State should respond to climate changes now, not later

Published with Karin Sable in The News Tribune, Jan 23, 2007

When our new legislature convenes in Olympia this month, Washington’s lawmakers will tackle tough policy issues on energy, education, environmental quality, health care, and stewardship of the state’s natural resources.  We hope they will choose to prioritize planning for climate change.  This particular issue stands to have widespread ramifications for state policy, including those affecting the economy, the environment and the safety of our communities.

Among their briefing books and background papers, legislators will find a new study titled “Impacts of Climate Change on Washington’s Economy.”  If legislators take the time to read it, they will be surprised by the high cost that climate change is currently having and is expected to have on the South Puget Sound and the State of Washington in general.

As members of a steering committee of economists overseeing the preparation of this study, we were surprised by the mounting evidence that Washington State is already experiencing the economic impacts of climate change.  For instance, North Cascades glaciers have lost up to a third of their ice since 1983.  Scientists now say that 75 percent of North Cascades glaciers are at risk of disappearing this century. Moreover, in three-quarters of mountain sites studied around the state, the mountain snowpack is substantially below historical levels.  Mountain snowpack is important for regulating stream and river flows throughout the state (not to mention providing recreational opportunities).  When precipitation falls as rain rather than snow, there is less water available in the summer months for electricity, irrigation, and salmon. Recent studies predict that by mid century, summer peak flow in Washington’s main rivers may be down by 20 percent.   Yet the extra water that in turn will be available in the winter months has little economic value, and our dams do not have the capacity to hold this water for later use.  The existing snowpack hence plays a crucial role in Washington’s economy.

Closer to home in South Puget Sound, we can expect especially high costs associated with the anticipated rise in sea levels. Scientists project sea levels in the Pacific Northwest to rise between three and 40 inches by 2100. The South Puget Sound shoreline is sinking an additional inch per decade due to geological changes, so rising sea levels will be particularly costly in this part of the State.  Under a scenario of gradual warming, Tacoma could experience up to two feet of sea level rise by mid-century.  It doesn’t take much to imagine the costs such an increase in sea level would have for housing, recreation opportunities, waterfront infrastructure, Tacoma’s port, and storm drainage systems.

Another example of how we can expect climate change to affect the South Puget Sound is in the rising incidence of forest fires. The forest products industry has long been important to Tacoma and the surrounding area; forests provide us with many recreational activities as well.  Evidence indicates that increased temperatures and the resulting reduction in snowpack will likely increase the size and frequency of forest fires in Washington.  We already appear to be witnessing this change:  During the 1970s, there was an average of 6 wildfires burning more than 500 acres per year; since 2000 this average has increased to 21 per year.  The estimated cost of fighting wildfires in the 2020s is anticipated to be 50 percent above what we spend today.  Moreover, such wildfires reduce the economic value of timber, threaten property, lead to forest closures, result in the loss of recreation opportunities, and can harm public health due to smoke intrusion.

The economic consequences of climate change are already visible and we can expect them to consistently increase into the future.  So how should Washington respond?  Our state has been forward-looking in its energy policies in the past, but other states are now ahead of us in terms of planning for climate change. Some are even taking steps to directly control the emission of greenhouse gases.  We might join them and also respond by taking the lead in investing in and promoting emerging new technologies that focus on increasing production of renewable energy, improving energy efficiency, and developing the ability to capture carbon emissions.

Ultimately, though, climate change is a global problem.  Any solution must be global in its reach. As such, it is a problem that we must insist that our national leaders and international institutions actively and intentionally confront.  Absent that, the State’s best option is to prepare now to mitigate some of the expected impacts of climate change. Adaptive measures might include reviewing the design of long term investments in shoreline protection (such as Seattle’s Alaskan Way seawall), key bridges, dams, reservoirs, municipal water systems, and culverts.  The state should also investigate new forest management practices that will be necessary in the higher risk environment ahead.  Above all, state agencies should begin now to incorporate climate change into planning and policy development.  Such measures, designed to cope with and adapt to climate change, will be more affordable and effective if we begin to plan for them today.

Katie Baird and Karin Sable are Associate Professors of Economics at the University of Washington Tacoma and the University of Puget Sound, respectively.  The report on climate change can be found at