This is a guest post by Emily Logan of Care2.
When activists talk about climate change, we often focus on impacts. We show how Superstorm Sandy mangled the Jersey Shore, how the severe California drought reduced reservoirs to puddles, and introduce people to children suffering from asthma. We tell folks that climate change makes all of these impacts more likely, more frequent and more severe.
But for people skeptical of climate change—either of its science or, like the Chris Christies of the world, of the need for humanity to do anything about it—sometimes these stories aren’t enough. When facing the choice of spending our country’s limited resources on drastically reducing our fossil fuel production and fortifying our cities against sea level rise or investing in economic stimulus or tax cuts, it helps to speak the opposition’s language: dollars.
Lots of people have tried to do just that. In fact, we even have definitive numbers about the price of each metric ton of carbon we produce. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the social cost of carbon is anywhere between $11 and $68 per metric ton of carbon dioxide and likely to more than double by midcentury.
Others have tried to grasp the whole picture. In 2014, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sparked headlines with its calculation that helping developing nations cope with climate impacts could cost the world half a trillion dollars annually by midcentury. That’s the low estimate should the world not find a way to meet the 2 degree goal set at the Paris Climate Talks.
When looking at these estimates and making the economic case for climate action, I find it helpful to think of three big ways climate change affects the bottom line:
1. Cost of disasters
While no one storm, drought, tornado or flood can be specifically attributed to climate change, we do know with certainty that climate change will make extreme weather events like Hurricane Katrina, the 2012 western wildfires and California drought more frequent and severe. In 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) counted 10 billion-dollar disasters from floods in South Carolina to wildfires in Alaska. While each year is idiosyncratic, the trend is clear: In the last 35 years, we’ve seen an increasing number of billion dollar disasters. NOAA itself admits that, if anything, their dollar estimates are systematically too low.
Wrapped into this is the cost of dealing with the change that’s already inevitable, including several feet of sea level rise. In the 1990s the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands spent 660 million euros to construct a massive storm surge barrier to protect the low-lying city. To similarly protect New York City from sea level rise as its elevation drops, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg estimated $20 billion. Magnified out to the hundreds of coastal cities and billions of people living in future floodplains, sea level rise alone poses an exorbitant cost.
2. Cost of displacement
Climate change is poised to exact a massive toll on people and communities. That can be measured not just in the human cost, but also in the real cost of displacement of people and commerce and resulting conflict. It’s already happening: In 2013, the Guardian published the story of Newtok, Alaska, home to America’s first climate refugees, made so by the sea’s encroachment on their town.
The United Nations Refugee Agency and other NGOs are still grappling with how to calculate the cost of climate-related displacement. These costs would at minimum include people’s loss of land, property and livelihood, and they would include the services required to manage refugee camps and resettlement. But there are also indirect costs from indirect impacts. Climate change is projected to make the already dry Middle East hotter and drier, precipitating conflict over water, especially when people are forced to abandon places where human life is no longer supported. Wars and other security issues can cost trillions above and beyond the basic economic losses endured by those who are forced to migrate.
3. Cost of delay
By failing to square with climate change and make changes decades ago, we’ve already set unstoppable environmental changes into motion. This means that we no longer have the choice between reducing carbon pollution and adapting for a warmer climate. We have to do both. But the longer we wait while continuing to emit large quantities of carbon, the more we’ll need to cut to avert catastrophe. This will create a bigger disruption in the world economy with profound impacts for industry, government and individual incomes, financial security and quality of life.
Furthermore, the longer we wait and the more greenhouse gases we spew into the atmosphere, the greater the warming and the more pronounced the impacts will be. An alarming study published in Nature in November 2015 by a team from UC Berkeley and Stanford found that not only are there direct costs to dealing with climate impacts, but as countries warm, they can expect to be working with fewer resources. Looking at decades of historical data, they found that as countries warmed past an average of 55 degrees Fahrenheit, their economic performance decreased. That makes future generations less capable of paying for the climate impacts we’re racking up today.
The numbers make the way forward clear: Not only is it unethical to continue on our destructive, we simply cannot afford inaction on climate.
Emily Logan is Director of Acquisition and Retention at Care2, where her team works with member activists to spread the word about their petitions, builds petition campaigns into full-scale organizing efforts, and helps keep current Care2 members happy and engaged. In her time at Care2 she has also worked extensively with hundreds of nonprofit organizations to help recruit activists and donors and build out their online strategies. Emily has a B.S. in journalism and a B.A. in music from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and currently lives in rainy Portland, Oregon with her cat, Ostrich.