The Smart Money: The cost of global warming in Maine

Posted Tuesday, May 13, 2014 in Analysis

The Smart Money: The cost of global warming in Maine

In red, the likely sea level rise in Bath, Maine, if sea levels rise one meter above current levels. In yellow, if sea levels rise six meters above current levels. Courtesy Natural Resources Council of Maine.

by Gina Hamilton

On May 6, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released its third National Climate Assessment report, outlining how global warming has already made an impact on the U.S. Then, this week, a frightening report based on behavior of some of Antarctica’s glaciers moved the probability of catastrophic sea level rise much closer.

There’s always room for additional research, but any suspicion that climate change science is the creation of the far left aching to move America to green energy is simply bunk. Climate change is not only real and occurring with entirely predictable results, but is going to cost us all a lot of money, and that’s not including the remediation we’re all going to end up doing eventually anyhow, such as solar power, superinsulation, electric vehicles, and wind power.

In coastal Maine, towns and cities are already wrestling with the knowledge that flood insurance premiums will be rising, and rising faster and much farther than the average homeowner can afford. You don’t have to live on the sea coast to see the difference, although that’s where it is most pronounced; a building owner in Gardiner, along the tidal Kennebec River, saw a sale fall through this week because the prospective new owner could not afford the new flood insurance rate, which was estimated to be ten times what it costs currently.

Over the next two hundred years or so, sea levels are expected to rise at least four feet, and possibly as much as 12 feet, but the remainder of the Antarctic ice sheet is likely to follow suit more slowly. For many of Maine’s coastal and tidal river towns, innundation is all but certain. The collapse of the glaciers in Western Antarctica is well underway and is an irreversible process.

What that will mean for towns on the coast and on the rivers is dire. In Bath, much of the Commercial Street area and the BIW shipyard area would be innundated by a one-meter rise, below what is currently predicted, according to maps generated by the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Over time, as the rest of the ice sheets give way, much of the residential and downtown areas would be covered.

In Georgetown, much of Reid State Park would be innundated. 

Properties would be lost, including iconic buildings such as Bath’s City Hall, and major recreational areas — as well as wildlife habitat — would be gone.

It’s not even possible to calculate this loss, but the property value loss and the loss from BIW alone would stand in the billions.

This process will occur in town after town, from Kennebunkport to Calais, and inland along tidal rivers as far as Augusta on the Kennebec and Bangor on the Penobscot. Islands will disappear. Acadia National Park will see its borders shift dramatically.  Some of the most expensive real estate in the state will simply cease to be habitable.

But that’s likely to happen over 200 years. We have bigger economic problems today from global climate change.

We are already seeing the decimation of the shellfish industry. Softshell clams, mussels, scallops, and oysters have already fallen prey, and a long, cold winter didn’t seem to turn the tide at all. It was previously believed that the crabs, which had receded a bit after a few cold winters in the 50s, would be kept in check if Maine had a cold winter or two. Apparently not so. Green crabs are moving from the intertidal zone into subtidal habitats, which may mean they are going after new prey — the Maine lobster.  Lobsters are moving further offshore, making it more expensive to harvest them, and crabs are attacking juvenile lobsters in the shallows.

The landed value of the clam fishery in 1980 was $8 million. By 2006, after two years of significant green crab predation, it had risen to nearly $16 million because of supply and demand. It is slightly lower than that in the most recent survey (2010), at $15 million. The difference between the number of pounds landed, however, is stark. In 1980, there were 40 million pounds of softshell clams harvested. In 2006, only 700,000 pounds were landed. The clams were reseeded and rebounded a bit in 2010 to 11 million pounds landed, but still a huge loss from the harvests of the early 1980s.

Softshell clams are a much smaller industry than lobsters. The value of Maine’s lobster industry last year was estimated to be $364.5 million. If the green crab makes the same kind of inroads into the lobster fishery, the loss to Maine’s economy will be devastating.

Another potential hit to Maine’s economy and to our overall health and well-being is the rise of vector-borne illnesses in Maine. There was hope, after the most recent cold winter, that deer ticks would die back. Apparently, the reverse was true. The heavy snowfall insulated the little creatures, keeping them alive and making them quite ready for a blood meal early in the spring.

Lyme disease is on the rise in Maine, and has spread to even the most northern reaches of the state. Lyme disease sickened more than a thousand Mainers last year; this year, this early, it’s already up to 180 cases. Deer ticks also carry other diseases, including anaplasmosis and babesiosis, which infect white and red blood cells respectively. There is no vaccine for any of these illnesses. Ticks can also carry a form of encephalitis called Powassan, and another white blood cell disease called Ehrlichiosis. 

Mosquitoes can carry Eastern Equine Encephalitis in Maine, and it can cause disease in horses, humans, and some birds, although there hasn’t been a human victim of the disease yet in the state. West Nile Virus has also been seen in Maine, and can infect birds and humans. 

The cost to treat a patient for Lyme disease if caught early is minimal; a course of antibiotics immediately following tick exposure can cost about $400. But if the patient progresses until Lyme can be detected in the blood, the cost rises to $1,658. And late Lyme disease costs balloon to $20,500 per patient.With the rising numbers of Lyme patients in the United States, the annual cost of treating the disease has risen to an estimated $3.1 billion. For Maine, that’s about $20 million.

Those are just the medical costs. The costs to the economy in terms of lost wages, support through disability and other programs are easily triple that. And the costs to the individual who has lost a good part of his or her life to a disease are incalculable. Dealing with global climate change needs to be more than an environmental issue. It is a severe economic threat, one that we all share, regardless of where we live.

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