This column is from Trendlines, my business newsletter that covers the forces shaping the economy in Boston and beyond. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail on Mondays and Fridays, sign up here.
The world faces myriad existential threats of varying likelihoods, from pandemics and nuclear war to rogue artificial intelligence and asteroid collisions.
But one peril has dominated the headlines the past two weeks: the overheating planet. And it’s not being alarmist to say that the dangers climate change poses seem much more immediate than than they did even three months ago.
Weather normally isn’t a pressing business topic — outside of farm country and commodity markets, at least. But even Wall Street couldn’t ignore that scorching temperatures around the world were setting up July to be the hottest month on Earth since modern recordkeeping began in the 19th century.
“The World Bakes Under Extreme Heat” was the most-read story on The Wall Street Journal’s website when I checked on Wednesday afternoon. At the same time, Bloomberg’s lead opinion column was “If You Think It’s Hot Now, Just Wait a Couple of Decades.”
A day that screamed ‘milestone’
A snapshot from Wednesday: The temperature in Phoenix rose to 119 degrees, a new high for July, while Beijing broiled for a 28th straight day with temps above 95 degrees, also a record. The Mediterranean region melted under one of four heat domes parked above the Earth.
“Nearly every facet of the climate system is flashing red this summer, from record-low sea ice extent in Antarctica to hot tub-like ocean waters surrounding South Florida, and all-time high temperature records set in multiple countries on at least three continents,” is how Andrew Freedman of Axios summed it up.
New England has been spared the extreme heat, but deluges caused costly flooding last week in Western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, where one person died. Five people died in a flash flood north of Philadelphia.
The frequency and intensity of storms, flooding, drought, deep freezes, and wildfires have increased substantially over the past decade. But it feels like we’ve entered a new phase this summer, one of near constant calamities.
Climate change affects the economy in big ways and small
The National Centers for Environmental Information estimate that the United States incurred more than $1.14 trillion in damages from climate disasters in the past 10 years. (It defines damage as “the costs in terms of dollars that would not have been incurred had the event not taken place.”)
But as Biden administration officials noted in a March blog post, such tallies fail to capture “the devastation from lives lost, the toll on our health care, and the impacts on American families and communities upended and displaced by increasing climate crises.”
In Hatfield, a small town not far from Amherst, the Smiarowski family farm lost 150 acres worth of potatoes — nearly 25 percent of the crop— and faces damages that could top $1 million after last week’s heavy floods.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Bernie Smiarowski told the Globe’s Brian MacQuarrie.
In California, drought, flooding, and a single wildfire have inflicted up to $10 billion in damage since the start of 2022, data from the environmental information centers show.
There’s a consensus among scientists: The increase in global temperature must be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) to keep the planet livable, and that will require fossil fuel emissions to be slashed by 45 percent by 2030 and to net zero by 2050.
Under one scenario, getting to net zero would require capital spending by the US public and private sectors on physical assets — electric grids, vehicle charging networks, green buildings, etc. — of $9.2 trillion a year on average, an annual increase of as much as $3.5 trillion over what they are spending today, according to consultants McKinsey & Co.
After this week, 2050 seems an awfully optimistic deadline for keeping the planet inhabitable.
The future is now, and that’s a shock.