Climate Crisis

Lobsters Provide Lesson About Economic Damage Being Caused by the Climate Crisis

A new study of lobsters along the eastern Connecticut coast has found that the disease is linked to warming water temperatures. (istock)

If present trends continue, by the end of the century, the cost of global warming could be as high as $1 billion annually for Providence County alone, according to data from a 2017 research paper. That’s about $1,600 per person per year. Every year.

But, before we talk about the future, let’s discuss the economic damage that has already occurred in Rhode Island because of warming temperatures.

Like rich Bostonians, Rhode Island’s lobsters have moved to Maine. In 2018, Maine landed 121 million pounds of lobsters, valued at more than $491 million, and up 11 million pounds from 2017. It wasn’t always so.

Andrew Pershing, an oceanographer with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, has noted that lobsters have migrated north as climate change warms the ocean. In Rhode Island, for instance, days when the water temperature of Narragansett Bay is 80 degrees or higher are becoming more common. From 1960 to 2015, the bay’s mean surface water temperatures rose by about 3 degrees Fahrenheit, according to research data.

A 2018 research paper Pershing co-authored said ocean temperatures have risen to levels that are favorable for lobsters off northern New England and Canada but inhospitable for them in southern New England. The research found that warming waters, ecosystem changes, and differences in conservation efforts led to the simultaneous collapse of the lobster fishery in southern New England and record-breaking landings in the Gulf of Maine.

He told Science News last year that with rocky bottoms, kelp, and other things that lobsters love, climate change has turned the Gulf of Maine into a “paradise for lobsters.”

However, in the formerly strong lobster fishing grounds of Rhode Island, the situation is grim. South of Cape Cod, the lobster catch fell from a peak of about 22 million pounds in 1997 to about 3.3 million pounds in 2013, according to the 2018 paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lobsters provide interesting lessons on the impact of the climate crisis.

A conservation program called V-notching helped protect Maine’s lobster population. “Starting a similar conservation program earlier in southern New England would have helped insulate them from the hot water they’ve experienced over the last couple decades,” Malin Pinsky, a marine scientist with Rutgers University, told Boston.com two years ago.

Lyme disease map
Incidences of Lyme disease in the Northeast are expanding. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

Rhode Island’s lack of conservation efforts in the face of the growing climate crisis contributed to the collapse of its lobster fishery. Doing nothing or too little in the face of a changing climate can be economically devastating.

Another existing, and growing, threat to the economic health of Rhode Island comes from Lyme disease, which has increased by more than 300 percent across the Northeast since 2001. A changing climate is a big reason why. There is a growing body of evidence showing that climate change may affect the incidence and prevalence of certain vector-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, malaria, dengue, and West Nile fever, according to a 2018 study.

Chronic Lyme disease is more widespread and more serious than generally realized. There are some 20,000 cases annually in New England and each averages about $4,400 in medical costs. Most Lyme disease patients who are diagnosed and treated early can fully recover. But, an estimated 10 percent to 20 percent suffer from chronically persistent and disabling symptoms. The number of such chronic cases may approach 30,000 to 60,000 annually, according to a 2018 white paper.

Map chart
The average yearly economic damage by the end of the century from climate change for each county in southern New England. (Roger Warburton/ecoRI News)

As the lobsters and the ticks vividly demonstrate, prevention is cheaper than cure. The longer we wait, the more painful, and expensive, the consequences will be.

The aforementioned 2017 study Estimating Economic Damage from Climate Change in the United States by world-renown economists and climate scientists projects the impact of climate change for every county in the United States. The results for Rhode Island and its neighbors are summarized in the map to the right, which depicts the estimated economic damage, in millions of dollars annually for each county in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

The data make clear that the economic damage will not be uniformly distributed. Some counties, such as Providence County, will be hit much harder than others. It also may seem that the southern counties will suffer much less. But that isn’t quite true, as graph below shows. The damage per person per year is projected to be substantial.

The total economic damage to Rhode Island, by 2080, could result in a 2 percent decline in gross domestic product (GDP). To put that in context, during the Great Recession of 2008-2010, there was only one year of GDP decline: minus 2.5 percent in 2009. By 2010, GDP had bounced back to positive growth, at 2.6 percent.

Therefore, the impact of a 2 percent hit to Rhode Island’s GDP from the climate crisis could look like the recession of 2009, only becoming permanent, continuing year after year. Also, it won’t all happen in 2080, the damage will continually get worse.

The economic damage is projected to come from more frequent and intense storms; sea-level rise; increased rainfall resulting in more flooding; higher temperatures, especially in the summer; drought that leads to lower crop yields; increased crime.

In addition, essential infrastructure will be impacted, including water supplies and water treatment facilities. Ecosystems, such as forests, rivers, lakes, and wetlands, will also suffer, and that will impact human quality of life.

In the coming two weeks, we will describe how each Rhode Island county faces different levels of the above threats. As a result, each county needs to develop appropriate mitigation strategies.

The damages from the climate crisis will place major strains on public-sector budgets. However, much of the economic damage will be felt by individuals and families through poorer health, rising energy costs, increased health-care premiums, and decreased job security.

As always, prevention is cheaper, and more effective, than cure. Inaction on climate change will be the most expensive policy option.

The lobsters should teach us a valuable lesson: conservation measures based on sound scientific and economic principles could have helped mitigate losses caused by the climate crisis.

Editor’s note: Part 1 of a three-part series about the economic consequences of the climate crisis on Rhode Island. Part 2. Part 3.

Roger Warburton, Ph.D., is a Newport, R.I., resident. He can be reached at rdh.warburton@gmail.com.

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  1. Can RI SUE the trump adm for malpractice, negligence and abandonment due to their persistent denials of all things science leading to deaths and irreversible economic and ecological destruction?

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