Climate and Money: a Tale of Two Accounts

Pulp mills, Longview, Washington. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

In 1908, Charles Abbot and F.E. Fowle gave a presentation titled “Income and Outgo of Heat from the Earth, and the Dependence of Its Temperature Thereon.” A lot’s been learned since then, but the importance of income and outgo on Earth’s temperature has been proven again and again.

The basics are as straightforward as the income and outgo of a checking account. In one case, it’s all about income and outgo of money. In the other, it’s all about income and outgo of radiant energy in the form of incoming light and outgoing heat. 

Incoming solar radiation in the form of sunlight is a deposit in Earth’s radiation account. In the September 1970 issue of Scientific American, scientist Abraham Oort reminded readers that when this radiation reaches the surface of Earth in the form of sunlight, it is “stored,” or deposited, as heat. 

As he said then, the outgo begins as the deposited heat rises away from the heated surface, now heating the atmosphere “from the bottom up.”

Just as we affect our checking account balance if we limit the outgo of money, we affect the radiation balance if we limit the outgo of radiant energy. In either case, an unbalanced account can be trouble. 

But there’s a big and important difference between these two accounts. Limiting the outgo of money can be good  for the balance of a checking account. Limiting the outgo of heat can get us in trouble.

Oort said, ”The most likely way the climate could be influenced by either natural or artificial means seems to be through a trigger mechanism that ultimately changes the radiation balance.”

So, what can pull the trigger on the radiation balance? Volcanic eruptions are prominent in the list of natural triggers. They’ve done it before, and can do it again. But we can do nothing about those. 

There is, however, a trigger under human fingers. We pull it as a matter of daily routine.

The same September 1970 issue of Scientific American that published Oort’s analysis also published one by Fred Singer.

Pinpointing the outgoing heat — a.k.a., infrared radiation — rising from Earth’s surface, Singer said, ” The molecule of carbon dioxide has strong absorption bonds, particularly in the infrared region,” and that “carbon dioxide reduces the amount of heat energy lost by earth to outer space.”

In other words, CO2 limits the outgo of heat, so that Earth becomes a hotter place to live. This has been known for decades, has been going on for decades, and we’ve reached the point where the world of money is at risk of head-on collision with a threatened radiation balance.

American Banker magazine, for example, has already warned that, “The planet is warming at an alarmingly rapid rate, and unless swift action is taken to curb the emission of greenhouse gases, the economic costs will be severe.”

Specifically citing “huge costs seen in climate inaction,” Business Insurance magazine points directly to what we all face if we fail to limit “the potential dire economic consequences of climate change.”

The Bloomberg Climate Changed newsletter summarized the situation on February 7, 2019: “Climate change isn’t just an expanding threat to the environment; it’s already a massive drag on the economy.”

It would pretty clearly be a drag on many states’ balance sheet if and when, for one quick example, increased outgo for firefighting joins up with reduced income from tourism spending in fire season.