03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

We're Number One (in Financial Damage From Climate Change)

This week, just in time for the Copenhagen climate convention, the annual Global Climate Risk Index was released, telling how vulnerable each country in the world is to the costs of climate change. Guess who was number one in financial losses from climate change? The United States.

Surprised? There's a reason you haven't heard much about the extent of climate change threat to the US. Strange bedfellows are trying to conceal the threat posed to the US by global warming. No, they're not the crowd that denies global warming even exists, or that it isn't caused by man-made greenhouse gasses. They're people who don't deny the scientific findings about climate change, but who for political reasons underplay its devastating impact on the US.

One group of strange bedfellows is the advocates from and for developing countries who emphasize the indisputable face that the impact of climate change will be most devastating for the poor countries of the global South. They argue that the rich countries are overwhelmingly responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, but the effects are disproportionately on the poor countries. They use this argument to justify their demand that the costs of climate change fall on the rich rather than the poor. However valid their argument, it tends to obscure the damage that is occurring to rich countries as well.

The other group of unlikely allies is advocates for the fossil fuel producers and users who don't want to sound like anti-scientific cranks, but who want to be free to go on pouring carbon pollution into the atmosphere. They downplay the fact that climate change is already having devastating impacts on the US.

Even on the broader ranking that includes deaths as well as financial losses, the US was number eighteen of the world's 176 nations. For the year 2008, we were number five.

The Global Climate Risk Index uses the most reliable available data to evaluate the impact of extreme weather events. While no single event can be attributed to a single cause, the overall increase in extreme weather events corresponds to scientific predictions based on rising greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. As the study notes, climate change is "an increasingly important factor for the occurrence and intensity of these events."

These figures include only extreme weather events. The real cost of global warming for the US would also have to include rising sea levels, water shortages, species extinctions, expanding diseases, agricultural costs, forest fires, and many other factors.

Americans need to start thinking of climate protection not just as something we might do to help the most threatened people in poor countries, but as something we must do together with them to protect both them and ourselves. It's not a question of charity, nor just a question of whether we owe developing countries a "climate debt." It is a question of mutual self-interest.

And those Americans who think protecting the climate is too expensive had better start reckoning with what the real costs of climate change are going to be for us.

[Drafted with Jeremy Brecher and cross-posted with the Labor Network For Sustainability]