Global climate changes put Maryland's economy at risk

December 21, 2005|By KRISTEN A. SHEERAN

Global warming isn't someone else's problem. It's Maryland's problem, and it threatens to exact a heavy price on our economy.

We need to act now. I recently joined 50 economists in signing a public letter asking decision-makers in Oregon to begin taking prudent, precautionary steps to head off some of the problems associated with climate change. We need to do the same in Maryland.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average temperature in Maryland has risen by 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit during the past century. That may not sound like much, but things are just beginning to heat up.

The overwhelming consensus among scientists is that the rise in average temperatures worldwide is linked to the burning of fossil fuels for power, industry and transportation. Warming is expected to accelerate further during our lifetimes, setting off a chain of environmental reactions that will threaten our local economy.

In Maryland, extremes of wet and dry weather will produce flooding, coastal erosion, droughts and floods, increased run-off and diminished water quality, lower agricultural yields, an influx of invasive species, decreased forestry production, biodiversity loss and heat- and pollution-related illnesses and deaths. These problems will exacerbate the challenges Maryland already faces trying to protect its unique Chesapeake Bay ecosystem from population growth and pollution.

Climate change has already had an impact on agriculture, fisheries, forestry and tourism in Maryland. These economic sectors contribute more than $750 million to Maryland's economy. By the year 2100, the EPA projects that precipitation in Maryland could increase by 20 percent as temperatures rise by an additional 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit. Each increment of warming will bring new economic impacts.

When Hurricane Isabel hit the Chesapeake region in 2003, it reminded us of how vulnerable our 3,100 miles of tidal shoreline are to storm surges and rising sea levels. With sea levels projected to rise at Baltimore by 19 inches over the next century and more extreme weather phenomena like hurricanes predicted along the Atlantic, we're sure to face the costs of coastal erosion and flooding more often.

Living in Maryland, we accept certain risks and we prepare our households and communities for these risks, even though the causes may lie beyond our control. We can work to reduce the sources of these risks, even as we prepare for them.

Think of it as buying an insurance policy with a three-part premium.

First, we can act to reduce Maryland's emissions of global-warming pollutants, such as carbon dioxide. Like other forms of risk reduction, this is the most effective step we can take. It's like a safe driver policy: The accident you avoid costs you the least.

Second, we can prepare for the risks that higher temperatures and rising sea levels pose to our state's infrastructure, energy supplies, water sources, public health risks and economic development choices.

Third, we can invest in energy efficiency, renewable power and other clean technologies to use and export. We can help reduce global warming and earn money.

These three steps can create opportunities for citizens of Maryland, generate new jobs in cities and rural areas, and bolster the state's capacity to weather any surprises that an altered climate might deliver. Maryland is already showing a willingness to tackle the problem, but further action is necessary. Supporting the Healthy Air Act, aimed at cleaning up Maryland's power plants, is just one example. We can afford these steps, and more.

The one thing we cannot afford is complacency because virtually every sector of Maryland's economy will be touched as the mercury rises. It's time to insure Maryland's future.

Kristen A. Sheeran is an economics professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Her e-mail

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