The Economic Toll of Climate Change

08/13/2013 11:37 am 11:37:50 | Updated Oct 13, 2013

The case Congressional Republicans are making is misguided. They argue that regulations on oil and gas companies to limit greenhouse gas emissions will make it harder for these companies' executives to hire more workers (even while they retain millions of dollars in their bank accounts). While regulations might take a toll on these companies' ability to "create jobs," the toll climate change could take on our economy will be far more catastrophic, damaging our energy and agricultural sectors, and ruining the livelihoods of thousands of people working in these economic areas.

Climate change increases the potency of extreme weather events, as evidenced by the intense hurricanes and storms of recent years. The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) of the NOAA estimated that "11 weather and climate disaster events" caused over $110 billion in economic losses across the U.S. in 2012. The agency puts down 2012 as the second costliest year on record, after 2005 (Hurricane Katrina), due to these extreme weather events.

Climate change also increases the duration and potency of droughts. During the summer of 2012, the NCDC said about 55% of the U.S. was in "moderate short-term drought," with the month of June ranking as the "third-driest month nationally in at least 118 years." In the July of that summer, the USDA declared nearly 1,300 counties across 29 states "natural disaster zones."

Corn, soybean, and other crop yields suffered tremendously. The government had to issue record payouts for crop-insurance claims, with farmers collecting around $11.58 billion for 2012. In 2011, the payout was $10.843 billion, and in 2010, it was far lower at $4.251 billion. Whether it's too dry or too wet our agricultural sector suffers. Crops can also be at risk from too much precipitation in addition to too little. Torrential rains decimated soybean and corn crops this past spring. Evidently, climate change will put the livelihoods of people in the agricultural industry at high risk.

A July 2013 report from the Department of Energy (DOE) delineates how the energy sector is also at severe risk. Decreasing water availability would strain oil and gas production that already uses inefficient quantities of water for extraction. Shoreline energy infrastructure is at risk of being damaged from rising sea levels and stronger coastal storms. Changing precipitation patterns could affect renewable energy sources like hydropower and solar, decreasing river flow and sunlight exposure. Stronger extreme weather could cause physical damage to the power grid itself, decimating power lines, and hinder energy transmission. If we want to avoid this, our energy infrastructure must change to both help mitigate (i.e. through lower emissions) and resist such extreme weather.

The damage wrought on seaside energy infrastructure is especially troubling, as it would impede the growth of offshore wind energy. Despite its numerous advantages, one of the main problems critics point out about wind energy is that the wind can be unreliable and weak on land. Offshore wind speeds, however, are much faster and would give us more bang for our buck with each windmill. The irony is that if we don't act upon climate change soon enough, we could lose the chance to implement a key component of an effective climate solution.

According to the NCDC, extreme weather events have wrought more economic damage in 2005 and 2012 alone than any other time period since 1980. As we continued to pump CO2 into the atmosphere through the 20th century, the subsequent higher ambient temperatures increase the frequency and potency of extreme weather. Do we need to have our economy wrecked for Congress to pass the necessary and imperative climate regulations? Is the empirical data insufficient?

Of course, climate change is not caused by the U.S. alone. It is a global phenomenon, and actors worldwide contribute to the problem with their own heavy emissions. Some make the argument that this excuses us from taking action in the present. But should we really hold ourselves to the same standards as developing nations and those with the capacity, but who are unwilling to tackle climate change?

The U.S. can lead by example and build up the international momentum to get others, especially China, to act on this pressing issue. This is, of course, extremely ambitious. The multi-lateral approach of the Kyoto Protocol has so far proven unsuccessful at getting the two largest CO2 emitters in the world, the U.S. and China, to set binding targets. But we have seen in the past that bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and China have had some positive outcomes in terms of setting incremental goals to tackle climate change, with both parties acknowledging the detrimental effects changing weather places on their economies.

As President Obama forecast in his Georgetown speech, climate change will continue to strengthen devastating weather events if the world at large continues to pump carbon into the atmosphere. So-called "climate-deniers" in Congress need to wise up and realize that the scientific consensus on climate change and its effects exists. Failure to do so will result in the perpetuation of emissions that will further exacerbate extreme weather, contributing to the decimation of our agricultural and energy, and sectors. Unless Congress wants to allow this climatic detriment to our economy to continue, it must get behind the president's initiative (corporate lobby interests hopefully notwithstanding).