Beware El Niño Combined With Global Warming? Nah!

May 7, 1998 • Commentary
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Federal climatologists are going to have to ‘fess up pretty soon that El Niño has been a remarkable boon to the U.S. economy. And they are going to have to admit the same about global warming.

That’s because the administration has been hell‐​bent on conflating the two. Last fall the vice president went to vote‐​rich California to deliver the news: El Niño’s coming; it’s going to be bad; I’m from the government and I’m here to help. Further, I know a climatologist who told me that El Niños will be made worse by global warming. In other words, if you think this is bad, wait till you see what happens if you don’t eat your vegetables and pay your carbon taxes.

He didn’t mention that this is an extreme view that flies in the face of archaeological evidence, which shows that when the earth was a few degrees warmer, some 4,000 to 7,000 years ago, El Niños may have been less frequent. But as the 20th century warmed, they became slightly more frequent. They did the same when the planet cooled 300 years ago, according to coral records in the Pacific. Maybe El Niños just don’t care what the planetary temperature is!

How much has El Niño cost? According to Gov. Pete Wilson’s office, so far this winter in California, El Niño has caused about $500 million in damage, only a quarter of the price tag for the big one in 1982–83 that rang up $2 billion in costs. Moreover, this year’s figures aren’t appreciably different from those for last year’s non‐​El Niño winter. Sounds more like El Weeño!

In Florida there’s been about $100 million in El Niño‐​related damage, mainly from the recent tornado outbreak. The damage/​death ratio was far too low to support all the carnage. Consider 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which cost $14 billion in Florida alone, and killed half as many. There’s no doubt that the Florida tragedy — which could have been mitigated by a warning siren system that would have awakened everyone and saved 40 lives — will be the bitterest memory of El Niño.

Winter death rates typically far exceed those in the summer. Many deaths are a direct result of the cold — hypothermia, heart attacks from shoveling snow, pneumonia after slip‐​and‐​fall injuries. A good cold spell, such as those of the early 1980s, kills hundreds one way or another. A Christmas cold snap in 1983 froze 40 people in South Carolina alone. But slowly freezing to death or expiring in a hospital just isn’t as newsworthy as getting spun to kingdom come by an El Niño tornado. When the homeless die, as they often do in the cold, the news footage just isn’t as heart‐​wrenching as are pictures of the bereaved outside a wrecked million‐​dollar home.

What about financial benefits? Let’s start with hurricanes. The average damage cost per year is now up to $5 billion. An intense or extreme hurricane (category 4 or 5) will produce around $25 billion in damage, depending upon where it hits. Climatologists generally agree that El Niño reduces the likelihood of that kind of hurricane by at least one‐​third and probably more. Given the average frequency of those monster storms (about one every seven years), this works out to an El Niño saving of about $1.25 billion this year.

Stretching the envelope, we can probably come up with $2 billion in damages. Balance that against an easily demonstrable $15 billion in benefits, and you can see why El Niño strikes fear into the hearts of global warmers

Recent pronouncements indicate that the overall demand for heating energy this winter is down by about 10 percent — people are blaming El Niño, which cuts off the normal cold Arctic air and bathes the nation in Pacific moderation. The overall heating cost to Americans averages a cool $50 billion per year. So credit El Niño with a saving of $5 billion.

Been to the 7‐​Eleven recently to pick up some $0.89 per gallon gas? Thanks in large part to the glut of petroleum that didn’t get burned up rescuing us from Old Man Winter, the average car is using about a dollar less in gas every week. Let’s conservatively say that 200 million cars are regularly on the road, and that El Niño is only responsible for half of the price decline. That works out to another $2 billion or so over the winter. The irony that El Niño/​global warming will increase emissions of greenhouse gases by lowering fuel prices must warm Gore’s heart.

Suppose this savings winds up on the corporate bottom line, where it gets taxed. Given the portion of heating energy used by industry (about 40 percent of the total), this works out to about $600 million back to the feds. Just enough to pay the bills in California and Florida! Who says there’s no Gaea?

What about your retirement account? It’s probably invested in some airlines, railroads or trucking companies. The Dow Jones transportation average — a virtual mirror of fuel prices — has shot ahead at twice the rate of the industrials since the beginning of the warm winter. Given the phenomenal stock holdings in this country, an estimate of $5 billion total account appreciation is probably conservative.

Then there’s vegetation. California is currently greener than a blackjack table, and the rest of the country is about to follow suit. Groundwater levels, thanks to the prodigious rains that folks want to blame on El Niño, are so high that anyone who runs low on water this summer better not say it was an act of God. Futures prices for the current winter wheat crop are hanging around their life‐​of‐​contract lows. Where are the news stories about the bin‐​busting small‐​grain harvests that are likely to begin in two months?

There you have it. Stretching the envelope, we can probably come up with $2 billion in damages. Balance that against an easily demonstrable $15 billion in benefits, and you can see why El Niño strikes fear into the hearts of global warmers. Thank you, Mr. Vice President, for bringing us the good news. If we can expect more of the same, the next presidency will be warmer, greener and richer.

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