Birmingham-Hoover Metro Among Top Areas Predicted to Suffer Economically From Climate Change

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Hyperwall displays a huge monitor connected to the agency’s climate super computer. (Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Alabama will be among the states most hit in the pocket book by changes due to global warming this century, even as it seems most Trumpian in its opposition to the issue.

The Birmingham-Hoover metro area is among the nation’s top 15 metro areas that will experience negative economic effects from increased heat and extreme weather events and other consequences.

A new county-by-county study by the Brookings Institution shows Alabama counties are among those facing the biggest long-term losses in income by the end of the 21st century. The analysis found that the top 10 states whose economy would suffer most include Alabama and eight others that voted for Trump, who has consistently downplayed or derided the idea of global warming.

In other words, people who are most exposed to climate impacts consistently vote for people who are opposed to doing much to mitigate climate change.

Adding insult to injury, a recent Department of Defense document named Reagan Operations Center in Huntsville and Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery as among the installations currently or in the future vulnerable to climate effects as it assessed “operational risks.” Flooding and damage from stronger, more frequent events such as hurricanes, health and safety effects from increased temperatures, and greater land management issues are among the risks named.

These warnings came just as congressional Democrats prepare to lay out a Green New Deal that envisions economic benefits of policies that would ameliorate the effects of global warming.

Voter Dissonance

Why do people vote against their own interests? Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler wrote a book called “The Government-Citizen Disconnect.” The concept explains that people are unable to think clearly about their voting patterns and the climate in large part because of politics and ideology.

“People have a hard time thinking accurately about the link between their actions and the climate in part because politics and ideology color how they process information,” Mettler writes.

David G. Victor, co-chair of the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate, wrote in the LA Times that the dissonance between self-interest and politics is explained by how the human brain works: “Humans aren’t well wired to act on complex statistical risks. We care a lot more about the tangible present than the distant future.”

That may be changing, the Sierra Club’s Stephen Stetson said this week.

“The Brookings Report is a helpful snapshot of economic data and political attitudes, but it’s not a crystal ball. These attitudes are going to change, whether by persuasion, or forced by a horrifying crisis. The bad news is seen in the problems we’re experiencing and the seeds being sewn for our children, but the good news is that we are moving more and more to cleaner sources of electricity and transportation, and the climate movement is growing across the Southeast.”

Protestors during a climate change march.

Public opinion polls indicate more people are accepting that the country needs new policies to prepare. New data that the planet is warming faster than expected, by the United Nations and others, has played into what appears to be a heightened awareness of the problem and, perhaps, a willingness to make it a national priority.

The latest Yale University opinion research, for example, published after a year of higher temperatures, rising oceans and devastating hurricanes, shows that American concern about climate change is growing, and 62 percent now understand that humans are the main cause.

John Northrop of the Birmingham chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby said, “Even in Alabama 51 percent of us get that humans are the problem. This number is sure to grow as we see the direct toll climate change takes on us and people we know. More of us here will turn in to the nearly unanimous scientific warning that we’re running very short of time to take effective action.”

Northrop agrees that the economic costs of climate change are part of the growing toll on human health and welfare. “CCL will continue talking about economic costs, but we also will emphasize the economic benefits of moving from a carbon-fueled economy toward more healthful and sustainable alternatives.”

His organization is backing carbon-fee-and-dividend legislation recently introduced in Congres. It would “price carbon at extraction and roll the proceeds right back to American families in monthly dividend payments.” That, he said, would drive down carbon use but also spur investment in solar, wind and other renewable energies.

“If only 10 percent of those who see the carbon problem and want a solution would pester members of Congress, we’d see movement in short order,” he said.

Stetson, the Alabama-Georgia-Mississippi senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, is optimistic about potential federal policy changes.

“From coast to coast, broad local coalitions – including Sierra Club chapters across the Southeast – are winning pro-equity, pro-climate, pro-jobs policy victories that build momentum for a national Green New Deal,” Stetson said.

Economic and Human Effects

The Brookings Institution’s report is based on studies that came from the Climate Impact Lab, whose members include several prominent universities and scientists. The investigators looked at the combined value of market and nonmarket damage across agriculture, crime, coastal storms, energy, human mortality and labor, and found that that value increases with rising temperatures, costing about 1.2 percent of gross domestic product per each 1 degree Celsius change.

They found that, while increases in agricultural yields will significantly benefit the nation’s Northwest, climate-caused deaths will hurt the Southwest, and coastal storms and sea-level issues batter the Southeast and the Gulf Coast. Workers and vulnerable populations exposed to higher temperatures across the South will suffer from more heat illness and heat-related deaths. The patterns suggest that many red-voting states are likely disproportionately exposed to climate change’s negative impacts.

Just this week, the Journal of the American Heart Association said rising temperatures associated with climate change could even trigger heart defects in newborn babies.

The Brookings report says the Birmingham-Hoover metro area is tied with Memphis for 14th most-affected metropolitan area for climate-related costs by the end of the century, based on median likelihood temperature projections. The estimated cost is 9.3 percent as a share of the 2012 metro income.

Jackson, Mississippi, is number nine, but eight of the top 10 negatively affected metro areas are in Florida, led by Lakeland-Winter Haven, at a cost of 17.5 percent.

Locations that will benefit from rising temperatures are places such as Portland, Seattle and Spokane in the Northwest, and Buffalo in the Northeast.

Yet, the economic damage is only a projection. And as people are made more aware of the economic devastation their attitudes may change to the point they can view the problem less ideologically. Political parties could shift quickly as members continue to be confronted by reality. A hurricane could be a big wake-up call, for instance.

In other areas of staunch conservatism such as gay marriage, the report points out, convictions changed in a relatively short time when people were confronted over dinner and on television with new realities.

Could a campaign focused on climate impacts prove a lot more effective in Alabama and other red states – more effective than just scientific evidence that global warming is real and humans are partly responsible?

The data now exist to make that happen, the Brookings report claims.