In what its authors admit is almost certainly an underestimate, a new study says the catastrophic climate changes coming to the Arctic will cost at least $2.4 trillion by mid-century. (To put that into perspective, President Obama just proposed a $3.8 trillion federal government budget for next year.)
The true cost is likely to be a whole lot more — probably in the range of the combined gross domestic products of Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, says the report, which was financed by the Pew Environment Group.
A melting Arctic heats the climate in two basic ways: First, when all the white snow and ice on the land and in the ocean melts, the darker colors underneath absorb more heat instead of reflecting it.
The second thing that happens is that as the permafrost melts, it releases methane — remember methane, that other greenhouse gas, the one we fingered not long ago for its powerful greenhouse punch?
The researchers came up with estimates of how much both of these effects will have and converted those numbers into carbon dioxide equivalents — i.e., how much of that better-known greenhouse you’d have to release to create this much climate warming.
Those figures are sobering: The amount of warming to be wrought this year alone by Arctic melting will equal about 42 percent of all the emissions from the United States! That’s the equivalent of building 500 new coal-burning power plants. And that CO2-equivalent number will keep going up as time goes along.
This report is being release way up in Baffin Island, in northeastern Canada, at a town called Iqaluit, where the G7 nations are meeting. Just across the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay is Greenland. The report says that if the Greenland ice sheet melts, we’re looking at something like a 20-foot rise in gobal sea level. As a native of low-lying South Florida, I’m chilled by that nugget.
And remember, this report only catalogues some of the costs of an unfrozen Arctic. As the intro says:
This paper provides initial estimates of only one of the ecosystem services provided by the northern cryosphere, global climate regulation. It serves as a scoping exercise pointing to additional work that needs to be carried out. In particular, we recognize the value that the frozen Arctic has for the people who live there and the range of ecosystem services that the Arctic environment provides for them. We do not attempt here to describe or quantify those values and services, in part because a way of life cannot be captured in monetary value and in part simply to emphasize an often-overlooked aspect of the frozen Arctic: the services that it provides to the Earth’s climate system.
— Robert McClure