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Acting without regret on climate change in Minnesota

Date Published: 11/14/2013

Author: Jack Ditmore & Dane Smith

Former Vice President Dick Cheney once said that with just a 1-in-100 chance that Pakistan was helping al-Qaeda to develop nuclear weapons, we must treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.

Yet, with a 95-in-100 likelihood that humans are triggering a warmer climate — the recent conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a political atmosphere of “uncertainty” about the need for action has bred paralysis.

At the frontier of knowledge, some uncertainty is inevitable. The reality is that scientists cannot calculate precisely how fast temperatures may rise in Minnesota over the next 50 years, although nearly all agree that the probability of a significant increase is very high.  Unfortunately, policymakers and the public often mistake this lack of precision as cause for denial and delay, and they wait for perfect information in an imperfect world.

We need to shift our thinking. We need to think about climate change as if we were making a business decision and facing a risk management challenge. We need to consider  “going Cheney on climate,’’ in the words of a New York Times headline on a 2009 article by Minnesota native Thomas L. Friedman, who cited legal scholar Cass Sunstein’s original linking of Cheney’s “precautionary principle’’ to climate change.

In mathematical terms, risk is defined as the product of probability and impact.

The probability that changes in the climate are occurring in Minnesota is high.  University of Minnesota Professor Mark Seeley finds that four trends are statistically detectable over the last three decades — warmer winters, higher minimum temperatures, increased episodes of high summer dew points and greater precipitation in seasonal storms — and that it is not likely that these trends will reverse themselves. In the Midwest, the yearly frequency of the largest rainfalls — those with 3 inches or more in a single day — has increased more than 70 percent over the last decade and more than doubled over the last 50 years. Three separate “1,000-year rainfall events” have flooded southern Minnesota in the last 10 years, and a 500-year flood ravaged Duluth in 2012.

Strictly from a business perspective, the potential impact of climate change on Minnesota’s economy is great. More extreme weather will impact agriculture, where crop sales have brought in $7 billion to $10 billion in recent years.  Changes in average annual temperature will impact forests, where forest products and related sectors are estimated to directly contribute another nearly $10 billion annually to the state’s economy.

A January 2013 report of the National Wildlife Federation concludes that Midwestern states will see diminished numbers of migratory waterfowl and pheasants, further declines in the moose population, and reductions in game fish by midcentury, if current trends are not altered.   The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that hunters, fishers and wildlife watchers spent over $3 billion in Minnesota in 2011.

Moreover, the infrastructure that supports economic activity has largely been constructed on the assumption of a static climate. This infrastructure includes roads, bridges, waterways, and the electrical grid. It also includes basic public health and welfare systems, such as water supply systems and support systems to deal with the increased risks from excessive heat. This assumption of climate stability is now being challenged and has profound implications for much of the infrastructure that supports our economy.

Even where potential benefits of climate change to economy might occur in the near-term — such as crop production as the result of longer growing seasons or from a longer shipping season on the Great Lakes due to reduced ice cover — these benefits will be offset by the effects of more extreme weather on crop production or lower lake levels that could affect the amount of cargo carried by Great Lakes shipping.

In short, the probability of change is high.  The potential impacts on the economy are substantial.  The risk of climate change is significant.

In a recent article that emerged from the Wharton School and was published in Nature Climate Change, Howard Kunreather, Otmar Edenfofer and their colleagues argue that placing decisions in the context of risk management is the most effective way of bridging the gap between science and public policy.

Risk management is a business practice that involves creating plans and using “risk control tools” — for example, avoidance or loss control — to minimize or eliminate the impact of negative events. Mitigation, limits on carbon emissions is an example, and adaptation, or tactics to adjust to climate change,  are loss control tools.

Ian Burton — a noted professor working in the interface between science and policy — and his colleagues argue that the next stage of efforts to deal with the risks of climate change must deal squarely with adaptation. Adaptation strategies offer a particular benefit in breaking the ice that has blocked action on climate change initiatives because they give policymakers avenues along which they can take action today that yield positive returns, irrespective of the precise nature of climate change in the future. In risk management parlance, these are “no regret” or “low regret” opportunities.

What are some of the ideas for action that we won’t regret?

Here are just a few, further elaborated in a Growth & Justice policy brief published this month:

Let’s expand the use of natural treatment practices, such as buffer strips and infiltration basins, and continue our emphasis on restoring wetlands to combat the negative effects of more frequent large storm events and flooding. We can incorporate climate change considerations into local water and construction project planning to protect the infrastructure that supports the state’s economy. We should renew long-range strategic planning at the state level for climate change, and continue efforts that produced a 2010 report on adapting to climate change. We can adopt heat response plans and early warning systems to save lives, especially among the aged and disadvantaged. And we can establish more resilient habitat for fish and wildlife to protect a multibillion-dollar industry in Minnesota.

Perhaps most important, a “low regret’’ risk management approach helps change the mindset and breaks the political gridlock around climate change. Taking intelligent action and investing prudently to manage risk is neither partisan nor ideologically liberal. It is the conservative business-minded course, akin to purchasing insurance for our future.

Jack Ditmore is a senior policy fellow at Growth and Justice, a former chair of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, and author of a recent policy brief, “Action Without Regret in a Climate of Uncertainty:  Smart Investments with Immediate Benefits

Dane Smith is the president of Growth and Justice, a policy group that seeks a more inclusive prosperity for Minnesota.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, November 14, 2013.

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