Is there anything global warming can’t do? – Mackinac Center

A warming climate will have profound negative effects on both the planet and human society, or so we are told. As the media publish increasingly hysterical warnings about the threats of climate change, it becomes almost impossible to discern between real and embellished risks.

A Google search returns seemingly conflicting titles warning us, “The Great Lakes are drying up: How a fifth of the planet’s fresh water is running out,” and “Detroit Floods: How Climate Change Has Affected Michigan.” More and more, it seems there is nothing global warming can’t do.

This is a problem for the average Midwest. The Big lakes are the source of more than 1.3 million jobs and $82 billion in annual wages, according to Elizabeth Striano of the Michigan Sea Grant Cooperative Program at the University of Michigan. Striano also explains that coastal counties along the lakes are responsible for generating 5.8% of US GDP. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy notes that 5.9 million people depend on the Great Lakes for their drinking water, so extreme droughts or floods could be disastrous.

Media, government and environmental groups warn that both are possible. Before deciding which extreme you should worry about, it’s important to understand that neither is inevitable, or even likely.

“By geographic scale and duration, the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s remains the gold standard drought and extreme heat event in the historical record (very high confidence),” the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4). “While by some measures drought has decreased over much of the continental United States in association with long-term increases in precipitation, neither the increase in precipitation nor the inferred decrease in drought does have been confidently attributed to anthropogenic forcing.”

The Great Lakes hold approximately “21% of the world’s surface freshwater supply,” notes the Environmental Protection Agency. The Great Lakes Commission expands on this information, pointing out that the lakes contain “an estimated six quadrillion gallons of water” — 15 zeros. The APE too Explains that the total flows, which include human withdrawals and natural flows such as the St. Lawrence River, represent less than 1% of the total volume of the lakes.

Despite this wealth of freshwater resources, the media and special interests argue that industrial water uses in the Great Lakes basin are a “harmful water withdrawal.” For example, in 2018, Nestle received approval from state regulators to increase water extraction from its White Pine Springs well near Evart, Michigan, from 250 gallons per minute to 400 for its bottled water operations. Green groups went wild, demanding a boycott of the company. The headlines claimed that “Nestlé wins and our Great Lakes lose.”

But as the demand for bottled water has exceeded the request for soda, this permit was actually a win for Michigan residents who had one more way to access a source of clean, reliable drinking water. But the extreme response to the plan prompted the company, now renamed Blue Triton, to make permit approved in October last year, promising to limit pumping to 414,720 gallons per day. The annual cap on withdrawals is 20,059,039 gallons, state regulators noted.

Even if the company had increased water withdrawals, the Midwest was unlikely to turn into a desert. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. The American Water Works Association reported that “the average overall loss in potable water systems has been estimated at 16%”, due to slow and steady leaks rather than “catastrophic and visible” breaks in water pipes. With proper updates and audits for efficiency, up to 75% of this loss is recoverable. In Michigan, a 75% reduction in these leaks could save more than 16 billion gallons of water each year, nearly 800 times more than Nestlé/Blue Triton’s approved annual usage.

At the other extreme, people face apocalyptic warnings of extreme storms and floods. But flood patterns indicate that the fluctuations of high water levels relative to low levels follow normal long-term trends. The fourth National Climate Assessment examined flood levels of river flows across the country and found that there were no “detectable changes in the magnitude, duration or frequency of flooding”. The assessment also acknowledged that “formal attribution approaches have not established a significant link between increased riverine flooding and human-induced climate change”.

In 2019 and 2020, numerous reports warned that water levels in the Great Lakes were at record highs. The recognition by the climate assessment that the water levels in the lakes fluctuates regularly was dropped in favor of scary headlines. Yet other authorities have not backed the grim claims either. Hydrographs maintained by NOAAfrom the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory reveal that these high levels have happened before. While the high water levels certainly impacted shorelines and properties, they were not unprecedented.

As if the impending floods weren’t scary enough, global warming was also cited as the cause when water levels dropped dramatically in 2013. And even when the water is neither too high nor too low, but “just right”, the terror continues: long-term natural fluctuations have recently been renamed “seesaw.” Unsurprisingly, the swing is also attributed to climate change.

But if the floods aren’t getting worse or more frequent, why should the damage they cause increase? In his report Well-being at 21st Century: increasing development, reducing inequalities, the impact of climate change and the cost of climate policies, author Bjorn Lomborg explains the expansion of the bullseye effect. “Over time, we see increasing numbers of people with more valuable assets exposed to these disasters.” Put simply, Lomborg attributes increased damage to our increased wealth.

Lomborg analyzed the costs of floods from 1903 to 2018 and found that the country suffered an average of $3.5 billion in damage in 1903 and $12.9 billion in 2018. The costs increased because the number of homes rose from 68 million in 1970 to 137 million in 2017. Great Lakes Report 2018 suggests that solutions to the rising cost of flood damage will be found through community responses such as better “planning and coordination, shoreline stabilization and protection, land use and shoreline management policies; and education and awareness.

It is reasonable to learn how a changing climate could impact the natural environment, our lives and our property. But excessive panic in the face of unlikely apocalyptic events will not promote a proper understanding of these potential impacts. We can understand and plan for potential increases in temperature without sowing fear and misinformation.

Permission to reproduce this blog post in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided proper attribution is given to the author (or authors) and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Teresa H. Sadler