Some Say It's Too Expensive to Mitigate Climate Change. What About the Economic Damage That's Already Occuring?

How many times have you heard a politician say that the nation simply cannot afford to take action on climate change because it would hurt the U.S. economy?

Maybe those politicians aren’t considering the economic damage caused by severe weather. Hurricanes, heat waves, tornadoes, and other forms of extreme weather have become more frequent and more intense. And sea level rise is causing some communities to flood at high tides, threatening homes and critical infrastructure. Almost all scientists believe that climate change is a major factor behind these problems.

In 2013 Congress passed the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, and on January 21 the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced the final winners to a competition open to cities and counties vulnerable to increased risks posed by climate change. The competition “underscores the ability communities have to not only recover from recent disasters but also to rebuild better and stronger for the future,” as the White House phrased it.

This sounds like a great idea. It’s likely to take advantage of Americans’ trademark ingenuity—the same ingenuity that has helped accelerate progress on renewable sources of energy.  

But the nearly $1 billion being offered to the winners of this competition delivers the message that taxpayers are picking up a sizable--and growing--tab for climate change-related damage. Obviously, this $1 billion is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. Wouldn’t it be a lot smarter if we reduced our emissions of greenhouse gases using a balanced market-based mechanism, and thereby puts a brake on some of the crazy and destructive weather systems?

Wise investments in the reduction of these emissions would pay dividends for decades—make that centuries—to come. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina was responsible for damage estimated at $108 billion ($131 billion in 2015 dollars), according to a 2013 National Hurricane Center report. Sandy damaged or destroyed more than 650,000 homes, knocked out power to eight million customers, and racked up a bill of $50 billion ($51.6 billion today). Big numbers. Did climate change contribute to these hurricanes? Yes, according to a study reported in the journal Nature.

Congress and the Pentagon is well aware of climate change’s potential impact on defense spending. For example, Virginia’s Norfolk-Hampton Roads area, home to the largest naval operation in the world, is particularly vulnerable because the land is sinking as sea levels are rising. In fact, in 2014 a bipartisan field hearing was held on the subject. Planning for that is both a national security concern and a topic of discussion among the area's business owners.

We believe the quickest, most efficient way to curb this threat multiplier is to put a price on the very thing that is creating these costs to society, greenhouse gasses. That’s the answer being proposed by more economists and corporate CEO’s every day. Once all of the costs associated with this problem are included in its price, the market will create an incentive to be efficient. This will also encourage the marketplace to create lucrative and innovative ways to reduce emissions.

Until we take economists’ advice, we can expect stronger storms to come sweeping through the heartland and up our coasts, leaving havoc and big bills in their wake. How many more of your tax dollars do you want to spend on emergency response, economic relief, and rebuilding?

Today on the campaign trail, some office-seeker will probably trot out that lame “can’t afford it” excuse for stalling action on climate change. It's time we tell these head-in-the-sand politicians to tell them that they need to take a fresh look.