Gary Yohe on economic risk of climate change, rising seas

Economist Gary Yohe says that climate change means new risks for coasts, like rising sea level and higher storm surges.

People living near coasts will face new risks as they adapt to climate change and sea level rise. That’s according to Gary Yohe, an economist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

Gary Yohe: The bottom line for the economics of coastal adaptation, adaptation in general, is to think about managing risk.

One out of three people alive today live near a coast. And coasts, said Yohe, face increased risks from storms, combined with rising seas – up to a foot or more by mid century – caused by a world made warmer from burning fossil fuels, he said.

Gary Yohe: If the ocean is now a foot higher, the character of that storm changes dramatically as it hits land… The storm surge is probably at least a foot higher, could be much higher.

Economists, said Yohe, can quantify what it takes to protect people from storm damage made more intense by climate change.

Gary Yohe: The economics of protection involve infrastructure, the cost of evacuation, the cost of disrupting the economy of the city, for example for a couple of days as they return from the storm.

But Yohe said there’s more than just the economic costs of climate change.

Gary Yohe: Communities may be wiped out. The experience of Katrina is certainly an example. You wouldn’t want to calibrate all of the loss of life and lost culture in the forced migration that was incurred in things like that, back down to dollars and cents.

Dr. Yohe said that in a future with rising seas, the economic damage caused by a 100-year storm could now come from 20-year storm.

Gary Yohe: If you superimpose the existing storm surge for a current 20-year return time storm on a little bit of sea level rise in the wrong place, like New York City, the storm that returns every two decades will end up looking like the storm that currently returns every hundred years.

Taking climate change and its future risks seriously isn’t easy for most people, said Yohe.

Gary Yohe: It is, however, frequently the case that a leader, someone who really has a vision and understands the meaning of risk can essentially say, you know what, this is something we really need to take into account. And we’re going to commit ourselves to preserving a level risk that we’ve become accustomed to. And if that means investing in protection or investing in a little bit of displacement, we’re going to have to do that. But we’re going to have to plan for it now. Dr. Yohe gave the example of climate initiatives in 2010 led by New York’s mayor Bloomberg .

Gary Yohe: The New York City Panel on Climate Change has provided a lot of information to his administration. They’re creating an adaptation plan to think about the short term and long term investments in adaptations to protect infrastructure within the city. The reason that worked is one, this is a risk-management problem. It’s not a cost-benefit problem. It really is probability times consequence. Bloomberg made billions of dollars understanding risk and how to manage risk, so it was a simple sell. This sort of problem, I get it, make it happen. The second is, that he had a very mature administration when he told the agencies that he should play nice and collaborate and think cooperatively about how to respond to climate change and look for synergies as well as conflicts in overlaps of interest in jurisdiction. They did. In other places, that would be a challenge. But in New York City it worked very well.

Dr. Yohe told EarthSky what he thought was most important about future climate change impacts.

Gary Yohe: Communities all over the world are going to be faced with decisions of how to respond to changes and anticipated change – human, social, political, environmental. They don’t have to solve it. They’re not going to optimize it. Anticipate that this will be an iterative process, that you need to set it up as a process, figure out how long you’re going to return to this problem, see if you’re doing too much or too little. Admit that you will either be doing too much or too little and you’re going to have to make an adjustment without blaming the people who made the earlier decision based on the best information that they had. This is going to be a fundamental iterative public goods problem of the sort that we really haven’t ever confronted before. But we’re just going to have to work through it, bit by bit.

Jorge Salazar