Colorado floods were a window on climate change

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Colorado floods were a window on climate change

By Susan Secord

When the September floods hit, my husband and I were away on a two-month walking holiday in Spain.

The first inkling that something was amiss at home came in friends’ Facebook posts. At first they commented on the unusual rainy weather, but their posts quickly evolved into photos of rampaging rivers and homes filling with water. As we continued our journey in sunny Spain, we tried to grasp what was happening at home. From afar, it seemed truly surreal.

But when we returned to Colorado in late October, the effects of the floods became stunningly real as we explored the torn-up landscape along the Front Range, heard from friends who had fled their homes in the middle of the night, and learned about the heroic efforts of volunteers who had been helping with relief efforts.

According to government estimates, damages from the flood will be well over $1 billion, and it will take years for us to fully recover. That is, for us to get back to where we were before the rains.

All of this got me thinking about the relationship between extreme weather events and climate change, and the long-term economic impacts of climate change.

Although climate scientists say it is impossible to determine whether a specific weather event is caused by climate change, the 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report describes many ways that climate change will impact our future weather. These world experts say that by the late 21st century, it is very likely that heavy precipitation events will increase in frequency, intensity and amounts, that sea levels will rise, and that the frequency and duration of heat waves will increase over most land areas. Increases in intensity and duration of drought are also likely.

To understand what these predictions might mean financially, we can look at recent events. The 2012 Midwest Plains Drought caused more than $40 billion in damages and Hurricane Sandy cost more than $65 billion. These were the two most costly world disasters in 2012.

The costs of heat waves are harder to quantify than costs of droughts or storms because heat waves affect many arenas, including health, transportation infrastructure and our utility costs. In 2012 (the hottest year on record in the U.S.) Americans spent $20 billion more on air conditioning than they did in 2001.

As part of his climate action plan, President Obama has recently established a bipartisan Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. Comprised of state, local and tribal leaders from across the country, the group is charged with advising the administration on how the federal government can respond to the needs of communities nationwide that are dealing with the impacts of climate change.

Fort Collins Mayor Karen Weitkunat will represent the interests of Colorado, which will surely include concerns about wildfires, droughts and flooding.

I’m glad thought is being given to preparing for climate change. But I think it is much more economically prudent to invest in prevention of the worst of climate change. Ninety-nine percent of our climate scientists say that climate change is primarily caused by burning fossil fuels; thus, we need to move as quickly as possible away from a fossil fuel-based economy to one that is run on clean and renewable energy.

According to many economists, perhaps the most effective, market-based way to make this transition would be through a predictably increasing revenue-neutral carbon tax at the national level.

In the Colorado floods of 2013, we got a sobering glimpse of a future that will only worsen if we don’t act now. A planned, orderly economic adjustment now will save us from having to make very expensive and chaotic adjustments later.

Susan Secord lives in Boulder.