from Energy Realpolitik

Talking About the Weather: Climate Risk Needs Better Assessment

The Valero Houston Refinery is threatened by the swelling waters of the Buffalo Bayou after Hurricane Harvey inundated the Texas Gulf coast with rain, in Houston, Texas, U.S. August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

September 10, 2019

The Valero Houston Refinery is threatened by the swelling waters of the Buffalo Bayou after Hurricane Harvey inundated the Texas Gulf coast with rain, in Houston, Texas, U.S. August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Nick Oxford
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It used to be that talking about the weather was platitudinous in the United States. This week, like almost every other subject these days, it has suddenly turned ferociously political. The shift, disturbing as it is, makes some sense. In 2018, six-in-ten Americans said that global climate change was affecting their local community a great deal or some, according to polling by the Pew Research Center. One-in-three said climate change was affecting them personally. The effects of climate change can bring real and dramatic outcomes to the daily lives of many Americans. I know this firsthand because, in recent years, I lived through severe hurricanes, flooding, and power outages together with my neighbors in Houston, and have been stranded on my daily commute by fires in Northern California when I lived there. Talking about weather extremes is not just a theoretical exercise for me, just as it is not for millions of other Americans.

The United States is ill-prepared to address the impending national security and financial challenges that are emerging from climate change-related events and trends. We need a more serious, focused effort, and consensus for how to accomplish that is sorely lacking.  Our public dialogue about emergency preparedness is deficient. It is time to elevate the national discussion on this topic.

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To this end, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) organized a two-day workshop in New York with influencers on the subject. Participants included current and former state and federal government officials and regulators, scientists, financial sector and corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, credit agencies, insurers, nongovernmental organizations, and energy policy experts. A new CFR publication, Impact of Climate Risk on the Energy System summarizes the insights from the workshop and includes contributions from seven expert authors delving into related topics. I encourage you to read it.

It is commonplace today to assume energy shortages are a thing of the past in the United States. U.S. oil and gas production is on an upsurge, new advanced automobile technologies offer greater fuel efficiency, and renewable energy supplies are proliferating. In this new age of energy abundance, the United States has attained new international stature as an important energy exporter.

But amid this good cheer for American energy resources belies a darker reality. Climate change could affect virtually every aspect of the U.S. energy system and bring with it serious, sporadic energy supply shortages. The U.S. Gulf coast — which is home to 44 percent of total U.S. refining capacity and several major ports — is highly vulnerable to flooding events and dangerous ocean surges during severe storms and hurricanes such as Hurricane Dorian. Besides temporarily cutting off Americans access to vital fuel, climactic events could easily disrupt U.S. crude oil and natural gas exports from the region. U.S. policy makers are busy debating the level of America’s future commitment to protecting oil and gas shipping from the Persian Gulf in light of the United States’ new role as a major energy exporter. Instead, they ought to be considering how climate change will affect America’s ability to be a secure and reliable supplier and what measures need to be taken to mitigate the disruption severe weather and sea level rise will have on American energy export facilities.

There are other national security issues as well tied to the energy risks emanating from climate change. The U.S. military depends on fuel and electricity supplies from the wider civilian communities in which they are embedded. Several kinds of risks can affect the stability of these energy services, including the link between water availability and energy and electricity production, as well as the threat of wildfire in important U.S. regions. Northern California utility PG & E has been forced to interrupt electricity services to consumers in particular locations to avoid the risk of fire. Climatic risks to domestic energy and electricity production is as serious a risk to U.S. energy security as potential cutoffs of international supplies. It deserves the same level of attention.

As we move forward in our national discussion on energy issues during the upcoming Presidential election cycle, climate risk to the energy system needs more attention. We hope our new publication, Impact of Climate Risk to the Energy System, will make a contribution to that end.

More on:

Energy and Climate Policy

Climate Change

Energy and Climate Security

United States

To download the electronic version of the essay collection, click here.

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