Fighting for solutions over fightingIt’s often easy to answer the question “How much will a policy cost?” when discussing climate change. But what’s left out of these conversations is the even higher financial toll of doing nothing.
Yes, that’s right. Climate experts warn that ignoring climate change is a costly option. We’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the decade. Perhaps even worse.
“We only talk about the costs of doing something about the problem,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s been really remarkable how infrequently we talk about the costs of not solving the problem, which are almost incalculably large.”
Democrats have begun leaning into the “climate inaction costs more” idea, desperate to convey the message to voters. “And every day we delay, the cost of inaction increases,” saidThis week, President Joe Biden. “The most unaffordable path forward is inaction,” saidRobert Reich, former secretary to labor. “Climate action is much more affordable than climate inaction,” wrote Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
Bold climate solutions come at a high price, with some of the most outrageous prices in the world. Biden proposed $555 billion for climate policiesIn his bill “Build Back Better”. The US is one of many countries this week that collectively pledged roughly $19 billionPublic and private funds to end deforestation by 2030. That’s all on top of the $100 billion a year by 2020 that developed nations promised developing nations back in 2009 and have not yet delivered.
It is difficult to put a dollar value on the climate inaction costs. The crisis’s sheer size, which has already impacted every part of the globe, is a major reason. How can you price everything that could be lost from a small-known animal to a sacred cultural place?
I set out to find the answer. After speaking with about half a dozen climate scientists, economists, and policy experts, I didn’t find one go-to number — I found a handful.
1. Climate change could bring a shock similar to COVID to the economy every five year by 2030.
A simple way to estimate the cost of climate inaction is to use a percentage of gross national product (or GDP).
A 2020 paperIf current warming levels continue, the climate costs to the US by the end this decade have been calculated.
“Drawing on recent research on the impact of temperature and hurricanes on economic activity, we estimate that by 2030, climate change will be costing the US economy around 1.2% of GDP per year,” study author Trevor Houser, a partner with the research organization Rhodium Group, told BuzzFeed News in an email.
That’s equivalent to about $240 billion a year, calculated with today’s $20.4 trillion US GDP rate.
Houser performed a back of the envelope calculation to compare that 1.2% number to the way that the COVID-19 epidemic decimated US GDP in 2019. “That’s roughly equivalent to having a COVID-style economic shock once every five years,” he said.
The pandemic has claimed over 750,000 lives across the US. Unemployment soared to 13%. The situation was so dire that millions of Americans were left without a steady income, the US government intervened. eviction moratorium. One point: the World Bank described the pandemic’s knock on the global economy as the worst recession since World World II.
Imagine the US economy suffering that every five years starting next decade. Houser found that climate costs will rise over time and could reach 1.8% of GDP by the middle of the century.
These estimates aren’t exhaustive, but instead really just the lower bound of possible costs.
Plus, they don’t cover what researchers call “non-market effects,” such as health impacts, noted Frances Moore, an assistant professor focused on economics and climate change at the University of California, Davis.
These analyses assume that the global markets and global trade will continue as normal as the world heats. But this could not be true.
“In a world with irregular, disruptive, extreme weather, it’s not hard to imagine that all sorts of the mechanisms which keep this backdrop functioning are going to themselves start cracking up,” said Daniel Crow, a modeler at the International Energy Agency.
2. Already, climate change has caused Billions Extreme weather damage.
Climate change is already causing a lot of damage.
In a study published in Nature Communications earlier this year, a group of researchers examined the effects of smoking on lung function. researchers estimated that about $8.1 billionClimate-linked sea levels rise could be to blame for the $60 billion in Hurricane Sandy damages in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut.
Sandy did not have especially strong winds for a tropical cyclone — the storm no longer had hurricaneStatus at the time it made landfall on October 29, 2012. It was enormous, arrived at the highest point of high tide, and struck some the most populated parts of the country. The storm surge that flooded farinland resulted in catastrophic damage. Sandy knocked out power to 4 million people and affected more 340,000 homes. according to FEMA. More than 60 people diedIn the tristate area alone.
Sandy was studied by scientists who determined that global warming could cause sea level rise of less than 4 inches. They then calculated the difference in damage by mapping out flooding with and without global warming.
“Fewer than 4 inches of sea level rise caused an extra 8 billion dollars worth of damage during a single storm event,” Scott Kulp, one of the study authors, told BuzzFeed News by email. “Another 6 inches of sea level rise are projected between now and 2050, which will cause progressively higher, more frequent, and more damaging floods across the global coastline.”
A studyThe journal Climatic Change published a different method to quantify the climate-caused damage of Hurricane Harvey, which was the second-most expensive recent hurricane in US history.
Harvey set records for historic rainfall. After making landfall twice on the Texas coast on August 5, 2017, Harvey unleashed its historic rainfall. upwards of 60 inches of rain. Highways were underwater. Streets were littered with abandoned cars. The region was flooded with people, businesses, and apartments. More than 60 people perished.
Of the $85 billion to $125 billion in damages caused by Harvey’s historic flooding, the researchers found about $13 billion of that can be attributable to climate change.
Michael Wehner (primary author of the study), had previously determined that climate changes were likely. increased the storm’s precipitationBetween 19% and 38% Christopher Sampson, his colleague, calculated how much flooding and damage resulted from the extra water in this new study.
“At the end of the day, our best estimate is that 14% to 15% of the cost of flooding during Hurricane Harvey is because of climate change, which doesn’t sound like a lot,” Wehner told BuzzFeed News. “But $13 billion does.”
3. Climate change could lead to trillion-dollar Future disasters
You can also model a future catastrophe and its possible damage to estimate the potential costs of climate inaction.
A team of researchers are doing that, inspired by a terrible disaster from California’s past: a series of storms that hit in 1861–62 and are estimated to have killed about 1% of the state’s population at the time.
“One of the things we’re currently looking at — it’s sort of a mega-storm planning scenario,” said Swain of the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s for a huge flood event. It’s called ARkStorm. This one is the 2.0 version because the original one didn’t include anything about climate change.”
The original ARkStorm project, completed a decade ago, simulated what would be the fallout if a series of widespread flooding events, similar in size and magnitude to the 1861–62 storms, were to hit now. It was considered unlikely but possible that such an event would occur. And the results were bleak — about 1.5 million people would likely need to be evacuated and the cost of the disaster was estimated at $725 billion. The cost of the disaster is estimated at more than $900 billion in current dollars.
Factoring in climate change, which will only make such an event more likely, “it probably would be a trillion-dollar disaster, if not more,” said Swain, who is contributing to the ongoing research. “That’s just one specific hypothetical example of one major regional disaster for which the odds are increasing due to climate change.”
“There’s no reason why this couldn’t happen more than once in the same region,” he continued, “and there are infinitely many different scenarios you can come up with like this.”
The future could bring on trillion-dollar storms, which puts climate policies’ current costs into perspective.
“All of a sudden talking about a $3 trillion or $4 trillion package that only peripherally has to do with climate change doesn’t sound like a lot of money,” Swain said. ●