Putting a Price Tag on the Melting Ice Caps

Publication: Time

Author: Judith D. Schwartz


04/03/2010 -  Reports about the melting ice caps are distressing, but for the most part climate change remains abstract. The poor polar bear has been trotted out as the tangible face of global warming so often that we're beginning to see "polar bear fatigue." How about bringing the effects of Arctic melt close to home, as in what it will cost? A new study does just that, and the results are alarming, not just for Arctic dwellers but for all of us. According to lead author Eban Goodstein, Ph.D., over the next 40 years Arctic ice melt will take an economic toll of between $2.4 trillion and $24 trillion. Unless we change course — and fast.

Why is the melting Arctic so expensive? "The Arctic acts as the planet's air conditioner, and that function is already breaking down," says Goodstein, an economist and Director of the Bard Center for Environmental Policy. The high price reflects anticipated losses in agriculture and real estate plus the cost of disease outbreaks and natural disasters associated with rising sea levels. The melt, he says, is already adding extra heat at an annual rate of 3 billion tons of CO2 — the equivalent of 500 coal-powered plants, or more than 40% of all U.S. fossil fuel emissions — and this is expected to more than double by the end of the century.

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The "Cost of a Warming Arctic" study, funded by the Pew Environment Group, assessed trends in the Arctic's cooling mechanisms and examined the financial consequences. The research team looked at the rate at which surfaces change from white ice and snow to ocean or exposed tundra, since darker surfaces absorb, rather than reflect, solar heat. According to the report, this shift and the increased methane emissions linked with melting permafrost currently slap us with annual losses in the range of $61 billion to $371 "resulting from such changes as heat waves and flooding." But the anticipated monetary fallout described in the study, expected to run deep into the trillions over the coming decades, may actually be conservative, as it does not take into account the recently discovered large-scale methane releases from the thawing continental shelf.

Read the full article Putting a Price Tag on the Melting Ice Caps on Time's Web site.

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