Is Duke's basketball team worse than global warming?

A few years ago, I was explaining to my nephew why climate change is a problem, citing droughts, floods, and wildfires. As the child of two UNC Law School alums, he was a precocious six-year-old that liked to grapple with big concepts. He paused, deep in thought, and then asked me earnestly:

"Aliya, is Duke worse than global warming?" 

As we all know, Duke is consistently the most hated team in college basketball. Maybe Duke actually IS worse than global warming. I’ve been working on climate change issues for many years, but I have to admit that I don’t know the answer. At the time, I dodged his question by asking, "What do you think?" but this year's March Madness has inspired me to give his question a more thorough treatment. 

To answer my nephew's question, we must find methods of assessment and then compare the results.

Thankfully, in the case of global warming, there are countless studies on how to estimate the damages and quantify the risks of climate change impacts.

Risk assessment is one important tool for understanding climate change impacts. By showing us how bad climate change could be in the future, risk assessment allows us to plan and prepare in the face of uncertainty. As described in the draft 2013 National Climate Assessment, a typical risk assessment identifies the probabilities of climate-related hazard events, as well as risks to property, people, and the environment. From there, total estimated losses are predicted for a range of future scenarios.

Insurance companies are experts at risk assessment, since their entire industry hinges on accurate future predictions. In October 2012, MunichRe released a report on severe weather, including storms, floods, heat waves, and droughts. The report found that the number of North American weather catastrophes has quintupled over the last 30 years. It states in its press release: “Nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America….[Human-caused] climate change is believed to contribute to this trend.” The report shows from 1980 to 2011, weather disasters cost over $1 trillion and 30,000 lives.

Unfortunately, insurance companies like MunichRe are far ahead of state and federal governments when it comes to appreciating climate change risks. Every three years, state governments are required to submit a hazard mitigation plan to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In these plans, most states ignore their own vulnerability to climate impacts and barely address climate risks. NRDC petitioned FEMA last October to request that the Agency ensure climate change is adequately addressed in state disaster planning. This year, dozens of states are resubmitting their hazard mitigation plans, so we will see if FEMA and states are beginning to consider climate change. (Teaser: Although not yet final, Florida’s draft plan has already been posted, and it fails to mention the future effects of climate change on droughts, floods, hurricanes, and extreme heat.)

When you combine the wide-ranging risks of climate change with the inadequate response from government to address those risks, I would argue that global warming is extremely bad. But the real question is whether or not Duke is WORSE than global warming. Comprehensive Google searching comes up with a number of passionate sources verifying that Duke is, indeed, the  most  hated  team  in  college  basketball.

Unfortunately, none of these sources specifically translates hatred of Duke basketball into tangible risks or losses to property, people or the environment. Assessing the damages from the Blue Devils is nearly impossible, considering the dearth of peer-reviewed literature. A credible apples-to-apples comparison of Duke and global warming is nearly impossible without further study. I apologize for this inconclusive, unsatisfying analysis, but as consolation I’ll leave you with the wisdom of a young, die-hard Tar Heels fan who begrudgingly admitted:

"Well, I guess global warming is probably worse than Duke, because global warming affects everyone."

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