Nature's Game of Dominoes

Last summer, at the heart of the Atlantic hurricane season, the State Farm Insurance Company declared that it would stop selling insurance policies to the owners of homes and small businesses in Mississippi.

One part of me was saddened to hear the news: Many Mississippians were still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, and this decision by State Farm could only cause more hardship for them.

The other part, however, the environmentalist in me, was revealed to hear that a major corporation finally recognized that global warming is going to have a serious effect on America’s bottom line.

I have been asking myself for a long time if the economic effects of climate change will ever put enough of a crunch on the only thing Americans reliably listen to—their wallets—to make them demand change. I still have significant doubt that the answer to my question will ever be yes, but State Farm’s decision is a step in the right direction.

The company realized that with all the costs and complications associated with doing business in hurricane-prone Mississippi, especially the fact that global warming is predicted to make hurricanes increasingly frequent and intense, it could not continue operating in the state at its desired profit margin unless it raised its rates. And because insurance rates are often capped by states, State Farm felt it had no option other than to get out of Mississippi.

That’s not to say that I wish upon Mississippians the prospect of having to search for new insurance policies or else go uninsured. Nor am I praising insurers’ means of maintaining high profit margins or arguing for any change in the practice of regulating insurance.

What I am noting is that this is a real, dollars and cents answer to the question, “Why should I care about global warming?”

That answer is it will cost you.

Many Americans, including some right here at Harvard still don’t care enough to do their small part to curb the greenhouse gas emissions. Three separate factors make inaction on climate change not only the easiest, but also the most logical, reaction for some.

First, the effects of climate change are indirect.

The local weatherman cannot say that any given storm or heat wave is caused by climate change. Rather, climate change affects the average. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, “Warming of the climate system is now unequivocal…The global average net affect of human activities…has been one of warming.” As a result of this warming, “widespread changes in precipitation amounts, ocean salinity, wind patterns and aspects of extreme weather including droughts, heavy precipitation, heat waves and the intensity of tropical cyclones.”

Second, any individual American rarely faces any economic cost from climate change. The Stern Review, a comprehensive analysis of the economic costs of climate change produced by a Nicholas Stern, a respected economist, for the British government, notes that the negative impacts of climate change will be borne disproportionately by the world’s poorest people. Even if, as the report suggests, the cost of global warming will amount to 5-14 percent of global GDP, it is hard for Americans to fixate even briefly on the environment when the recent mortgage market collapse threatens a far more severe and dispersed economic impact.

Finally, it is much easier to see any individual climatic eruption as a discrete event rather than to see it as one of many dominoes that have fallen on the same board and start making connections.

Thus, we sit through an unseasonably mild winter in Cambridge last year and praise the effects of global warming, while the dominoes of climate change keep falling on people throughout America and the world.

It’s easy to downplay the significance of the floods that crippled the New York subway system this summer —unless, of course, that’s your commute coming under increasingly common threat of delay.

It’s easy to pass off the late-August floods that took 20 lives and cost millions of dollars to clean up from Texas to Wisconsin—freakish weather in a part of the America where that’s common. Unless of course, those were your houses washed away, your relatives drowned, or your insurance premiums raised.

I don’t wish such a natural disaster on anyone, nor a costly insurance premium hike. But I’m beginning to think that that’s what it will take for Americans to internalize in their hearts, minds, and wallets—where it really counts—that global warming is a real process, driving freakish, real events. I dare say, that would make them demand change and act to bring it about.

I hope enough people begin caring and, more importantly, acting before the only question left to ask is “why didn’t we act earlier?

Jonathan B. Steinman ’10, a Crimson sports editor, lives in Winthrop house.