[Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith]

Climate change has arrived in America. What will it mean for your job?

Climate change affecting my job? Many people have never even considered the possibility. They have been misled by false assurances like the testimony of Douglas W. Elmendorf, the director of the supposedly objective Congressional Budget Office, who told Congress, “Most of the economy involves activities that are not likely to be directly affected by changes in climate.”

Those who think that should talk with Joe Longobardi, the property manager of JBC Enterprises, a scrap removal company in a Cornwall, NY industrial park. When Hurricane Irene hit, he says, “The water came up to the height of the door and blew the Dumpster right through the [cement block] wall. Then, six feet of water rushed through 280,000 square feet and took out seven businesses.” One of them, Superior Pack Group, Inc, hired thirty people to help clean the premises – while four hundred employees lost their jobs and wait for the company to receive loans to rebuild.

Kathryn D. Sullivan was the first woman to walk in space. She became Chief Scientist for NOAA and is now US Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction. She is responsible for preparing American business for the climate future. This July she told Congress, “The year 2011 has already established itself in the record books as an historic year for weather-related disasters.” There were eight disasters that caused over $1 billion damage — over $32 billion altogether. 2011 represents the highest first-half-year damage cost since tracking began in 1980. And in the next two months there were two more – upper Midwest flooding and Hurricane Irene.

Let’s just look at the month of April, 2011:

  • There were 875 tornadoes in the US, the most on record. On May 22, 150 people were killed and over 1,000 injured by a tornado that wiped out much of Joplin, Missouri.
  • The worst drought in more than a century in the Southwest had already cost up to3 billion, and more than half the cotton fields in Texas were expected to be abandoned. The “new Texas dust bowl” produced wildfires that burned a million and a half acres. Nearly six million acres had burned nationwide by mid-year, twice the normal rate.
  • Record-setting rain and melting snowpack led the Ohio Valley region to have the wettest April on record. Minot, North Dakota was largely wiped out by the floods. Water flooding into the Gulf of Mexico was creating the largest ever “dead zone” which threatened the Gulf fisheries that generate2.8 billion in commercial and recreational income annually.
  • Other extreme weather events so far this year included Chicago’s Groundhog Day Blizzard that caused 36 deaths and4 billion in losses and the Mississippi River floods that caused2-4 billion in damages. 39 of our 50 states experienced some sort of disaster during the first half of 2011, almost all weather and water related. In all, there have been five times as many such disasters so far this year as has been typical in the past. And that was before Hurricane Irene, the Midwestern summer floods, and much of the Texas drought and wildfires.

Just a random fluctuation?

But wait a minute. Does the multiplication of extreme weather events really have anything to do with man-made global warming?

Unfortunately, the answer is now clearly yes. While weather naturally fluctuates, the increase in extreme weather events is largely a result of human-induced climate change.

All our weather is driven by the heat of the sun. When we fill the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping chemicals, less of that heat can escape, so that the earth gradually heats up. The earth has heated up nearly two degrees Fahrenheit since the industrial revolution and will heat up as much again just from the carbon already in the atmosphere. The first half of 2010 was the warmest half-year since records began over 130 years ago.

That extra heat does not warm the earth evenly. Instead it disrupts the patterns that determine our weather. It leads hot areas to have more heat waves, cold areas to have more blizzards, dry areas to have more droughts, wet areas to have more floods, and storm-prone areas to have more violent tornadoes and hurricanes.

These in turn lead to follow-on effects. The melting Arctic ice cap leads the water level to rise. The droughts lead to worse forest fires and dust storms.

For many years scientists have explained that the overall weather trend was “consistent” with global warming — their way of saying it confirmed that global warming was happening. But with this new evidence and a deeper understanding of how climate works they can go further.

For example, Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, has shown that a substantial part of the rain responsible for hurricane Katrina’s flooding — perhaps the extra amount that caused a levee to fail — was “due to global warming.”

The giant reinsurance company Munich Re has gathered the world’s most comprehensive database of natural disasters. It concludes that worldwide, “Floods have more than tripled since 1980, and windstorm natural catastrophes more than doubled, with particularly heavy losses from Atlantic hurricanes. This rise can only be explained by global warming.”

All just the propaganda of liberal ideologues? How about this: The Navy Task Force on Climate Change has advised that the Navy should prepare to police the equivalent of an extra sea as the Arctic ice melts.

What does it mean for your job?

When tornadoes hit the area around Tuscaloosa, Alabama in late April, more than 6,000 people applied for disaster-related unemployment benefits. But many wonder: Do natural disasters and other effects of climate change really destroy jobs? Or do they create even more new jobs rebuilding from the damage?

Let’s start by looking at Hurricane Irene. Frederick R. Treyz, chief economist of Regional Economic Models Inc. estimates that if direct damages totaled $7 billion, recovery will generate roughly 42,000 jobs. But just one day’s business disruption would lead to losses that could cost roughly 62,000 jobs. In Vermont, the number of workers filing unemployment claims went from 731 before Irene to 1,331 two weeks afterwards.

While every disaster is different, we can learn a lot by looking at New Orleans, whose economy was studied extensively in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In 2004 the New Orleans region had 671,000 jobs. Katrina wiped out 129,000 of them — about twenty percent. While practically all sectors of the New Orleans economy lost jobs, the losses were centered in three sectors:

  • Retail trade lost 12,000 jobs, 63 percent of its job base.
  • Accommodation and food service lost 21,000 jobs, 59 percent of its job base.
  • Health care and social assistance lost14,000 jobs, 56 percent of its jobs base.

The public sector was hit particularly hard: 25,000 public sector jobs, 47 percent of all government jobs, were eliminated. The city workforce was reduced by 70 percent.

Four years later in 2008, 47,000 of the jobs lost in Katrina had returned — but 82,000 had not, not to mention the tens of thousands of new jobs that would have been expected had there been no Katrina.

What about the long run? New Orleans’ modest recovery stalled in the face of the Great Recession. Today the region has 90,000 fewer jobs than on the eve of Katrina. While construction jobs did increase as a result of reconstruction efforts, the loss of other jobs was far greater.

Fighting the job killer

While opponents of measures to protect the climate often describe them as “job killers,” the real job killer is climate change itself. It is already having a devastating effect on American jobs today, and that is nothing compared to what will happen in the future if carbon and the other greenhouse gasses that cause climate change are not rapidly reduced.

The safe level of carbon in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million. Unfortunately, we are already at 390 parts per million. Only by greatly reducing the greenhouse gasses we put in the atmosphere can we restore a climate safe for the world’s people — and safe for our jobs and livelihoods. That means shifting from fossil fuels to renewable fuels, and rebuilding our infrastructure to require less energy.

When the US went from the Great Depression to World War II, it created millions of new jobs making the products needed for the war. Faced with the devastating threat of global warming, the best protection for the future of our jobs and our communities is to create millions of jobs making what we need to protect us against climate change.