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Does Obama's Climate Speech Signal New Era of Polluter Liability for Weather Disasters?

06/25/2013 07:56 pm ET | Updated Aug 25, 2013

President Barack Obama's speech on climate change may augur a new era of liability for carbon polluters with respect to climate and weather damages. In his address at Georgetown University on Tuesday, the president laid out the logic that ties greenhouse emissions to economic costs being borne today:

Global warming influences all weather events: "in a world that's warmer than it used to be, all weather events are affected by a warming planet"

There are economic costs from extreme weather: "Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction in insurance premiums, state and local taxes, and the costs of rebuilding and disaster relief"

Global warming is caused by human activity: "Ninety-seven percent of scientists . . . have acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it."

Carbon pollution will continue to increase weather damages: "The hard truth is carbon pollution has built up in our atmosphere for decades now. And even if we Americans do our part, the planet will slowly keep warming for some time to come. The seas will slowly keep rising and storms will get more severe, based on the science."

President Obama highlighted Superstorm Sandy as a specific example of a multi-billion-dollar disaster exacerbated by carbon pollution, noting "[t]he fact that sea level in New York, in New York Harbor, are now a foot higher than a century ago -- that didn't cause Hurricane Sandy, but it certainly contributed to the destruction that left large parts of our mightiest city dark and underwater."

The $51 billion Sandy federal relief bill was an emergency spending bill that was limited by the sequestration cuts. A majority of Republicans called for pay-fors for the bill. No attempt was made to derive funding from greenhouse emitters or financiers -- such as those who make up the wealthiest residents of the New York City region.

Currently, disaster relief and flood and drought insurance programs are treated as discretionary or emergency spending that goes against state and federal budgets. No civil or criminal liability is assumed by emitters of greenhouse gases. The president's remarks may indicate a new effort to have carbon-producing and financing industries bear the responsibility for the societal costs of extreme weather, sea level rise, and climatic disruptions.