Greenhouse Gas Regulation Not As Costly As Global Warming

Chris Carnevale | March 6, 2012 | Climate Change, Energy Policy
The letter Rep. Barrow and Whitfield wrote to the Office of Management and Budget about greenhouse gas regulationRecently a contingency of 221 Members of Congress publicly sided with dirty energy interests over public health interests.  These elected officials signed onto a letter penned by Georgia’s own Rep. John Barrow (D) and Kentucky’s Rep. Ed Whitfield (R) urging the Office of Management and Budget to prevent the EPA from enacting new carbon-regulating policies under the New Source Performance StandardsLast February we blogged about the importance of these new standards to public and environmental health and the rule-making process itself.

Although greenhouse gas (GHG) regulation is actually required by a 2007 Supreme Court decision and is likely to improve the economy with a net increase in jobs, Congressman Barrow and 220 of his colleagues argue that GHG regulation may be too costly for electric customers.  This opinion ignores the simple fact that preemptive climate change mitigation efforts will be far cheaper than dealing with its costly impacts.  In a warmer climate, we can expect more severe weather, more drought, rising seas, more wildfires, more heat waves, and more cold spells, all of which will burden our economy.  Ironically, many of these impacts and the costs that will follow will be a direct result of the dirty energy systems that these legislators are defending.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published a report in 2008 that profiled the anticipated costs posed by climate change from just four areas: hurricane damage, real estate loss to sea level rise, energy sector costs due to higher temperatures, and the rise in water costs due to drought.  Anticipated costs to the United States from these four factors is over a trillion dollars, but which region will bear the brunt of climate change’s costs?  You guessed it… the Southeast!  The Atlantic and Gulf Coast states are considered the most vulnerable regions in two of the three categories (hurricane damage and real estate loss) and the Southeast is tied with the Southwest in a third category (energy sector costs).  Furthermore, the study points out that weather-dependent industries will be especially hard hit by climate change costs.  Unfortunately for the Southeast, tourism and agriculture are two of our main economic drivers and both are extremely weather dependent.

Chart of costs of climate change
This chart, from the NRDC report, illustrates costs we can anticipate from climate change.

That study compliments similar findings by a Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, “Climate Change in the United States: The Prohibitive Costs of Inaction,” which cites that climate change will contribute to (1) the loss of $178 billion from Florida’s tourism industry annually by 2100, (2) North Carolina’s sea level rise which will cost $11 billion annually by 2080, and (3) Georgia’s incurred costs of $1.3 billion in sand replenishment costs by 2100 compounded by a loss of 5,000 jobs in the state’s tourism industry.

Sadly, these estimates are conservative and don’t include many unquantifiable costs.  As the NRDC report aptly states, “It is difficult to put a price tag on many of the costs of climate change: loss of human lives and health, species extinction, loss of unique ecosystems, increased social conflict, and other impacts extend far beyond any monetary measure.”NRDC Drought Vulnerability Map

As difficult as putting a price on human health is, a team of researchers from Natural Resources Defense Council, University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, San Francisco, did just that last fall with their release of a study quantifying the estimated costs of climate change to the American public health sector.   They anticipate the price to be in the billions of dollars per year in health impacts alone.  These costs will be seen in increased incidence of ozone pollution, heat waves, hurricanes, infectious disease outbreaks, river flooding, and wildfires in a warming world.

Yet back on Capitol Hill, the fossil fuel lobby, along with our 221 misguided elected officials, would have us believe another story.  It’s just one more chapter in the ever-unfolding story of legislators who disregard the public’s interest for political expediency or gain.

Elsewhere in Washington, however, officials are saying that preparing for climate change by taking precautionary adaptation measures is the wise financial move.  Last week, FEMA administrator, Craig Fugate, noted that

“We cannot afford to continue to respond to disasters and deal with the consequences under the current model. Risk that is not mitigated, that is not considered in return on investment calculations, oftentime steps up false economies. We will reach a point where we can no longer subsidize this.” – FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate

Fugate has it right.  Climate change will be costly.  Will mitigating climate pollution be costly?  Yes.  But will cleaning up from global warming-exacerbated disasters such as hurricanes and sea level rise be preferable?  Definitely not.  As Fugate said—and any businessperson would agree—energy policy should be looking at return on investment.  What we invest now to develop a clean energy economy will be recouped many times over in the years to come.  The costs of climate change have already started racking up—2011 brought us 12 separate natural disasters that cost at least 1 billion dollars each.  The sooner and more aggressively we invest in a clean energy economy, the less we will all pay in the long run.

Chris Carnevale
Chris is SACE’s Climate Advocacy Director. Chris joined the SACE staff in 2011 to help with building public understanding and engagement around clean energy solutions to the climate crisis. Chris…
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