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As Congress debates how much to spend fighting climate change, experts warn doing nothing will cost more

·Senior Climate Editor
·6-min read
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With Congress deadlocked on the passage of climate change legislation contained in President Biden’s 10-year, $3.5 trillion infrastructure plan, experts are warning that the cost of doing nothing will be much higher.

In a 2019 report, the federal government estimated that the United States could lose 10.5 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), or total economic output, to climate change — mostly because of more frequent and severe extreme weather events — by the end of this century. But the same report found that concerted action to prevent catastrophic climate change could stave off those losses. If countries cut greenhouse gas emissions to match the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the U.S. might experience just a 1.1 percent loss in GDP per capita.

Biden’s Build Back Better agenda contains a host of other provisions, including prescription drug pricing reform and support for families with children, but environmentalists say its measures to encourage utilities to switch to clean energy and consumers to buy electric vehicles would put the U.S. on the path it committed to in Paris of halving its carbon emissions by 2030.

Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin
Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., after a private meeting between the two of them on Capitol Hill on Thursday. (Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Democratic Party is currently embroiled in an internecine debate over the size of the spending package so bitter that activists are confronting Senate holdouts Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — who say the price is too steep — at home and even in the bathroom.

But climate change activists and experts ask, too steep compared with what? This year, after a summer of unprecedented heat waves, wildfires and hurricanes, the cost of damage from natural disasters will exceed $100 billion in the United States alone, surpassing last year’s record high of $99 billion. Those dollar figures don’t account for the human toll — dozens of lives lost.

“If you project out 50 or 100 years, the gap between where we could have been without climate change and where we are with climate change is enormous, probably equivalent to the size of the whole economy today,” James Rising, a professor in the school of marine science and policy at the University of Delaware, told Yahoo News.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found that extreme weather events have become much more common in recent decades because of climate change. They will be even more common in the future if the world continues its reliance on fossil fuels, which will mean the costs of lost property and economic activity are expected to be far greater. One recent study in Science magazine found that if global temperatures keep rising at their current rate, a 6-year-old child today will experience “twice as many wildfires, 1.7 times as many tropical cyclones, 3.4 times more river floods, 2.5 more crop failures and 2.3 times as many droughts as someone born in 1960,” according to the Washington Post.

The Blue Ridge Fire
The Blue Ridge Fire comes to Chino Hills, Calif., in October 2020. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Extreme weather isn’t the only way that climate change depresses economic activity. Heat waves and air pollution shorten lives and lower productivity, in part by forcing workers to take sick days. Droughts and floods will damage crop yields. Due to rising sea levels, valuable waterfront property from Miami Beach to New York City’s Financial District may be uninhabitable by the century’s end.

According to a 2017 study in Science, if the world continues on its current course, climate change is likely to cost the U.S. 4 percent of its gross domestic product every year. Based on the total U.S. economy’s current size, that would be $840 billion annually, and it will go up in the future.

That’s a relatively conservative estimate. The more up-to-date an estimate of climate change’s toll is, the worse it gets. That’s because, with each passing year, scientists find that global warming is happening faster than expected and the negative effects of that warming, such as rising sea levels, are happening faster too.

A paper published last month in the journal Environmental Research Letters updated previous climate models to account for those newer findings and predicted that without action to limit climate change, global GDP will experience a 37 percent loss, equivalent to a $300 trillion loss per year by 2100.

The San Gabriel Reservoir
The exposed lake bed of the San Gabriel Reservoir in Azusa, Calif., is the result of ongoing drought conditions. (David McNew/Getty Images)

This is partly because some of those faster-than-expected effects of climate change contribute to making the process even worse. “There are climate feedbacks in the system — like the way the polar ice caps melt and the ocean absorbs more radiative energy — that are happening faster than previously imagined,” Rising, a co-author of the paper, explained.

These losses will begin to accumulate long before the end of the century. “The effects of climate change can be expected to shave 11 percent to 14 percent off global economic output by 2050 compared with growth levels without climate change, according to a report from Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest providers of insurance to other insurance companies,” the New York Times reported in April. “That amounts to as much as $23 trillion in reduced annual global economic output worldwide as a result of climate change.”

Those global losses won’t be evenly distributed. Poor countries with warm weather and largely coastal populations — places like Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh and small island nations from the Caribbean to the South Pacific — will be especially vulnerable.

And while Americans in inland states might think that has little to do with them, they need only look at the destabilizing effects of refugee crises around the world to see what their future may hold when hundreds of millions of people have been displaced.

Joe Biden
President Biden touting the bipartisan infrastructure bill and his Build Back Better agenda in Howell, Mich., on Tuesday. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Of course, Biden’s plans won’t singlehandedly stop climate change in its tracks. The U.S. accounts for only 15 percent of current greenhouse gas emissions, and Biden already compromised with moderates in his party by limiting his proposed spending to far less than what scientists say is needed to eliminate American climate pollution. As HuffPost’s Alexander Kauffman reported earlier this year, “Most estimates say it would take more like 4-5% of GDP, or nearly $1 trillion per year over 10 years, to fully decarbonize the U.S. economy.”

But Biden’s plan is meant to be only a first step to help secure global climate action. The successor to the 2015 Paris agreement will be negotiated next month at the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. The Biden administration hopes to arrive with strong U.S. actions to limit its own emissions in hand so that it can credibly call on other large economies, such as China, to do the same.

So Biden’s allies are trying to convince skeptics in their own party that cutting spending on clean energy is penny wise but pound foolish. As House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said to the Associated Press last week, “The climate crisis is here, and the cost of inaction is already staggering.”

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