by Judith Curry
Nature’s deviations disrupt our lives and businesses more than we should accept. – Bill Gail
Super hurricanes, mega droughts and 1,000-year floods have made big news in the months leading to this week’s climate talks in Paris. Everyone wants to know how global warming has contributed and whether we should prepare for a future of weather on steroids. The science community races to provide clear answers.
Yet we need not wait for additional science, or resolve contentious policy debates, to recognize one simple truth. Natural climate variability itself — even absent human influence — disrupts our lives and businesses to a far greater extent than we should accept. Research suggests that the U.S. economy suffers half a trillion dollars or more in lost growth annually due to unforeseen climate variations: unseasonal cold spells, prolonged drought, unusually stormy months and much more.
To be clear, this column is not about human influence. Plenty has been published on that divisive topic, within these pages and elsewhere. This is a story about nature’s own climate uncertainties, and the economic consequences of not understanding them better. We — on every side of the climate debate — are holding our economy back. We have allowed disagreement over human influence to push aside what should be a non-controversial goal: improving our understanding of nature itself. Congress has even threatened to slash what research we already do. We must fix that.
Why should Congress — or any of us — care about natural climate variability? Because it creates enormous inefficiencies in our economy. A 2011 report in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society showed that state by state economic output due to climate-related supply and demand disruptions, such as flood-delayed deliveries, averages more than 3%. In states such as California, Ohio and New York, it is more than 10%. Shocking! And that doesn’t even include the high costs of catastrophic weather events, such as the 2012 Superstorm Sandy’s $65 billion tab that almost equaled New York City’s budget.
The causes of this variability are no mystery. Unexpectedly low or high seasonal temperatures routinely lead to higher energy prices. Drought, such as that plaguing the Southwest, places enormous economic pressure on farmers. Abnormal spring flooding in one place or another disrupts businesses each year. We all understand this. Deviations from normal climate were cited by The Wall Street Journal as a major cause for the gross domestic product drop of 2.9% in the first quarter of 2014. Can nature really push around our nation’s great economic engine so easily?
We don’t have to accept this. A significant portion of this inefficiency can be recovered as economic growth through better information technology. Doing so would be a huge boost to the nation’s welfare. Improving our ability to anticipate climate fluctuations provides one lever to grow the economy faster — an elusive goal these days.
None of this stops at U.S. borders. If the impact of climate variability on the U.S. economy is large, the global impact is far larger. In a connected world, increasingly dependent on global trade, climate matters — even far beyond where it is happening. Anything we learn that reduces our vulnerability in the U.S. can be leveraged to grow international business opportunities as well.
Businesses must anticipate climate at multiple time scales. Retailers plan inventory for weather-sensitive consumers months in advance. Being wrong is costly. Farmers decide a season or more ahead which crops to plant and how tight water resources might be. Food prices often soar when farmers are incorrect. Companies must anticipate climate decades in advance when planning infrastructure. Those throughout the Southwest, for example, need to know how soon the drought will end and when it will re-occur.
Improving the information that helps us anticipate, adapt to and price in nature’s variability would seem a wise, non-partisan goal. Much of what we need originates in basic research, funded by government agencies such as NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S.Geological Survey and the National Science Foundation. The challenges are large: understand Earth in all its complexity, including the interactions among atmosphere, ocean and lands. We have learned from the difficulty of predicting specific phenomena such as El Nino just how much new science this takes. Succeeding requires ongoing commitment.
Yet this commitment is at risk. In the complex process of creating the 2016 budget, Congress has threatened to cut NASA Earth science funding by 18% to 32%. Some say this is because these agencies research both natural and human-caused climate variability. We may choose to debate the policy response to human influence, but we should not let it hamper other business needs. Improving our ability to predict natural climate is too important to accept this sort of political fallout.
Working to understand natural climate variability is a no-brainer. This variability imposes a 3% economic tax we can help eliminate. The business community gets it. Let’s enable our businesses to outsmart climate variability, not make them collateral damage of the climate debate. It is too important to our economic growth.
William Gail’s book Climate Conundrums: What the Climate Debate Reveals About Us was recently published. He is the former president of the American Meteorological Society and co-founder of Global Weather Corporation in Boulder, Colo.
What a colossally sensible op-ed. Who is Bill Gail and why would he write something like this? (I’ve been called ‘denier’ for writing tamer stuff.) Bill Gail comes from the private sector; originally in the aerospace sector and now in private sector meteorological services. So he is not an academic, or a climate researcher that is dependent on federal funding or the acceptance of ‘peer’ researchers.
Bill is also a recent past President of the American Meteorological Society, and is chairing the AMS’s Centennial Visioning Committee (I am a member of this committee also). Because of its unique membership profile that includes large percentages from the private sector as well as academia and government, I have regarded the AMS as making a uniquely important contribution to our science and its applications. And I have substantial confidence in the executive leadership (e.g. Keith Seitter and Bill Hooke).
Back to natural climate variability. We remain extremely vulnerable to weather and climate disasters, that have nothing discernible to do with human caused climate change. These are being ignored by policy makers – somehow the expectation seems to be that reducing CO2 emissions will reduce the frequency/severity of these events, even though there is next to no evidence (e.g. IPCC SREX) of discernible influences of AGW on these extreme events.
I differ a little bit with Bill Gail in thinking that the primary solution to this is more funding for NASA, NOAA, NSF and USGS. I have discussed this issue on a previous thread – Pasteur’s Quadrant. With regards to research funding, there is and outsize imbalance between funding for climate research (a lot) and weather research (not much). And too much of the climate funding goes to applications of climate models (on topics for which the climate models are not up to task) and for what I call ‘climate taxonomy’ — characterized by endless analysis of IPCC climate model runs and projection of ‘dangerous impacts’ .
There is too little research on fundamental weather and climate dynamics that provides the foundations for better prediction models as well as better applications of the model forecasts. In particular, there is essentially no funding for applied research needed for companies, emergency managers, etc. to apply these forecasts to their risk management problems.
Bill Gail and I share a common strategy in addressing the applications gap – forming private sector weather companies with strong ties to academic research (Bill’s company is strongly tied to NCAR). There is a tiny bit of government support for such efforts in the form of SBIR/STTR grants. But the economic impact (not to mention humanitarian impact) of improved weather and short term climate forecasts could be huge, if we can bridge the applications gap.
In any event, it seems that the tide may be turning (with the Republican Congress) to provide more support for improved weather and short-term climate forecasting (and while they are at it, I sure hope that the spend funds to maintain and improve the global observing systems).