Why Sun Belters Should Resist the Winter Weather Gloat

We may gloat about sunny days, but would we about our food supply? Half of U.S. food products are imported from other countries, and most states produce less than 10 percent of the food they consume.
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"My favorite part of winter is... watching it on TV from Arizona!"

Such brags are tempting for those of us who live in the Sun Belt (and is but one example from my Facebook feed in the last couple of weeks). But we should resist, not only because extreme temperatures like those brought by the polar vortex are outright dangerous for many, but because in today's globalized world, not even snowbirds can escape weather from the North Pole.

We're all in this together: Most of our food and household goods come from somewhere else, the costs of insurance, health care and energy are set well beyond our local region, and our taxes and charity contribute to disaster relief across the U.S. and abroad. A freeze in Florida will push up prices of citrus and juice, drought in Australia affects the price of wheat, and floods in Thailand disrupt our supply of electronic goods. Storms in one region of the U.S. disrupt travel and trade across the country as flights are grounded and connections missed. We are seeing deeper loops in the flows of air across the earth, bringing cold further toward the equator in some regions and heat and rain towards the poles, possibly as a result of global warming.

We may gloat about sunny days, but would we about our food supply? Half of U.S. food and agricultural products are imported from other countries, and most states produce less than 10 percent of the food they consume. Right now California is in an extreme drought, with less than 20 percent of the snowpack that supplies water for the coming year than average. California produces almost half of the country's fruits, nuts, vegetables and wine, and a large share of our agricultural exports. Mexico, which produces much of our remaining imports of fruit and vegetables, is also currently suffering very dry conditions. What will this mean for food prices? What will increased costs mean for the 45 million people living in poverty across the U.S.?

Weather also impacts international business. Bangkok is a center for global production of hard disk drives and car parts. In 2011 extreme flooding of manufacturing plans led to price increases of electronics worldwide, and the postponement of new car model launches. The billions of dollars in insurance losses were covered by global companies and thus affected premiums everywhere.

Hurricane Sandy not only caused tens of billions of dollars in damages, it disrupted supply chains as warehouses and roads flooded and power cuts created bottlenecks in production processes. The New York Stock Exchange closed for two days and more than 20,000 flights were cancelled. The impact on the Ports of New York and New Jersey illustrates our vulnerability to extreme weather that closes or damages our ports, through which more than half of our trade passes including critical supplies of oil, food, iron and automobiles. Just a handful of ports, many of them vulnerable to severe storms along the east coast and the Gulf of Mexico, handle the majority of these imported goods as well as exports that support the U.S. economy and jobs. The rising sea level is increasing risk.

A recent survey by the Carbon Disclosure Project found that 70 percent of global firms are now seeing climate impacts on their supply chains as a significant risk, with half of them already seeing disruptions from drought and flooding. A study by Oxfam found that Starbucks and The Body Shop were finding that their efforts to source from small-scale producers of coffee and sesame oil were undermined by floods.

To be sure, a globalized economy has real advantages as climate becomes more extreme -- we can source from unaffected regions and share insurance risks. Extreme weather, such as the deep freeze of the polar vortex, can kill off pests and benefits some industries. But many industries concentrate in locations subject to floods along coasts and river valleys, and some agricultural commodities such as wheat and rice are concentrated in regions that experience climate extremes concurrently.

So when disaster strikes somewhere else we feel humanitarian concern for others, and security in the stability of our local climate perhaps, but we also need to think about our own vulnerabilities as they connect to the global supply chains and their links to our regional economies, jobs and consumer prices. Business needs to evaluate the risks of more extreme climate to their operations and suppliers. More research is needed on how climate extremes and changes affect globally connected economic sectors and localities. We can't just move away from winter. We all need to examine options for becoming more resilient by adapting our food, manufacturing, transport and energy systems to climate extremes.

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