enormous effects, very unequally distributed across the United States,” Jina said. “Looking globally, one can only expect some places would fare worse considering the U.S. can adapt.”
Jina recalled his visits to other countries, such as Bangladesh, where he saw villages that were flooded year after year. Working with that population, he asked a group of about twenty who of them had lost someone in the last five years to climate-related incidents. About half raised their hands.
“It became very clear that these impacts were not hitting everyone equally,” Jina said. “The people who are poorest in the world are having to make these extremely difficult trade-offs within their lives because they just don’t have the economic ability to cope with any of these tragedies.”
That can result in a national security concern for the United States, according to Hill. She gave the example of Syria, which was recently hit by the worst drought in about a thousand years. The drought was one factor that caused a massive migration.
“As other countries are destabilized, what does that mean for the United States?” Hill asked. “We want to make sure nations that are of strategic interest to us are not rendered even more vulnerable or even unstable and have severe political consequences as a result of climate change.”
Building Back Better
After a climate event hits, Jina’s research finds that the country’s economy doesn’t recover for 20 to 30 years. That’s because money that would have been invested to education, healthcare and a variety of other needs is diverted to recovery efforts. Hill said that means we need to do a better job preparing for a future that is uncertain—we can’t just build back the way it was. Spending a little more upfront to do it right is a more efficient approach in the long run when the recovery dollars are later factored in, Hill said. The problem is political will—“not in my term” tendencies.
“The goal is to push it from recovery to pre-event mitigation and risk,” Hill said. “That saves us all money and keeps us economically strong because the hit to the economy is less if your buildings can withstand the damages that we know are from high winds, flooding, relentless sea level rise.”
This requires a change to flood maps and building codes, Hill said, describing how our building codes are based on looking at historic risk—how often did this property flood, how often did it experience high winds?
“None of our building codes systematically incorporate future risks. None of our flood maps incorporate future risk. We are planning, building to what happened in the past even though we have great examples even this year on what our future looks like,” Hill said. “How do we plan for something we’ve never experienced before?”
While the political will may not be there, Jina said in the sciences, we know how to do it and can calibrate for uncertainty.