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What Climate Change Looks Like on Your Front Porch

Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

If you are like the typical American, then you think climate change is a real problem, but you’re not clamoring for action. Yes, you’ve heard that the planet is getting warmer—that the sea levels are rising and, somewhere, storms probably getting worse. But it’s not something that you imagine happening to you, in your state and in your town.

For the officials and advocates trying to fight climate change, this is a huge problem. By the time people realize they have a personal stake in the environment—that it’s their own neighborhoods, livelihoods, and businesses at stake—it will be too late to act.

A new report, published on Tuesday, represents an attempt to change that. It’s called “Risky Business” and it comes from a year-long research project, convened and financed by Michael Bloomberg, Hank Paulson, and Tom Steyer. It’s the latest in a series of new reports that sound alarms about climate change: the health effects, glaciers melting, and impact on food nutrition, to name a few. But the researchers and scientists who produced Risky Business are trying to do something a little different. Using new, more sophisticated projections, they have broken down the U.S. into the same regions used in the National Climate Assessment and attempted to show what climate change will mean for each one. They are also trying to put a dollar value on the risk climate change represents in these regions, particularly for businesses.

That last part is important. The primary audience for the report isn’t really Main Street. It’s Wall Street—and corporate boardrooms. The backers include a number of people with credibility in this world—not just Paulson, who used to run Goldman Sachs and served as Treausry Secretary in the Bush Administration, but also George Shultz (Treasury Secretary under Richard Nixon) and Olympia Snowe (the former Republican senator). Paulson, who has apparently been particularly active in this project, argued in a weekend New York Times op-ed that “risk management is a conservative principle.”

Of course, plenty of global companies think and talk about climate change already. But only a relative few—like Starbucks and Ikea—have actually have engaged in advocacy to fight climate change, and some would say even their efforts could be stronger. The real exceptions have been companies with the most obvious stake in climate change. An example is the reinsurance industry. Re-insurers sell to the insurance industry, so they have felt changes in extreme weather the most acutely: In 2012, they faced $11 billion more in privately insured property losses than the average over the last decade.  Not surprisingly, the company Swiss Re has publicly discussed climate’s economic impact for years, only because they are in the front lines.

The language of the report—a risk assessment—is also something business leaders will recognize. And it’s not something that’s been done before on climate change, at least on the national scale. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the most comprehensive report on the state of climate science to date—admitted such large-scale economic estimates are “difficult” to make. The closest thing Risky Business has as a parallel is Nicholas Stern’s 2006 report that unabated global warming will knock off at least 5 percent off the gross domestic product each year. Even these predictions, Stern argues in an update to the report, underestimate the costs.

One of the challenges when discussing climate change is the range of possibilities it always involves. There’s always a wide range of outcomes, so the most severe and extreme outcomes may have just a one in 100 chance of occurring. Risky Business attempts to capture this, by projecting “not only those outcomes most likely to occur, but also lower‐probability high‐cost climate futures.” Detractors here might argue the worst-case scenarios aren't worth any attention after all, because odds are they won't happen. But we worry about risk all the time: Like insuring your house in the off-chance of a fire.

Risky Business acknowledges that the consequences of global warming won’t be spread evenly. Some businesses and entire regions will be in much worse shape than others, because some (like agriculture) may be able to adapt while others (like real estate) will not. Here’s a rundown of what the projections suggest:

Property Will Be Destroyed: By midcentury, between $66 billion to $106 billion worth of property will be under water because of sea level rise. And there’s a 1-in-20 chance—“the same chance as an American developing colon cancer; twice as likely as an American developing melanoma”—that $701 billion worth of coastal property will be below sea level by the end of the century. Florida and Louisiana’s coasts are in for the most damage, because much its infrastructure built at low elevations:

Source: Risky Business

All charts courtesy of Risky Business

Farmland will get spoiled:Within the next 25 years, large areas of farming probably face lower crop yields of somewhere between 10-20 percent. By 2100, there is a risk of 50-70 percent of annual crops in the Midwest, Southeast, and Great Plains.

Ironically, according to the report, farmers are in better shape than many occupations, because they can change crops and techniques to suit the changing climate. There is a major caveat, though, because some farmers still lose. The Midwest, responsible for most of the nation’s soybean and corn supply, could lose some of its agriculture to the north.

People will become less productive: Any business that requires outside work—like construction, landscaping, and agriculture—faces a slowdown in productivity that could be worse than any other point in U.S. history. That’s thanks to rising temperatures and humidity. We could face a labor slowdown of as much as 3 percent, because of the months of temperatures over 95 degrees Fahrenheit some regions will face. Once or twice a year, some places can even have humidity and heat higher than what the human body can withstand. This is how that looks mapped out over the course of our lifetimes:

Source: Risky Business

Energy demand will shoot up: When it’s hot, people and businesses run their air conditioners more frequently—and more intensely. The demand comes at a high cost, especially to the Great Plains region; it’s the the equivalent of needing 200 more coal or natural gas plants. Demand for energy imposes a net cost of $8.5 billion to $30 billion to commercial interests by midcentury. 

Source: Risky Business