The combination of thermal expansion, melting ice, and extreme precipitation are contributing to flooding, which significantly increases the costs of climate change. Recent flooding in Central Europe accrued unprecedented costs and the UK in particular experienced some of the worst flooding in the island nation's history. We have seen record setting downpours in Japan and recurrent widespread flooding in Australia. Last summer, we saw "Biblical flooding" in Colorado and most recently, the Balkans are suffering under a massive deluge. Even countries in the Middle East have been inundated by anomalous heavy precipitation in recent times.
In the past 140 years, sea levels have risen 7.7 inches and they are rising faster all the time. By the end of this century, scientists predict the seas will rise by as much as 7 feet. This will inundate cities around the world, including 1700 U.S. cities and the homes and businesses of 5 million Americans. By 2100, up to 600 million people or five percent of the global population could be affected by coastal flooding.
Melting ice and rising seas
There are more than five million cubic miles of ice on Earth and it is melting faster at an ever increasing pace. Our current average temperature of 58 Fahrenheit is steadily rising and if left unchecked we are headed towards an average temperature that could exceed 80 degrees. Already Antarctic glaciers have passed points of no return as they lose 160 billion tons of ice per year. Other glaciers are also melting at surprisingly fast rates all around the world. As pointed out in the Third US National Climate Assessment, this includes those in BC and Alaska.
We cannot avoid the realization that the world is getting warmer and the more it warms, the more ice we will lose. If all the ice on land melted and drained into the sea it would raise sea levels 216 feet and effectively recreate new shorelines for our continents and inland seas.
Although it is hard to attribute any individual weather event to climate change, there is a growing body of evidence that is making it easier for scientists to say with confidence that climate change is behind changing precipitation patterns. Scientists, including those involved with the latest IPCC reports and the Third US National Climate Assessment, concur that ice is melting, storm surges are increasing, as are extreme rates of precipitation. Even individual extreme precipitation events like that in the UK are being attributed to climate change.
When we think of flood damage, we commonly think of the impact on buildings. However, we need to be mindful that the costs extend beyond the immediate damage from water infiltration. We need to understand that floods kill people and destroy livelihoods. They deny people access to water, food, power and communications. In their aftermath, they commonly breed disease.
They also cause landslides like the one in Washington state this year and are even related to mass migrations. For example, the recent floods in the Balkans led to over 2000 landslides and they drove some of the largest mass migrations since the war in the 1990s.
The cost of increased flooding
Flooding is already very expensive and the situation is expected to get far worse. The cost of the flooding in the Balkans alone is hundreds of millions of dollars. With a price tag of $15.2 billion, the summer floods in Germany and central Europe was the costliest event in 2013. This was even more costly than Hurricane Haiyan's $10 billion price tag.
Even before 2013, the EU had already spent $6.7 billion on flooding since the dawn of the new millennium. Scientists predict that flooding will double in the EU by 2050, which is expected to increase costs to $32.1 billion by 2050. Even this price tag is nothing compared to Hurricane Sandy, which on its own, cost the state of New York almost 50 billion.
A World Bank study indicates that the cost of flooding in 2005 was $6 billion. That number could skyrocket to at least 1 trillion annually by 2050. According to a new study, storm surges alone could increase costs from the current level of about $10-40 billion per year to up to $100,000 billion per year by the end of century. The World Bank analysis indicates that more than 40 percent of these costs could come from just four cities, three American and one Chinese (New Orleans, Miami and New York in the U.S. and Guangzhou in China).
Delays in engaging climate change are proving to be very costly. In the last two years alone delays in adopting mitigation and adaptation efforts have already cost us $8 trillion. The longer we wait the higher the price tag. A cost benefit analysis convincingly demonstrates the logic of paying now rather than later. Driven by a bottom line mentality, many large firms are engaging the risks and costs associated with climate change. A recent CDP report reveals that some of the world's biggest brands see the merits of taking action to deal with flooding and other corollaries of climate change.
A study from the Global Climate Forum (GCF) illustrates the merits of investing in adaptation to address risks from flooding. “If we ignore this problem, the consequences will be dramatic,” explained Jochen Hinkel from GCF and the study’s lead author.
We cannot afford to ignore the problem any longer. Unless we seriously engage mitigation and adaptation efforts, the costs of flooding will only get worse.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: Andy B, courtesy flickr