Harvey, Irma show the skyrocketing costs of climate change

Harvey, Irma show the skyrocketing costs of climate change
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Even as Congress passed $15 billion in initial funding for Hurricane Harvey relief, Americans were glued to their TVs watching Hurricane Irma, the strongest-ever Atlantic storm, bear down on Florida, where millions are still without power and other services. 

Sadly, Congress, and the rest of us, had better get used to it. Harvey and Irma are just glimpses of the massive extra costs climate change is already extracting from U.S. taxpayers, a price tag that will only grow exponentially in coming years. 

In December, the Office of Management and Budget released a report warning of tens of billions in additional costs from wildfires, crop insurance, flood insurance, health-care spending and other impacts related to climate change.  


As much as “15 percent of total federal discretionary spending by late-century," could be caused by climate change, the OMB said.

Yet, tens of billions in taxpayer costs from climate change are already evident now. Take the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a program more than $25 billion in debt, which Congress in the same Harvey-funding bill shored up for only two more months. Most Americans lack any flood insurance, with uninsured rates often reaching 80 percent in the hardest hit areas.

Reforms in the NFIP are needed and could reduce some costs, but the fundamental problem of more extreme precipitation has gotten much worse over last 50 years, according to the National Climate Assessment, and will only become more serious as a warming atmosphere holds more moisture.

Last fall, record floods in the Baton Rouge area that destroyed or damaged more than 100,000 homes and cost $15 billion were made twice as likely because of climate change, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study

Federal taxpayers picked up 90 percent of the tab. Hurricane Matthew, which devastated North Carolina last year and cost an additional $12 billion, was made larger because of climate change, according to leading scientists. 

Indeed, despite the obfuscations of Trump administration officials, like Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryWhite House advisers preparing to launch nonprofit to promote Trump policies: report Chip Roy fends off challenge from Wendy Davis to win reelection in Texas The Memo: Texas could deliver political earthquake MORE and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA finalizes 'secret science' rule, limiting use of public health research | Trump administration finalizes rollback of migratory bird protections | Kerry raises hopes for focus on climate security at NSC EPA finalizes 'secret science' rule, limiting use of public health research White House appears to conclude review of EPA 'secret science' rule MORE, scientists know that climate change is making hurricanes stronger. 


As Greg Holland, a hurricane expert at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, put it, “Climate change has already produced a substantial increase in the proportion of intense hurricanes. ... An active season now will tend to have a higher number of intense hurricanes than the same season 20 years ago.”

The reason is that Gulf, Caribbean and Atlantic water temperatures are now 1-3 degrees higher now than in the first half of the 20th century. For every degree of water temperature increase, there is a 4-percent increase in atmospheric moisture that makes storms larger and more intense.

It’s not just hurricanes and extreme storms. Climate change is acting as a force multiplier for wildfires, heat waves, sea-level rise, infectious disease and other impacts that increase federal budget costs.

Today, more than half of the entire U.S. Forest Service (USFS) budget is burned up just fighting wildfires; in 1990, fires consumed only 15 percent of USFS costs. Leading researchers find that climate change is a key reason U.S. wildfires now burn twice the forest area they did in 1984. 

Forest temperatures in the western U.S. have risen by 2.5 degrees since 1970, experts say, so we can expect both more frequent and bigger fires along with ballooning costs. Places like Alaska are experiencing more fires than ever before and climate change is making them larger, studies show. 

This year’s fire season, especially intense in Montana and the Northwest, has already burned more than 8 million acres, an area larger than the state of Maryland. Just this week, a bipartisan group of senators appealed to Senate leaders of both parties to increase federal fire-fighting efforts.

National security experts are finding large new costs to defense budgets due to climate change impacts, both direct and indirect. Key facilities, like the nation’s largest naval base in Norfolk, Va., face huge dislocation expenses from sea level rise, and over time, they may have to move entirely. 

Military leaders have found that droughts made worse by climate change in North Africa and the Middle East are leading to clashes over water, food and other resources, exacerbating ethnic conflicts and immigration problems. 

Individual industries, from insurance to real estate to recreation to energy face increased costs, which will be passed on to consumers. For example, the concentration of the oil and gas industry on the Gulf Coast, and especially vulnerable refineries and ports, means billions in additional costs, some borne by consumers but other by taxpayers as the industry receives federal funding to rebuild this infrastructure. 

The irony of the fossil fuel industry, after many years of denial, both causing climate change and now baring costs is lost on few.

None of this contends with the almost unthinkable costs of moving our coastal cities, home to well over 150 million Americans, if sea levels rise four feet or more, as experts predict, without much more decisive U.S. and global action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. 

How much will Harvey cost?  Estimates now range from $120 billion to as much as $180, which would top Katrina’s record price tag of $160 billion. Obviously, Irma will add at least tens of billions more. Budget hawks might note that none of these emergency appropriations are counted against so called “budget caps” — nor should they be. 

Yet even so, these expenditures are simply added to taxpayer burden of debt and increased interest costs.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are stark reminders that the bill for climate change is coming due now and will grow substantially in future years. It’s time we had a more serious national conversation about these growing costs of inaction on climate change versus the lower long-term costs of effective national and global climate action. 

Paul Bledsoe is a professorial lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy and a senior fellow on energy at the Progressive Policy Institute, a moderate economic and public policy think tank. He served on the staff of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.