If you’ve been thinking the climate summit later this year will be one big bore, think again. New studies, government agencies and even banks are looking at climate change, and the picture isn’t pretty.
Studies published at the end of August in scientific journals, an analysis from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and a series of webinars at Arizona State University on the global security implications of climate risk are all sounding warnings about the potential for climate change to both disrupt and endanger the status quo.
For international investors, that means keeping an eye on the weather, but also on government actions (or inaction) and on political and economic disruptions. To that end, here’s a look at the 5 largest risks cited in the most recent studies, and what they’re liable to hit.
1. Severe winter weather in places it wasn’t before:
A study published in the journal Nature Geoscience found that increasing water temperatures north of Alaska and Russia are weakening the winds that blow bitterly cold air away from regions in eastern Asia and North America. That’s contributing to record snowfalls and bitingly cold winters. Remember Boston’s nine-plus feet of snow? Came from warmer Arctic air, according to the researchers.
South Korean and U.K. researchers, led by Jong-Seong Kug of Pohang University of Science and Technology in South Korea, found that weaker winds allowed frigid air to linger where it normally does not—the northern hemisphere’s middle latitudes.
There’s a fairly regular pattern to how the air moves. The Barents and Kara seas separate parts of Norway and western Russia from the Arctic Ocean. Warmer weather there, the researchers found, meant that approximately 15 days later East Asia would get severe weather. On the other side of the globe, if the Chukchi and East Siberian seas—which separate Alaska and eastern Russia from the Arctic Ocean—experience a warm spell, approximately five days later the U.S. and Canada will be hit with bitter cold.
2. Tropical cyclones blowing an ill wind:
It’s not all about the cold. Another paper, in the journal Nature Climate Change, declares that the tropics will be in for more extreme cyclones. Three coastal areas are in particular danger of higher storm surges: Cairns, Australia; the Persian Gulf; and Tampa, Florida.
Although it has never been hit by a tropical cyclone, the Persian Gulf’s odds are “large,” according to researchers led by Ning Lin of Princeton University. “Further warming of the ocean may further increase the chance of the Persian Gulf region being struck by an extreme storm,” the study said. That could mean Doha and Dubai could both be in danger of major storm surges—something neither is prepared for.
The researchers termed such storms in the region “gray swans”: “tropical cyclones as high-impact storms that would not be predicted based on history but may be foreseeable using physical knowledge together with historical data”—and said they “identify a potentially large risk in the Persian Gulf, where tropical cyclones have never been recorded.” However, climate change can produce effects not necessarily anticipated by scientists, particularly as warming accelerates.
3. South Asian economies at the front:
“South Asia is at the frontlines of climate change,” Preety Bindari, director for climate change and disaster risk management at ADB, said in a statement, after an ADB analysis determined that the South Asia region is at risk even if global temperature rise is kept to 2 degrees Celsius. Far worse is in store should temperatures continue to climb.
According to the bank’s analysis, by 2050, at that 2-degree increase, South Asian economies could lose 1.3% of their aggregate GDP. By the second half of the century, that could increase to 2.5%—but the news is much worse if the temperature goes even higher. Should that happen, the analysis put the first-half-of-the-century loss at 1.8%, but the second half of the century could see collective GDP fall by a whopping 8.8%.
Then there’s the cost of adaptation—estimated by ADB at around $73 billion per year from now till 2100, just if the status quo continues. On the earth’s current path, scientists predict a minimum global temperature rise of 3.5–4 degrees Celsius. Should countries succeed in crafting actions that will keep temperature rises below 2.5 degrees, that number will drop to approximately $40.6 billion per year.
Still, many countries in the region are far more concerned with growth—and with feeding their people—to focus on climate change. Bangladesh is trying to feed 160 million people, but the ADB report said the country could see its rice production fall by 23% by 2080. Nepal is threatened by melting glaciers, while India faces possible coastal flooding and an already escalating loss of groundwater. Sri Lanka, with monsoon weather patterns changing, could face the loss of half of its tea sector by 2080; harvests are already erratic along with the weather. It also faces higher risks from diseases, including dengue fever.
4. Doubts on the ocean’s survivability:
Climate change is driving oceanic bacteria to evolve fast enough to threaten the ocean’s very survivability, according to a study in the journal Nature Communications.
The bacterium trichodesmium, which converts atmospheric nitrogen gas into biologically usable forms of nitrogen that can be used by other organisms, was found by researchers, led by a team from the University of Southern California, to be generating more nitrogen. That makes it reproduce more quickly when exposed to higher carbon dioxide levels—levels expected to be in place by 2100 because of climate change.
What researchers found alarming was that the bacteria continued to perform at the accelerated pace even when lower CO2 levels were restored, implying that a policy that manages to reverse climate change may not save the oceanic life all the way up the food chain that depend on its current functioning levels to survive.
5. Global security at risk as people flee climate change:
The Global Security Initiative at Arizona State University is a series of webinars exploring the risks to global security presented by climate change. The opening session at the end of August set the stage for discussions about everything from national security to business implications to humanitarian crises.
One of the speakers, Columbia University professor Marc Levy, who does studies for government agencies, said during the webinar that “[w]e are experiencing a surprising uptick in global insecurity… partially due to our inability to manage climate stress.” Levy tied the violence in Syria to climate change, pointing out that drought had caused an agricultural crisis and caused rural people to have to move on to find other means of work.
He also said that many among the stream of refugees now flooding Europe, not just from Syria but also from Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan, have left their homes because climate change has made it too challenging to remain. He also warned that of the dangers inherent in countries buying “long-term access to farmland in sub-Saharan Africa,” which would cut off others from a means of growing food.