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Level 0: Impacts of Climate Change on Us: Individuals

Japanese print illustrating a harsh storm

Climate Is Not Uniform.  Where you Live Will Determine Your Likely Impacts

The impacts of climate change on our daily individual lives will be dependent on where we live within the U.S. but more generally, they will range from small to large.  Island residents and individuals living in or close to coastal communities within the 48 contiguous states have a strong likelihood of dealing with more frequent and more extreme storm surges and flooding events that are highly disruptive to the very economies and communities in which they live.  This means increasing intensity hurricanes, cyclones, and tropical storms have the very real potential to makes individuals’ homes uninhabitable, a lifetime of possessions destroyed, transportation inoperable, and jobs in office buildings temporarily meaningless when buildings are blown apart from high winds and rain.  Whole economies come to a halt as they strain over how to recover and rebuild from natural devastation enhanced by climate change.  People’s health suffers during these times for indefinite periods of time from increased risks of disease, mental suffering, and worst of all, untimely death for some.  During these landfall events where built infrastructure is compromised, the after effects of extreme storms compromise and cripple central municipal facilities to distribute energy services such as electricity, heat and air-conditioning to households, support the flow of safe drinking water and effective treatment of waste and sewage waters.  Storm event flooding not only risks riverbank overflows but often guarantees the commingling of industrial as well as urban contaminants into freshwater systems that support human health and safe drinking supplies.

When Wild Weather Forces You to Flee Your Home and Community

More unsettling to individual lives is the potential need (requirement, even) to resettle to a new town, city or even state, forcing individuals to literally start-over and reboot their lives from scratch.  This is not a far-fetched scare tactic or apocalyptic future-visioning scenario.  This “resettlement” idea is very real and very present-day.  Hurricane Katrina that hit Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005 forced 1.2 million people to evacuate their communities and homes.  Of the 100,000 people that remained to weather the storm in situ, nearly two percent (1,800) of that sub-population lost their lives to the direct or in-direct effects of the storm[1].  More than 800,000 homes were destroyed.  Twelve years after Hurricane Katrina, only half of the 14,000 lower 9th ward New Orleans’ residents have re-inhabited the worst hit neighborhood of the city[2].

Climate Change is an Equal-Opportunity Challenge

Hurricane Harvey slammed into Houston, Texas in late August 2017, a sprawling metropolitan area of 6.6 million people, damaging more than 200,000 homes and destroying more than 12,000[3].  It also happens to be a rapidly growing city built on wetlands prone to overflow and flooding.  Questions continue to be batted around as to whether and to what extent some neighborhoods that have a conservative 10 percent estimate of flooding yearly – having flooded successively three years in a row from three 500-year floods in 2015, 2016, and 2017 – are worth rebuilding.  Climate scientists don’t mince words when they state that “climate change will increasingly require moving – not just rebuilding – entire neighborhoods…even abandoning [urban developed] coastlines”[4].  Hurricane Harvey outpaced the damage costs of Hurricane Katrina by 99 Billion, a 122 percent increase in total storm damage sustained by a metropolitan area.  One could rightly argue that human suffering and displacement due to extreme storm events facilitated by global climate change will increasingly be seen as “equal opportunity” disasters – the rich and poor, young and old, educated and non-educated, all races, and Republican- versus Democratic-leaning individuals face the same or similar level of suffering, economic turmoil, displacement, risks to health and uncertainty in the length of time it takes to rebuild their homes let alone their lives.

If you Think Human Migration Here in the U.S. is Hyperbole, Think Again.

No real-life example is more poignant in encapsulating the long-term, forced migration of individuals from climate change disaster than the residents of Puerto Rico.  The island was completely devastated and almost entirely flattened when Hurricane Maria made landfall in late September 2017 as it swept through the Caribbean hitting the island directly.  The Hurricane took out 100 percent of the island’s electrical power.  A month post-storm, still 80 percent of the island had no access to electricity, potable water or safe sewage treatment.  There are estimates that full restoration of energy to the whole of the island may take upwards of six to 12 months.  Houses have vanished.  Industries have entirely stopped operating.  Residents of Puerto Rico are literally in survival mode with no end in sight to their everyday miseries large and small.  It is no surprise, then, that large swaths of Puerto Ricans are abandoning their homes and lives on the island and take temporary but more likely, permanent residence on mainland U.S.  Of the 3.5 million Puerto Rican residents, nearly eight percent of the island’s total population have made their way to various cities in Florida, looking for permanent residence status, housing, and jobs.  Puerto Rican elected officials note that “Most islanders have moved in with relatives [on the mainland U.S.], and many have no plans to return home.”[5]

But Middle-America Is Better Protected from the Effects of Climate Change, right?

What about individuals not living near the coasts or on islands, but inland, say, in agriculturally-important regions?  They too will find their health, productivity and livelihoods challenged by the impacts of climate change.  Let’s take the 10 biggest and most productive agricultural states, which are listed below, and the key agricultural or feedlot products (highlighted in blue font) for cattle they produce:

 

  • California: almonds, grapes, lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, walnuts and hay
  • Iowa: corn, soybeans, oats, hay, flaxseed, rye and wheat
  • Texas: hay, sorghum, corn and wheat
  • Nebraska: corn, soybeans, wheat, hay, sorghum, beets and potatoes
  • Illinois: corn, soybeans, hay, wheat, rye, oats and sorghum
  • Minnesota: corn, soybeans, peas, potatoes and corn
  • Kansas: wheat, corn, soybeans, sorghum and hay
  • Indiana: corn, soybeans, tomatoes, wheat, and hay
  • Wisconsin: corn, soybeans, potatoes and hay
  • North Carolina: cotton, soybeans and corn, peanuts and sweet potatoes

 

These states are home to a great number of farmers but also cattle ranchers.  Four of the five key agricultural states above (i.e., Texas, Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa) supply the majority of feedlots to the cattle industry.  The fifth state is Colorado, which is rated as one of the top five cattle feed lot and one of the top 10 cattle producing (i.e., meat) states.  The top states that supply the globe with meat and poultry for human consumption are Wisconsin, South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma, California, Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas.

