Crew Commentary

Climate change is like a pebble rolling down a mountain

Tim Rumage - Planetary Ethicist


Climate Change is an ecological, social and economic destabilizer and disruptor of historic and epic proportions. Historic because the changes it brings will cause the old ways, old assumptions and perceived heritage of a place and community to disappear through loss of functionality. Epic because it eventually impacts all communities and habitats everywhere.


In the beginning, the changes are almost imperceptible. The temperature is a little higher for a little longer or the summer rain that used to come late in the afternoon does not come as regularly. In some dry places the rain is more frequent while in others the rain is less frequent but more intense when it arrives.


If one is expecting climate change to be the same everywhere (every place gets hotter or everyplace gets wetter), the range of expression of climate change serves to mask its arrival because it does not fit our preconceived notion. We may initially believe that the changes in weather events are local aberrations from the norm – and assume that normal will return. Instead, the weather becomes more extreme and eventually finds a new normal in a new climate regime.


How soon we understand the change can be influenced by the inherent resilience of the community. A community with a diversity of natural resources and a broad economic base may take longer to realize the impact that climate change will have. However, a community with a long history of ranching or farming or fishing may be hit harder and faster by even a small shift in climate.


The economy sits inside a social framework that is shaped by the ecology and environment of the place. If the change in rainfall, for example, causes the current herds of cattle to over-graze the grassland, the rancher has few options. They can bring in feed, they can reduce the herd size to better match the regrowth rate of the fields, or they can try to acquire additional lands to spread the herd out over a larger area. However, all of those options increase the operating cost of the ranch. They raise the price needed for the cattle so that the rancher can make a profit. Depending on market competition for the cost of feed and land relative to the sale price of the cattle and the prior economic wellbeing of the ranch, the economic margins can lead to some dramatic changes in the ranching community. It may be that the most appropriate decision for the rancher is to reduce the herd.


But if enough ranchers reduce their herds, then it may mean that the local meat packing plant needs to lay off works or relocate. Now a community that had a stable economy is in real trouble. With the jobs gone, the tax revenue is gone but the expenditures and service needs go up. Now the local economy becomes unstable and the town itself is destabilized. Are people going to stay? Can they afford to stay? If individuals move out for either better paying jobs or more stable jobs to make up for the salary and benefits they have lost. Does the town retain a sufficient skill set and brain trust to attract new employers to the area?


Look at the current flooding in Louisiana. What is the cost of emergency services going to be for all the rescue work that took place? What will it cost to repair and replace damaged and lost infrastructure such as roads, bridges, schools and pipelines, not to mention home repairs and replacement. What are the environmental impacts of all the chemicals that were swept into the water from stores, factories, garages and homes? What will insurance costs become as a result of the damage and the potential of its reoccurrence? And as individuals and families recover, what are their financial realities? How long before they have discretionary income as they replace their lost necessities? What is the impact on property values and municipal budgets? What are the things the local government will not be able to do as planned because the funds need to be reallocated to deal with the flood and its impact?


Climate Change impacts the availability, accessibility and affordability of primary needs – food, water, shelter, and energy/fuel. As these needs become more insecure and/or unaffordable, social tensions rise. And if governments are unable to resolve the issues and insure their citizens access to primary needs, then the governments become more unstable as the needs become greater and the potential and reality of social unrest becomes exacerbated. The movement/displacement of individuals from geographical areas without resources to other regions with perceived resources has the potential to swamp the capacity of the receiving area and spread the problems rather than resolving them.


Climate change starts small. It is a pebble rolling down a mountain, but it can easily become an avalanche and change a region in many ways for a long time to come.