The cost of NOT adapting to climate change
A new study out of Colorado State University shows that climate change could hasten the deterioration of US bridge infrastructure. This will increase the cost of building bridges, since a bridge’s lifespan will be shorter than anticipated. However bridges aren’t the only thing that this applies to. Roads, especially those in the north, will be negatively affected by the freeze / thaw that has so far been one of the symptoms of climate change. Roads in the true north – those built on permafrost – will quickly crumble as the ground on which they’re built softens. And now that I live in the north (Yukon), I can tell you that the impacts up here are significant, far worse than what we’ve seen in the south.
Sea level rise, another symptom of climate change, is already costing coastal communities billions due to flooding. Buildings aren’t the only thing that gets wrecked when flooding occurs – utilities, which supply resident’s heat, air conditioning, and power can be destroyed, costing the city (and taxpayers) millions or billions, as infrastructure needs to be repaired or, in some cases, rebuilt.
Then there are the health impacts, which are impossible to anticipate or quantify. There will be health impacts from excessive heat in warmer areas, larger numbers of insects who thrive in warmer weather and spread disease, increased forest fires, which will likely cause greater incidence of asthma and lung cancer, and many other risks. But then there are health risks that we can’t even begin to anticipate. The most concerning risk I’ve come across to date is melting permafrost, and what’s frozen in that permafrost. We know that human and animal carcasses have been frozen in permafrost for many thousands of years, along with the diseases and viruses they carried. And we know that diseases and viruses can be preserved, if frozen, for hundreds of thousands of years. The diseases and viruses that are dormant in permafrost are likely things that we are completely unfamiliar with, and unadapted to. The fact is we don’t know what’s in that permafrost, and we aren’t prepared to deal with the diseases and bacteria with which we have no experience. It’s possible that the diseases and viruses that humans and animals may be exposed to as permafrost melts could spread quickly and debilitate thousands, or even millions. We’ve already seen at least one such case. In 2016, a young boy died and dozens were hospitalised in Siberia after the local food supply was infected by Anthrax spores. These spores were traced back to an infected reindeer carcass that had been frozen in permafrost for seventy-five years.
We’ve heard a great deal over the past few years about reducing emissions, something that will prevent further climate change down the road. But climate change is already happening. Reducing emissions won’t help us today. What we need today, and immediately, is far greater focus on adaptation. We need to recognise that, while adapting to climate change will cost millions or billions, failing to adapt will cost even more in the long-run. We will see higher infrastructure costs, and much higher health care costs. And, according to Naomi Klein’s book “This Changes Everything,” cost is the reason why many Americans still refuse to accept anthropogenic climate change: they know that truly adapting to climate change will cost millions or billions in the near-term, and they don’t want to pay for it. However, the phrase “short-term pain for long-term gain” truly applies when it comes to climate change and the future of humanity. Paying for appropriate climate change adaptation measures today will save us all a lot more down the road. And it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than moving to a new planet.