Notes from a Warming World

Temperature Gauge

Money Matters

The headlines hardly seemed news. At the beginning of the year, Greenwire and Reuters reported that nearly half of US money managers ignore climate risks when making investment decisions. The articles were based on a survey by Ceres, a Boston-based socially responsible investing group that polled hundreds of asset managers who control more than $8 trillion in stock portfolios. Turns out that many of these supposedly omniscient Masters of the Universe have been ignoring how a weather-tossed, carbon-constrained world could impact industries such as automobiles, utilities, and insurance.

Why, exactly? Because of their short-term mentality. The Ceres analysts found that many asset managers only look a few years into the future when buying stocks, and so they miss future risks like, say, climate chaos.

Well, now they’ll have to do better. In late January, the Securities and Exchange Commission voted to require companies to provide investors with information about the risks associated with climate change. So if you’re, say, Massey Energy, you’re going to have to start telling your shareholders that global warming could reduce their profits if the country moves away from coal-powered energy. ExxonMobil will have to warn its stockholders about the danger of climate change-related litigation.

Looks like Wall Street won’t be able to afford its environmental blind spot for much longer.

Clear and Present Danger

Our economic geniuses might not be so great at watching out for long-term risks (see: climate change, housing bubble), but at least the country’s military brass is thinking ahead. Never a constituency to miss a perceived threat (all the better to justify giant arms expenditures), the Pentagon is now warning that climate change is an “instability accelerant” that could put US troops in danger.

In 2008, the National Intelligence Council published a similar forecast. But the Defense Department’s quadrennial review of security threats marks the first time the Pentagon has listed global warming as a factor that could destabilize weak governments and require the deployment of US forces. Officials list declining fresh water supplies and disruptions in harvests as factors that could “spawn a range of security challenges.” Oh, yeah, and rising sea levels, which could ruin naval bases in Guam, Diego Garcia, and Norfolk, VA.

Mission Accomplished

magazine ad scan

It’s as if unparalleled chutzpah had a baby with unbelievable irony. The always sharp-eyed bloggers at somehow came across a 1962 edition of Life magazine that featured an ad from Humble Oil bragging about how the company generates enough energy every day to “melt 7 million tons of glacier.” As history would have it, Humble later merged with Standard, which became today’s ExxonMobil, one of the main drivers of global warming, which is, well, melting the world’s glaciers.

News Hole

The Humble ad must be just a weird coincidence, right? After all, it’s not as if the greenhouse effect was well understood in 1962. Except, that is, for television viewers who saw a 1958 Frank Capra-produced show on weather titled The Unchained Goddess. The educational film featured a physicist who warned, “Even now, man may be changing the climate through the waste products of his civilization.… It’s been calculated that a few degrees rise in the Earth’s temperature would melt the polar ice caps.”

Incredibly, this would be news to many people 50 years later. At least that’s the takeaway from a survey of climate change news coverage conducted by The DailyClimate editors counted 32,400 stories on climate change published worldwide in 2009, a 17 percent increase from 2008. That sounds impressive until you compare it with other major news stories. Climate change received less coverage than topics such as “Balloon Boy,” the “White House Party Crashers,” and the “Bill Richardson Scandal.”

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