Lew: Climate change hits all sectors of economy

Treasury Secretary Jack LewJack LewWyden seeks IRS info on firms linked to Panama Papers Treasury issues rules cracking down on offshore tax deals Overnight Finance: Jobless claims near record low | Cops bust IRS phone scam in India | Republican demands Iran sanctions docs MORE said that every sector of the economy is threatened by climate change, calling it "one of the most important challenges of our time."

In what the White House characterized as a "first of its kind" speech for a sitting Treasury secretary, Lew said what the U.S. and other countries do in the "next few months, and years to address" climate change will "determine our nation's future."

During a talk at the Brookings Institute on Monday, Lew argued that as an "economic matter" climate inaction would cost more than action. 

"Costs associated with extreme weather events like rising sea levels, drought, heat waves, wildfires, floods, and severe storms demonstrate the scope of economic exposure," Lew said.

"The economic cost of climate change is not limited to one sector of our economy. It threatens our agricultural productivity, our transportation infrastructure and power grids, and drives up the incidence of costly healthcare problems," Lew added.

The area which inflicts one of the heaviest climate change burdens on the economy, Lew said, is infrastructure.

"Our water and sewer systems, our power plants and power grids, and our roads and airports were not designed or built for the extreme climate conditions that we are facing now and expect to face in coming decades," Lew said.

That creates a major problem when infrastructure is "fundamental to our economy's productivity and competitiveness," he added.

On top of that, Lew said, when the federal government has to pay for disaster relief, flood insurance, wildfires, exacerbated by climate change, then taxpayers feel the brunt of the cost.

"Global action is imperative, and it is a good investment in global economic growth," Lew said. "We must adopt a risk-management approach to climate change."

Opponents of the president's climate agenda argue U.S. leadership on global warming will hurt the economy, and drive up energy prices. 

The likelihood of any legislation aimed at mitigating climate change passing Congress is slim, especially given Republican skepticism with the science. 

But Lew says "whether or not legislation can be enacted is separate from whether or not the public is focused on it and whether we can take action to deal with it."

He added that the commitments the U.S. makes internationally "matter."