THE HIGH COST OF IGNORING CLIMATE CHANGE

The next time you hear a politician say that our country simply can’t afford to tackle climate change, send him a copy of the new report documenting the more than $300 billion in damage caused by natural disasters last year. That figure made 2017 the most expensive year on record for disasters in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Another NOAA finding: There were 16 billion-dollar events, which has happened only once before, in 2011. (There’s a great map in the NOAA report linked above.) The list includes Hurricanes Harvey ($125 billion), Irma ($50 billion) and Maria ($90 billion); floods and wildfires in California; hail storms in Colorado and Minnesota; and three tornado outbreaks. There was drought and fire in the Plains states. The 16 events killed 362 people, according to NOAA’s report.

The previous most expensive disaster year was 2005, when events such as Hurricane Katrina caused $215 billion in U.S. damage, when adjusted for inflation. NOAA’s record of billion-dollar natural disasters goes back to 1980.

One factor in the rising disaster toll is the growing number of homes and businesses in vulnerable places. That's especially true with recent losses from wildfires and hurricanes. The wildfires in California’s wine country killed 44 people and claimed more than 10,000 homes.  The 2017 totals do not include the early-January 2018 mudslides that southern Californians suffered after the fires eliminated vegetation and important soil ingredients that probably would have prevented those slides. So far, 17 people are known to have died from the mudslides, which destroyed scores of homes and damaged hundreds of other structures.

The top five wildfires in California by size have occurred since 2003. Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mozingo wrote, “It is a cliche by now for commanders at every big fire to say they have never seen ‘anything like this.’”

Obviously, we can’t blame climate change for all the damage caused by 2017’s natural disasters; there have always been hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires. NOAA did not try to estimate how much greater the damage was because of climate change. But NOAA’s Deke Arndt did note that a warmer world clearly makes some weather worse. "Heat waves, their duration, their intensity, their frequency is going up," he said, as is the frequency of very heavy rainfalls.

In fact, the human influence on hurricanes and wildfires is increasingly obvious, The Washington Post reported. For years this has been a subject clouded in uncertainties. But now scientists say they have hard numbers. “This job gets easier over time, unfortunately,” said Michael Wehner, senior staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and co-author of a study on Hurricane Harvey released in December. “There is a large, new body of literature about attributing human influence on individual extreme events,” he said. “It’s no longer appropriate to say scientists can’t say anything about these individual events.”

Insurers are painfully aware of the costs that climate change is imposing. The industry is set to pay out a record $135 billion stemming from natural disasters around the globe last year, according to data released this month by the world’s largest reinsurer.

“Some of the catastrophic events, such as the series of three extremely damaging hurricanes, or the very severe flooding in South Asia after extraordinarily heavy monsoon rains, are giving us a foretaste of what is to come,” Torsten Jeworrek, a Munich Re board member, said in an announcement about the global losses. “Because even though individual events cannot be directly traced to climate change, our experts expect such extreme weather to occur more often in future.” The United States made up an unusually high share of the world’s insured losses last year — about 50 percent, compared with just over 30 percent on average.

The nation’s power utilities are also running some sobering numbers through their computers. After Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, NextEra Energy, the owner of the largest utility in Florida, estimated $1.3 billion in damages. Duke Energy estimated $500 million in damages in Florida, and Texas’ American Electric Power Co. put their costs at $250 million to $300 million. All told, about $2.5 billion, Bloomberg News reported.

“If climate victims here and across the globe understood that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels played a role in their losses, perhaps they would rise up to demand policy changes,” wrote Leah C. Stokes, a University of California-Santa Barbara professor after witnessing the devastation of the recent wildfires and mudslides.

What can we do? The most rational response is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we are emitting. And almost any economist will tell you that the quickest and most efficient way to do that is to put the free market to work--that is, enact a national carbon fee so that we accelerate the inevitable transition from dirty to clean energy.

If Congress were to do so, the results would include a massive flow of revenue. Roughly half should go to low- and middle-income households to compensate them for slightly higher energy costs. The rest could go for infrastructure, reducing the fast-growing national debt, or any number of other worthy uses. How much worse must hurricanes and wildfires become before we act?

