Saturday April 27, 2013

By the end of the century, the Berkshire County economy -- much like the global economy -- may be forever altered by the effects of climate change. Some local economic changes have already begun in response to impacts expected from climate change in the coming decades.

Land-use planners and policy specialists in the insurance industry are preparing for changes likely to be brought on by warmer temperatures and more severe weather events. Local farmers and business owners are already looking to their future, many doubtful about the climate change concept, but still determined to build revenue streams that will withstand climate changes or compensate for weather-generated losses.

In one example of a specific local economic effect likely to result from climate change, Cameron Wake, associate professor with the Institute of Earth, Oceans and Space at the University of New Hampshire and a lead author of the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists, had a dire assessment of the local ski industry: "By the end of the century, the only ski areas that remain viable [in the Northeast] will be in the western mountains of Maine."

A downhill slope

Whatever happens with the climate, local ski area operators are a scrappy bunch who, because they are so dependent on the weather anyway, stay on their toes and remain aggressively resourceful in making snow and grooming ski slopes.

Tyler Fairbank, president of Jiminy Peak and CEO of The Fairbank Group, said he is skeptical of the long-term climate predictions, but remains wary of the potential.

During the past seven years, Jiminy Peak has been aggressive in finding ways to conserve energy and expand its renewable energy production, to the extent of investing $4 million installing a utility-grade, 1.5-megawatt wind turbine near the summit. They also established a renewable energy development company, EOS Ventures. Their efforts have saved the resort thousands of dollars in energy costs and prevented the emission of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

For more than 40 years, Jiminy Peak's owner, Brian Fairbank, and his snow-making crews have been pushing the cutting edge of snow-making technology, which has come a long way in that time.

Tyler Fairbank noted that continued advancement in snow-making technology is one effort that can hedge against shorter seasons and warmer temperatures to a certain extent.

In the meantime, investment has continued in summer amusement facilities that will help build new revenue streams that could expand if summers become longer and winters shorter.

"What we can do is make smart decisions that help our business grow and thrive while being conscious of the possibilities," Tyler Fairbank said. "In 25 years, I'd rather be safe than sorry."

Planners take note

Climate change has already affected everyday lives of land use planners like Nat Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. In 2007, Karns served on the Massachusetts Climate Change Task Force.

"We've seen the incidents starting already," Karns said. "Our rainfall amounts over the past 50 years have shown a steady upward climb. We know now that every storm water system installed in the last three decades are obsolete. Culverts have been overwhelmed, bridges have washed out, and we're going to see more and more of that."

The Regional Planning Commission is seeking funding to do an inventory of the county's storm water drainage system "so we know where we're going to have the most problems and the cost of upgrading," Karns said.

Local planners are already using different standards in planning higher capacities for storm water drainage and transportation routes that allow for better mass transit and more walking and bicycling. State building codes have also veered more toward sustainability by requiring replanting of trees, low-energy fixtures and solar panels on large commercial structures, Karns said.

Climate change, experts have noted, will also threaten the habitat of the sugar maple tree, on which many local farmers depend for a significant portion of their annual revenue.

Rob Leab, co-owner of Ioka Valley Farms in Hancock, is doubtful of the predictions.

"The climate is always going to be changing whether man has anything to do with it or not," Leab said recently. "I think it's a bunch of baloney -- I'm looking out my window and it's snowing."

He said maple syrup production is "a pretty good percentage of our business. And I haven't seen any change in my trees -- they're doing well."

He has, nevertheless, considered his options should the predictions begin to occur.

"I don't disagree that something is going on," Leab said. "The question is how do we adapt to it? It is a concern, but there's always something changing. You got to just keep moving forward."

Economics of climate change

Stephen Sheppard, professor of economics at Williams College, taught a course for about 10 years starting in the early 1990s on the economics of climate change.

He said economic effects of climate change would be wide-ranging, and any specific predictions of the results of those effects are impossible to make.

But climate change-related factors that will be a part of shaping the future local economy include:

n The loss in revenue from the decline in the winter recreation industry and maple syrup production.

n The increased cost of more people using their air conditioners more often, and the money saved by having to heat their homes less.

n The increased cost to repair the growing incidents of local, statewide and national damages from flooding and severe rainfall, and the decreasing cost of snow removal.

n The growing state and national cost of upgrading transportation systems, sea walls and drainage systems to buttress against more severe weather.

n The increasing cost of insuring for certain weather related damages, such as high winds and increased flooding.

n The ongoing increase in the cost of energy.

But whatever the climate does or doesn't do, Sheppard noted, the economy will evolve. No matter how the weather changes, people will continue through everyday life, buying what they can and seeking recreation locally. And people will still seek economic opportunities -- where one business fails, another could spring up.

Recently released reports suggest that by the year 2100, the local climate will resemble that of South Carolina today.

Sheppard said that looking to the economies of the hill counties of the Carolinas could be instructive.

"It is reasonable to look at the economy that emerges here as relatable to, say, Asheville, N.C.," he said. "They have less skiing, but it's not a grim place by any means. The adjustment to that equilibrium is going to be painful, but eventually the economy will adjust."

Sheppard noted that the concept of climate change is not new, and the possibility that mankind will be able to stop the change seems unlikely.

"Now we need to roll up our sleeves and figure out ways to mitigate what's going to occur," he said.

In another example of economic changes that have already begun, the insurance industry systemically adjusts to the damages being incurred, seeking more revenue to insure for certain kinds of damage that have become statistically more likely, such as flooding in many regions.

"Insurance is a risk business and carriers know how to mitigate their risk and manage the impact of it through rate and risk management and prevention," said Sharon MacEachern, assistant vice president and insurance officer with Greylock Insurance Agency. "Whether insurance carriers suffer losses in Berkshire County or in other parts of the country based on extreme weather conditions, families and businesses may see increases to their premiums as carriers recoup those losses. Families should anticipate premium increases and work with their agent to find ways to reduce their impact."

To reach Scott Stafford:
sstafford@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6241.
On Twitter: @BE_SStafford