Hurricane Irene traveled the East Coast last weekend and was expected to be one of the rare hurricanes to hit New York (by the time it reached there, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm). Although many thousands of people in the region may be without electricity for days to come, New Yorkers are glad that Irene did little damage as hurricanes go.
The storm began to receive media attention the weekend before it arrived, and people in the New York area used the time to prepare themselves. Forecasters have been criticized for overestimating the amount of wind that New York would experience, but the winds and tides were plenty strong. Preparation was an important reason that damage was limited.
For example, the eye of the storm passed right over Kennedy International and LaGuardia Airports, but planes did not crash because the airports were shut during the storm. Few lives and little cargo was lost from ships in the area because the ports were closed, and vessels moved out of the area.
Hundreds of thousands of people were left without power, and many homes were flooded. But, clearly, the damage would have been much worse if Hurricane Irene had hit with no warning.
I have no expertise in climate, weather, physics or aerodynamics, but one of the lessons of economics that environmental changes are less harmful when they can be anticipated. With only a few days of preparation, as with Hurricane Irene, people and mobile capital can be moved out of harm’s way. Protective barriers can be constructed for the immobile capital like homes.
New York was not given a definite warning of Irene a year ahead, let alone a decade ahead. But if it had been warned years ahead, the economy could have adjusted even more by making plans to locate activity in more protected places. Or perhaps even to invent goods and production processes that are more hurricane resistant.
Global warming is expected to raise temperatures and sea levels over a period of decades – perhaps centuries. Even if scientists are completely unable to retard or reverse the environmental consequences of global warming, thanks to decades of warning the economy can greatly adjust to minimize the economic costs of those environmental consequences.
That’s the thesis of a recent book, “Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future,” by Matthew Kahn of the University of California, Los Angeles (disclosure: Professor Kahn is a friend and was my classmate at the University of Chicago). Given advance warning, people will protect themselves and innovate in order to make sales in future market when the symptoms of global warming are more threatening.