 

Leaders in the Americas Eager to Act

The Partnership for Responsible Growth believes that Northern Hemisphere carbon pricing coordination makes all the sense in the world. That’s why we approached the Aspen Institute in 2016 to encourage that widely respected organization to convene a meeting of representatives from Canada, Mexico, and the United States to explore opportunities. We lined up influential partners: the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, and Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

We co-hosted a two-day roundtable, featuring 40 policy experts, business people and political leaders from the three countries to address ways to integrate carbon pricing across the continent. In October 2016 the Canadian Embassy hosted a follow-up session that, like the first, was well attended and thought-provoking. But after the election of President Trump, the effort stalled. Our government’s lack of interest in this initiative blocked progress.

So we were heartened by an announcement December 12 at the One Planet climate summit organized by French President Emmanuel Macron. The heads of states and governments of Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile and Mexico; the governors of California, Washington; and the premiers of Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec declared their “commitment to implement carbon pricing as a central economic and environmental policy instrument for ambitious climate change action.”

A Carbon Fee Can Help Fund Infrastructure Improvements

Desperate to put legislative points on the scoreboard by year’s end, congressional leaders have decided to enact a tax overhaul that loads another $1.0-1.5 trillion on an already spiraling national debt. So the initial opportunity for a debate about how carbon revenue could supply that new revenue appears to have passed.

The next opportunity to promote a carbon fee could be a bill to invest in the nation’s ailing infrastructure. No one doubts the need to make such investments. The U.S. currently has a D+ on the American Society of Civil Engineers’ infrastructure report card, and ASCE estimates that all levels of government will have to invest an additional $2 trillion over the next decade if we’re going to avoid falling further behind. The ASCE grades infrastructure in 16 interconnected categories, including the energy grid and our water systems. All are vitally important if our economy is to remain healthy and if we are to compete with other nations.

Bike Rider/Scientist Learns How to Talk About Climate

“I found that the word ‘climate’ has been defined as a political issue. It was always a science issue for me,” retired climate scientist David Goodrich told The Christian Science Monitor’s Amanda Paulson. “You can talk about the latest drought that’s going on, or the big heavy rains we’ve been having, and on the coast you can talk about, ‘Boy, there’s been a lot of flooding.’ But if you say, ‘Isn’t that climate change?’ or ‘Isn’t that sea level rise?,’ there’s this wall that goes up.”

Goodrich was discussing his 4,208-mile cross-country bike trip, one of the half-dozen epic bike rides he has undertaken since 2000. His experiences are the raw material for his recently published book A Hole in the Wind (Pegasus, 249 pages).

A former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist who served as  director of the UN Global Climate Observing System in Geneva, Goodrich returned to the United States in 2011 to find a nation and a people in denial, according to a Goodreads review. Concerned that Americans are willfully deluded by misinformation about climate that dominates media and politics, Goodrich thought a little straight talk could set things right. As they say in "Animal House," he decided that "this calls for a stupid and futile gesture on someone's part, and I'm just the guy to do it."

Fires & Storms: Running Up a Big Bill

It’s been quite a year. Consider this lineup: Franklin, Gert, Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia, Lee, Maria, Nate, and Ophelia. Thanks to those hurricanes, 2017 has become the first year in more than a century in which 10 Atlantic storms in a row reached hurricane strength.

The record for the most weather-related disasters doing more than $1 billion in damage is 15, set last year. So far, 2017 has had 12, most recently the California wildfires. As of late October, the toll for those fires, some of which were still burning, was: 42 people dead, 8,400 homes destroyed, and 271,000 acres burned.

Hurricane Katrina still reigns as the U.S. weather-related disaster with the highest price tag: $160 billion. Hurricane Harvey ranks second ($86 to $108 billion), followed by Hurricane Irma ($64 to $92 billion), according to the National Climatic Data Center.

Despite all those eye-opening figures, many politicians continue to insist that taking steps to counter climate change would threaten our economic health. A more plausible view is that failure to take action will devastate our economy and impoverish our children.