Global temperatures were the highest on record in 2016 for the third straight year, scientists at NASA and elsewhere reported last week. This is just the latest proof of rapid climate change that has experts and governments around the world deeply alarmed. And yet President Trump and many other Republicans have so far paid no political price for questioning or downplaying the scientific evidence on climate change and undermining environmental policies that reduce risk.
One reason for their apparent immunity is that climate denialists exaggerate the economic costs of laws that aim to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, advocates of effective climate policies have lacked hard numbers on the current and future economic toll of global warming.
But this is starting to change. Over the past several years, a number of peer-reviewed studies have established that climate change is already costing American taxpayers and consumers tens of billions of dollars. As these costs to businesses, states and the federal budget mount, Trump and Congress may finally face pressure to act.
Last year, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences issued a report stating that, in many instances across the country, climate change is increasing the likelihood and scope of extreme weather events. One example is the storm that produced record floods in Louisiana in August. In a study released the following month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that climate change had made these August floods — which destroyed or damaged more than 100,000 homes and cost taxpayers $15 billion — at least 40% more likely. The storm was so expensive that the federal government had to cover 90% of the emergency costs, rather than the usual 75%, because Louisiana simply didn’t have the money.
A similar burden has been placed on taxpayers by ever more severe wildfires, the costs of which now consume more than half of the entire Forest Service budget, up from 15% in 1990. A recent study by the University of Idaho and Columbia University concluded that climate change is a main reason why yearly wildfires today burn twice the amount of forest they did in 1984, devastating an additional acreage that is larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.
This trend shows no signs of slowing. The frequency of wildfires on public land in the West has increased 500% in the last 40 years, according to LeRoy Westerling, an expert on climate and wildfires at UC Merced. And because average forest temperatures in the West have increased by 2.5 degrees since 1970, other researchers say that the size of wildfires will continue to grow exponentially in the coming years.
California is among the many states facing hefty new costs due to global warming. A 2015 paper by the National Academy of Sciences found the state’s drought was worsened significantly by high temperatures caused by climate change. Higher temperatures also mean more precipitation in the Sierra arrives as rain instead of snow, threatening industries and cities that depend on snowpack for water, according to an analysis released last year by Climate Central.
Another study, by the Risky Business Coalition, has determined that climate change will threaten California’s coastal infrastructure, the Central Valley’s agricultural bounty and even the state’s overall labor productivity, as extreme heat makes outdoor labor increasingly hazardous.
Critically, these and other analyses have found that adopting better climate policies now would lower future costs. Indeed, effective climate policies helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 10% in the U.S. during the Obama years, while the economy as a whole grew by more than 15%.
Climate change does not make all severe weather events larger or more frequent. Researchers have not established a connection between warming and the recent droughts in Brazil or the floods in Chennai, India. But scientists are finding strong correlations between rising temperatures and heat waves, increased intensity of tropical storms and precipitation, larger wildfires and coastal storm surge. Most climate scientists believe that October’s Hurricane Matthew, for instance, which cost the U.S. more than $10 billion, was made substantially stronger because of warming Caribbean waters.
The damage left by severe weather is growing our federal debt. A report released last month by the Office of Management and Budget warns of billions in additional costs related to climate change. “The total fiscal impact quantified to date could be equivalent to as much as 15 percent of total federal discretionary spending by late century,” it said.
As president, Trump is responsible for responding to — and protecting the American people from — damage caused by extreme weather. Instead of rolling back programs that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Trump, his nominees and the new Congress should recognize that the safety and economic well-being of the American people are at profound risk. They have a moral and economic obligation to act.