By Peter Lehner & Cas Holloway
In acting this week to complete a $60-billion package of emergency aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy in the New York region, Congress came face-to-face with the rising costs that climate change is imposing on the nation.
The region badly needs the assistance, and Congress did the right thing to provide it. Sixty billion dollars is a hefty price tag for a single storm, but American taxpayers should be braced to pay a far higher price for the ongoing ravages of climate change unless we act now to confront this widening scourge.
While Sandy's devastation was unprecedented, it was not unforeseen.
Eight years ago, the risk to New York City of precisely this type of destruction was foretold in a lawsuit asserting that regional power companies were filling our air with the industrial carbon pollution that contributes to global climate change.
In the 2004 suit, New York City joined New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and five other states to ask that the five largest carbon polluters in the country -- the American Electric Power Co. and four other major electricity generators -- be required to cut the annual carbon emissions from their coal-fired power plants by 3 percent each year for a decade.
Why? Rising sea levels -- a direct result of climate change -- posed a grave and gathering danger to the region's coastal areas, the suit asserted. Storms that historically hit just once a century would become more commonplace. Rising seas would strengthen storm surges, causing greater flooding. Human life would be jeopardized.
Damages to homes, businesses, airports, subway systems and more would soar.
The case wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court. In its 2011 ruling, the high court stopped short of ordering carbon reductions. The court made clear, though, that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority, and the responsibility, to take action to reduce climate changing pollution.
Climate change might not have caused Sandy, but it certainly made the storm worse. Sandy was stoked by warmer oceans, the result of global warming. It was amped up by rising sea levels. And a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, so, when the storm came, it packed more of a punch.
The results were devastating. Sandy caused 132 deaths-43 in New York City alone- and estimated damages that totaled $82 billion just in the states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Businesses, schools and subways shut down across New York City. Some 8.5 million homes lost power across 16 states and Washington D.C.
Sandy, moreover, was only the latest calling card from the future face of climate change.
We've just wrapped up the hottest year on record in the continental United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports, and our hottest decade ever.
In our 2004 suit, we warned of rising sea levels, just as those that contributed to Sandy's damage. Our co-plaintiffs the states of Iowa and Wisconsin foresaw drought -- the very kind farmers and ranchers are reeling from nationwide. The the state of California predicted worsening wildfires -- the kind that burned 9.2 million acres of forests and fields last year alone.
These costly and dangerous weather extremes are hitting us more often than before, as climate change unleashes its fury faster and more violently every year.
The carbon pollution from burning coal and other fossil fuels is accelerating climate chaos. Unless we take action now, all of this will only get worse, and we will face a future of more heat, floods, drought, fires and storms.
Coal-fired power plants -- the very sort we targeted in our 2004 suit -- account for nearly 40 percent of U.S. carbon pollution. Using his authority under the Clean Air Act, President Obama can cut that pollution 26 percent by 2020 -- and he can do it in a low-cost way that saves lives, trims electric bills for our families and creates thousands of clean-energy jobs.
The president can direct the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards for power plant carbon reductions that reflect each state's individual energy mix. Utility companies would find the most cost-effective way to hit the targets.
Some may choose to improve the combustion rates in their power plants. Others might install equipment to capture carbon before it's released into the atmosphere. Some could opt to shift generation toward low-carbon sources. Still others might promote energy efficiency to help consumers power more with less.
This can be done at a cost to the electric industry of just 1 percent of its revenues. And it will provide $15 in climate protection and public health benefits for every $1 industry invests in cleaning up its smokestacks and helping customers to weatherize their homes and convert to more efficient light bulbs and appliances.
President Obama got it exactly right last week when he placed climate at the center of his second term agenda. "We will respond to the threat of climate change," he vowed in his second inaugural address, "knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."
That future is now upon us, as Sandy's wrath so tragically shows. We must rise to the challenge of climate change or be swallowed whole by ever more costly disasters to come.
Before becoming Executive Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Peter Lehner was counsel for New York State in the 2004 lawsuit. Cas Holloway is New York City's Deputy Mayor for Operations.