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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

August 5, 2014 at 10:23 AM

Hot planet: Northwest winners and losers

Weather guru Cliff Mass made a case last week on his blog that the Northwest “will be one of the best places to live as the earth warms. A potential climate refuge.”

There’s an overwhelming consensus among the scientists who are actually experts in climate that climate change is real, humans are heavily causing it, and it’s getting worse faster than expected. The arguments — and scientists always argue — concern such issues as the speed and severity of its effects. Mass is the weather expert, so I’ll attempt to take on the economics.

Overall, the consequences of unaddressed climate change will cost America and the world far more than paying, providing incentives and restrictions to keep most of the carbon in the ground that we haven’t already burned into the global commons called the atmosphere. The Northwest (and Mass is not saying this) will not avoid this. For example, it’s impossible to say whether or how much climate change affected the lethal Oso slide or this year’s largest wildfire in state history, but the questions should be asked, the research done.

Northwest crops and wines might be big winners as places such as California are devastated by drought and heat. Even then the results could be destabilizing as a hungry world, especially China, bids up prices. But there’s no guarantee that changing weather patterns will be so benevolent to agriculture.

Trade patterns may be altered. People patter about a year-round northwest passage through a melted Arctic Ocean and the fossil fuel bounty it might hold with no apparent clue about the suicidal irony of the latter. Trade patterns may be completely disrupted as nations come into conflict over scarce resources — climate change is already one of the stealth drivers of the war in Syria. The 10,000-mile supply chain is a fragile thing. So is the “consumer economy,” and Northwest companies depend on profits from all over a world where climate disruptions and costs will affect demand.

Mass is right to mention “climate refugees.” Alas, building a fence to keep out the Californians will not work — unless climate and our cold Civil War between red and blue leads to a breakup of the union (I am not joking, only hoping that if it happens, it can be done peacefully).

If we don’t stop belching so much carbon, much of the Southwest and other regions will become uninhabitable in a First World sense as the century progresses. There won’t be enough money to provide air conditioning and water to so many millions. The Northwest is not at all prepared for many of them to move here. And unfortunately my mantra to Arizonans (“It rains all the time in Seattle and it’s cold as hell”) won’t be enough.

How will the Northwest handle this expanding population? Pricing itself out of the market is one good strategy. Send them back to the “Old Union” of the Midwest and Northeast. Even so, a sensible strategy needs to look into necessary infrastructure investments and land-use planning. Plopping down more sprawl won’t work. We’ll need as much land as possible to feed ourselves, and much of the world. This is a discussion we need to be having.


 

Tuesday Reading: The missing women in the inequality discussion | Peterson Institute


 

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Hedge fund act of war

To bring down Argentina

Manhattan gunboats

 

 

Comments | More in Climate change, Pacific Northwest economy

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