The Challenges of Climate Change in Fertile America

Climate change impacts such as rising air temperatures directly affect crop productivity as optimal growing temperatures, length of growing seasons, and levels of moisture and/or aridity in the air and soils are altered and increasingly become less predictable to forecast.  So too, climate change is expected to exacerbate water availability, making water scarcer.  Crops rely on steady water irrigation systems.  Water quantity and pricing will strain farmers’ ability to optimize crop yields.  Higher air temperatures across all seasons invariably translate into higher disease rates and increasing crop pestilence jeopardizing maximum agricultural productivity.  In fact, some crops don’t fare well with variable and rising temperature conditions.  Scientists expect declining crop yields over the coming decades and late in the 21st century for crops such as maize (corn), tomatoes, rice, wheat, cotton, and sunflower to name a few.   Many of these are staples in a large majority of products we find on our supermarket shelves and in the kitchens where we cook.

It should be noted that nearly all of the top 10 agricultural states produce food for both human cattle consumption.  With declining crop yields and increasing water scarcity, cattle production is also negatively affected by climate change.  Cattle rely heavily on constant water consumption and with decreasing feed lot yields, cattle are more susceptible to disease and death.

Farmers and cattle ranchers in these states face declining revenues, more expensive inputs (namely, fertilizers, pest-resistant seeds, and feed costs), challenged and potentially rationed water supplies, and less productive lands.  Farmers operate on thin profit margins to begin with.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 69 percent of all U.S. farms (2013) operate in a “critical profit margin zone” which is a financial classification of a near-failing farm that is not-profitable enough to support ongoing operations for the long-term[6].  With the added challenges of climate change to already tough operating conditions, farmer’s livelihoods and the families that rely on them will be strained at the best, or might disappear at the worst.  We are talking about 3.2 million farmers in the U.S., operating more than two million farms by the 2012 Census of Agriculture.  With an average household of 2.6 people in the U.S., more than eight million farming household dwellers or 2.5 percent of the total U.S. population, will be directly affected by climate change challenges that will make an earnable living in farming very difficult.

Phew, I’m not a Farmer or Cattle Rancher So I’m Safe

Don’t be fooled though, by those seemingly low numbers. Indirectly, nearly all of the 324 million Americans who rely on fresh produce and affordable meat protein produced here in the U.S. can likely see various food product scarcities occurring in the future.  With scarcity comes rising food, meat, and poultry prices.  We have not begun to touch upon the depletion of marine organisms across the globe, a very necessary and valuable source of protein for human populations.  When fish become scarce or are no longer fishable, prices skyrocket.  We see this today in the exorbitant Bluefin and Ahi tuna prices but also in the rising prices for fillets of halibut, abalone and even wild salmon.  Fish catches in the wild and through aquaculture farms supply more than 20 percent of the world’s dietary animal protein or support the health of 1.5 billion people[7].

Climate Change Impacts Are Real at All Scales

You can see where this is going.  Climate change is a global issue but at every scale including at the individual level, it has the very real capacity and high likelihood of exacting negative impacts, both directly and indirectly, to our livelihoods, health, living standards, transportation means, and energy usage.  It is worth then, exploring what we can do – as individuals and households – to both mitigate the effects of climate change to ourselves and to support the broader global effort of decreasing our dependence and use of fossil fuel energy including oil, gas, and coal.  We are all in this massive effort together, don’t kid yourself.  And any and all changes we do ourselves have a definite and dramatic impact to decrease GHG emissions into the atmosphere, the main driver of global climate change.   

Contact Kate Gaertner today to see what Triple Win Advisory can do to help your business and industry increase sustainability to result in a “triple win” for company profit and long-term competitive advantage, societal well-being, and successful environmental pollution mitigation.

[1] Hurricane Science.org.  Katrina Impacts.  Retrieved from http://www.hurricanescience.org/history/studies/katrinacase/impacts/

[2] Santana, Rebecca. (2017, April 10).  12 Years Post-Katrina, Hope but Concern in Lower 9th Ward.  U.S. News and World Report.

[3] Amadeo, Kiimberly.  (2017, September 30).  Hurricane Harvey Facts, Damage and Costs.  The Balance.  Retrieved from https://www.thebalance.com/hurricane-harvey-facts-damage-costs-4150087

[4] Kimmelman, Michael and Hanernov, Josh.  (2017, November 11).  Lessons From Hurricane Harvey:  Houston’s Struggle Is America’s Tale.  The New York Times.

[5] Alvarez, Lizette.  (2017, November 17).  A Great Migration From Puerto Rico Is set to Transform Orlando.  The New York Times.

[6] Hoppe, Robert.  (2013).  Profit Margin Increases with Farm Size.  USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service and Economic Research Service, 2013 Agricultural Resource Management Survey.

[7] Noble, I.R., S. Huq, Y.A. Anokhin, J. Carmin, D. Goudou, F.P. Lansigan, B. Osman-Elasha, and A. Villamizar, 2014: Adaptation needs and options. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L.White (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 839.

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