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Our current infrastructure was built for a different planet

It's easy to forget that every piece of our current infrastructure--roads, rails, runways, bridges, industrial plants, housing--was built with a certain temperature range in mind. Our agricultural system and much of our electrical generating system (including dams, nuclear power stations and conventional thermal electric plants which burn coal and natural gas) were created not only with a certain temperature range in mind, but also a certain range of rainfall. Rainfall, whether it is excessive or absent, can become a problem if it creates 1) floods that damage and sweep away buildings and crops or 2) if there isn't enough water to quench crops and supply industrial and utility operating needs.

This summer has shown just what can happen when those built-in tolerances for heat, moisture (or lack of it) and wind are exceeded. The New York Times did an excellent short piece providing examples of some of those effects:

  1. A jet stuck on the tarmac as its wheels sank into asphalt softened by 100-degree heat.
  2. A subway train derailed by a kink in the track due to excessive heat.
  3. A power plant that had to be shut down due to lack of cooling water when the water level dropped below the intake pipe.
  4. A "derecho", a severe weather pattern of thunderstorms and very high straight-line winds, that deprived 4.3 million people of power in the eastern part of the United States, some for eight days.
  5. Drainage culverts destroyed by excessive rains.

Past attempts to forecast the possible costs of climate change have been largely inadequate. They failed because of unanticipated effects on and complex interconnections among various parts of critical infrastructure.

Back in 2007 Yale economist William Nordhaus wrote in a paper that "[e]conomic studies suggest that those parts of the economy that are insulated from climate, such as air-conditioned houses or most manufacturing operations, will be little affected directly by climatic change over the next century or so." Having air-conditioning does not do you much good, however, if the electricity is out. And, manufacturing operations depend on reliable electric service. Many manufacturing operations are also water-intensive and so will be affected by water shortages. In addition, damage to transportation systems (as detailed above) could hamper the delivery of manufactured products.

Where Nordhaus does acknowledge considerable effects, he seems to underestimate the impact:

However, those human and natural systems that are “unmanaged,” such as rain-fed agriculture, seasonal snow packs and river runoffs, and most natural ecosystems, may be significantly affected. While economic studies in this area are subject to large uncertainties, the best guess in this study is that economic damages from climate change with no interventions will be in the order of 2½ percent of world output per year by the end of the 21st century.

I have commented on this assessment in a previous piece. Nordhaus imagines that because agriculture, forestry, and fisheries make up only about 1.0 percent of the U.S. economy, negative effects on these from climate change would do minimal damage. We cannot, however, look only within the border of the United States for effects, though those have been bad enough. Extreme drought in the grain-growing areas of the world's major exporter of grain has already sent soybean and corn prices to record highs. This has the potential to affect political stability in countries where food costs are a much larger share of income. If high prices persist, then it's possible we'll see food riots similar to those in 2007-2008 that were a precursor to the Arab Spring which destabilized so many regimes in a short period of time. This kind of disruption to an economy and society is far beyond anything Nordhaus anticipates.

Naturally, the oil industry agrees that the problem of adaptation will be fairly minor. Rex Tillerson, current CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's largest international oil company, recently told the Council on Foreign Relations the following:

We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this. Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around--we'll adapt to that. It's an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.

Not surprisingly, Tillerson doesn't understand that costly existing agricultural infrastructure won't be easily moved or replaced. He also doesn't seem to understand that soil quality is not uniform from place to place. Does he think that as temperatures warm and devastate the American grain belt with recurrent drought, we can simply transfer the growing of much of the world's export grain crop north to the Canadian Shield which has soil so thin it has never supported agriculture?

Writer Bill McKibben, who sounded one of the first warnings about climate change in his 1989 book The End of Nature, has explained in his recent book Eaarth that we now live on a new planet, one created by irrevocable and increasingly rapid climate change. One of our biggest problems is that our current infrastructure was built for the old planet Earth. Neither Rex Tillerson, who leads an organization that has consistently put out disinformation about climate change, nor William Nordhaus, who has long acknowledged that climate change is a problem, seem to understand the scope and scale of our infrastructure predicament.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.


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