David Whitehead: The cost of inaction on climate is unacceptable
How do we process the news that PG&E is the first S&P 500 climate casualty? In Nevada County, we are faced with profound choices about how our society will continue now that our grid’s electricity is not guaranteed.
We are experiencing a climate change impact: failure of an unsustainable electrical power grid system. We are told these failures will continue because low humidity and high winds in the fall are here to stay. How do we respond?
C-Span recently aired a forum presented by World Resources Institute and the Environmental and Energy Study Institute about adaptation and mitigation. Adaptation is our ability to live with climate risks, while mitigation is our ability to reduce those risks. One conclusion of the forum participants was that we must do both simultaneously, because climate change is underway. The faster the pace and total change of our climate, the less effective our adaptation efforts become.
Risk management forms a central part of our economic success story because we can avoid costs and improve economic health. When considering climate risk and costs, we think about how risk could increase over time. As time goes on, more climate change happens, and the risks become greater. Therefore, actions we take now are more effective than actions we take later.
Proactive adaptation is more cost effective: any present day adaptation will result in a 67% reduction of risk, but waiting 15 years will result in only a 50% reduction, and waiting 60 years will result in only a 12-25% reduction in risk. At that point, we will not be able to adapt.
Wildfires cost California $24 billion in 2018. In 2017 the total cost of all extreme events in the USA was $316 billion. We saw agricultural ranges shift and yields decrease, less predictable water supplies, health problems from heat and smog, increased pest range, coastal erosion and infrastructure loss, increased energy disruption, and global supply chain interruptions. By 2050, between $66 to $106 billion worth of property will likely be below sea level nationwide. By 2100, that figure is estimated to rise to $238 billion, and may rise as much as $507 billion. All these climate costs are increasing year over year. We need to adapt before these costs overwhelm our economy.
The benefit-cost ratio for climate adaptation is about 4 to 1. This means that for every dollar we spend today on resilience, we receive four dollars in net economic benefits. These benefits extend from what is called the “triple dividend” of avoided losses, economic productivity benefits, and social/environmental benefits to society at large. Yet we must think about benefit-cost ratios differently, in terms of the costs of what it would take to adapt to even worse impacts. We also need to think about the benefits of adaptation. Up front spending on resiliency means when we rebuild following a destructive event, the new infrastructure will be designed to be stronger and more resilient, or even in a less threatened location. This way we reduce the back-end costs of emergency disaster relief, reconstruction, and lost economic productivity.
We also must mitigate emissions. If we don’t do more to reduce emissions and adapt, by 2075 we will spend tens of billions of dollars each year in federal disaster relief due to rising sea levels, hurricanes, droughts, and floods. Droughts will decrease crop production. Federal subsidies for crop insurance premiums will go up, as well as payouts. Federal military costs will increase as 3,500 military installations will be impacted by rising seas and temperatures.
The most cost effective and inexpensive method to reduce emissions is carbon pricing. There are over 15 bills before Congress that would initiate some form of national carbon pricing to reduce emissions. I’m in favor of Carbon Fee and Dividend, but perhaps you prefer another approach. We can all study the options and then take action.
We know how to reverse these trends. The technologies and policy solutions needed to solve climate change are known to mankind. All that is needed is political will. Citizens like you and me can create political will, even when our congressional representatives are resistant or uninformed. We can tell them what we want them to do to solve climate change. But we must be heard.
To be heard, we must write, call, and email our Congress, our City Council, and our Board of Supervisors. We want mitigation policies like HR 763 The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. We want adaptation policies like electrical grid resilience and infrastructure hardening. Let’s make it crystal clear.
David Whitehead is the group leader of the Nevada County Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Education/Lobby. He lives in Grass Valley.
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