Global warming is one of the greatest challenges of our generation. Addressing this challenge also represents enormous opportunities for economic recovery and long term prosperity.
But sometimes the big picture is lost when just a part of the story is told.
That's just what happened when Douglas Elmendorf, the head of the Congressional Budget Office, testified recently before the Senate Energy Committee about the economic impact of clean energy legislation recently passed by the House of Representatives.
Afterward, a few headlines gave a misleading impression about the implications of addressing the challenge of global warming.
But those reports largely missed what CBO left out of its analysis.
The CBO Director said it himself: "These measures of potential costs do not include any benefits from averting climate change."
Global warming is happening now. Ignoring the long-term costs of doing nothing to avert the most dangerous impacts of a changing climate results in a profoundly incomplete and distorted economic picture.
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that more frequent and intense storms, wildfires in the West, heat waves across the nation, increased droughts and flooding, global instability and conflict, food shortages and more are all among the likely impacts of continued global warming.
Whether or not it was caused or worsened by climate change, the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina provide a window into the kind of world we can expect if global warming continues unabated.
Earlier this month, President Obama visited New Orleans. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina took an estimated 1,700 lives and displaced 1 million people. The total cost of the storm is estimated at well over $100 billion, with some estimates much higher. Four years later, the people of the region are still suffering, and it will take billions more to rebuild the Gulf Coast and protect coastal communities from future storms.
And that's just what one storm cost us. How many of these disasters can we withstand? We must take action to address these real and costly threats.
A closer look at CBO's testimony, and analyses by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Energy Information Administration (EIA), shows that the cost of action is dwarfed by steady growth in the economy.
CBO estimated an average monthly cost of about $13.00 per family in 2020. An EPA analysis estimated a price tag even smaller -- less than a postage stamp per day.
The CBO has also estimated U.S. gross domestic product may be just slightly lower in 2050 (one to three percent) than it would be without comprehensive clean energy legislation, but they didn't put that in context.
Let's think about what that really means. Over the next four decades, our economy is projected more than double in size. According to CBO's estimate, if we act now to address global warming and invest in clean energy, the economy 40 years from now may be about 249 percent bigger, instead of 250 percent bigger. And we'll still get to 250 percent - in May instead of January 2050.
And a recent study from the University of California at Berkeley reports that comprehensive clean energy legislation, coupled with gains in energy efficiency, could produce nearly 2 million new American jobs by 2020.
The CBO director noted, "The uncertainties around the damage of climate change are also great ... many economists believe that the right response to that kind of uncertainty is to take out some insurance ... against some of the worst outcomes."
We are at a crossroads. We can choose a future in which we face the ravages -- and the costs -- of unchecked global warming, while other nations gain the jobs and the economic benefits of investing in clean energy technologies. Or we can act now to transform our economy, create millions of new American jobs, and lead the world in developing and exporting in clean energy technologies while protecting our children from dangerous pollution.
Comprehensive clean energy legislation like the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act that Senator Kerry and I have introduced in the Senate is not only the right choice to transform our economy, create jobs, and make America more secure. It is also our most effective insurance policy against a dangerous future.