Economist Paul Krugman: Great Salt Lake’s impending doom is a grim warning about 'climate change'

Economist Paul Krugman: Great Salt Lake’s impending doom is a grim warning about 'climate change'
Great Salt Lake in Utah in 2018, Wikimedia Commons

On June 7, the New York Times published a disturbing report on Utah’s Great Salt Lake — which, according to reporter Christopher Flavelle, has “shrunk by two-thirds” and is in danger of drying up altogether. Liberal economist and Times columnist Paul Krugman responds to Flavelle’s reporting in his June 13 column, citing Great Salt Lake’s problems as a dire example of the type of damage climate change is inflicting.

“What’s happening to the Great Salt Lake is pretty bad,” Krugman explains. “But what I found really scary about the report is what the lack of an effective response to the lake’s crisis says about our ability to respond to the larger, indeed existential threat of climate change.”

The columnist continues, “If you aren’t terrified by the threat posed by rising levels of greenhouse gases, you aren’t paying attention — which, sadly, many people aren’t. And those who are or should be aware of that threat but stand in the way of action for the sake of short-term profits or political expediency are, in a real sense, betraying humanity.”

Krugman adds, however, that inaction on climate change is both “inexcusable” and “understandable”— inexcusable in that it’s hell for the planet, understandable in that officials didn’t want to create economic upheaval in response to the crisis. “Fears about economic losses,” Krugman recalls, “helped block climate action” in the past.

The term “climate change,” journalist Emma Pattee reports in an article published by The Guardian on June 14, was used in a White House memo written by Frank Press —President Jimmy Carter’s top science adviser — on July 7, 1977. The memo was titled “Release of Fossil CO2 and the Possibility of a Catastrophic Climate Change.” Forty-five years ago, Press was sounding the alarm.

Then, in the 1980s, environmentalists warned about “the greenhouse effect” — and the term “global warning” was heard a lot during the 1990s.

“When scientists began raising the alarm in the 1980s, climate change looked like a distant threat — a problem for future generations,” Krugman explains. “Some people still see it that way; last month, a senior executive at the bank HSBC gave a talk in which he declared, ‘Who cares if Miami is six meters underwater in 100 years?’ This view is all wrong — we’re already seeing the effects of climate change, largely in the form of a rising frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, like the megadrought in the American West that is contributing to the death of the Great Salt Lake.”

Climate change deniers and climate change skeptics, over the years, have argued that it makes no sense for the U.S. to hurt itself economically in response to a problem that may not exist. But the problem, Krugman stresses, most definitely exists — climate change is cold, hard reality, not an unproven theory — and ignoring it will cause a lot more economic pain in the future.

“In terms of the economics,” Krugman writes, “tourism is a huge industry in Utah. How will that industry fare if the famous lake becomes a poisoned desert?.... A threatened region should be accepting modest sacrifices, some barely more than inconveniences, to avert a disaster just around the corner. But it doesn’t seem to be happening. And if we can’t save the Great Salt Lake, what chance do we have of saving the planet?”

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