2014-03-14

Co.Exist

The Price Of Ignoring Climate Change Is Far Higher Than We Think

In the future, society will have to pay for each puff of carbon emissions emitted today. And the bill from the damages--from rising seas and the spread of diseases--is going to cause sticker shock.

Critics of strong national climate change policies often talk about how much taking action costs the economy. What they usually don’t mention is the cost of doing nothing.

It’s easy to ignore. The figure is hard to pin down and involves estimating the economic damage that will be caused by climate change decades into the future, whether that includes bigger storm surges and more wildfires or higher crop prices and health care costs. Economists and scientists have been together grappling with the question--trying to put a dollar figure of the “social cost” of emitting a single ton of carbon dioxide--for more than a decade. Getting to that dollar figure makes it far easier for politicians and policymakers to compare the costs of setting various climate and energy policies, such as regulating coal power plants, to the benefits of lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

In a new report as part of the Cost of Carbon Pollution project, a trio of groups--the Environmental Defense Fund, NYU’s Institute for Policy Integrity, and the Natural Resources Defense Council--explain how the Obama administration is continuing to lowball these “social cost of carbon pollution" estimates.

For the last few years, the U.S. government has been including a dollar figure that captures the negative consequences of climate change, when it analyzes all kinds of proposed policies that would directly or indirectly affect levels of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2010, it was supposed to be worth $24 to the entire economy to avoid one single ton of carbon dioxide emissions. In 2013, the Obama administration upped the figure to $37 a ton, based on updated scientific and economic models.

The new report finds that $37 is low as well, because it doesn’t take into account an array of climate change impacts, such as the spread of lyme disease, lowered property values, energy supply disruptions, and forced migrations.

The debate seems obscure, but it could actually have an effect on hundreds of rules set by the federal government, says Ricky Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity and former dean of NYU’s School of Law. A high enough dollar cost figure could justify the government investing in and setting policies that spur the development of new energy and carbon capture technologies that reduce emissions. A low figure means that fewer investments would probably occur.

Of course, there is uncertainty in estimating these figures but Revesz says that is a fact of life. “Anything that’s important has uncertainty attached to it,” he says. “If anything, the number has always been understated.”

[Image: Smokestack via Shutterstock]

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9 Comments

  • When are we going to stop pushing this climate change propaganda? Seriously! Science continues to refute all claims and yet we have people in media like yourself continuing to bring it up as fact. Can't we just be honest with ourselves about the fact that climate change is a propaganda play and nothing else?

  • Bob Burt

    what! 97% of scientists agree that climate change is anthropogenic (IPCC, 2013). we have seen a 0.85 degree Celsius warming in past 100 years and is forecast to be at least 2 degrees warmer by 2100, the arctic sheets are melting rapidly (the antarctic is stable for the moment), deserts are rapidly growing, and more extreme weather events are occuring. Listen to the science and not your uncle billy...

  • Interesting that there has been no global warming the past 17 years, and ALL the models predicting climate change have failed ... also interesting to note that the arctic and antarctic ice sheets have grown rapidly in the past year... also interesting to note that as co2 levels have risen, the growth of plants has increased allowing for better agriculture ... go research the science, we are possibly heading into somersetting similar to the Maunder Minimum. Why then have over 32,000 scientists in the USA signed a document stating that climate change due to mankind's activities has not be scientifically validated. Yes we need to reduce pollution and dangerous substances from our environment ... and the climate change arguments will do nothing to fix that.

  • Patrick Dean

    Wow, do you have your [bogus] talking points down. Temps did a short-term peak in '95 but the long-term trend is all upwards. Similarly, polar ice shrinks and contracts every year but again, long-term it's all down.

    Love to see any evidence for 32K scientists (with any connection to climate science) signing off on something like that.

  • Bob Burt

    what! 97% of scientists agree that climate change is anthropogenic (IPCC, 2013). we have seen a 0.85 degree Celsius warming in past 100 years and is forecast to be at least 2 degrees warmer by 2100, the arctic sheets are melting rapidly (the antarctic is stable for the moment), deserts are rapidly growing, and more extreme weather events are occuring. Listen to the science and not your uncle billy...

  • Michael O'Hara

    It's time to start recognizing the cost of the carbon-based pollution by instituting a "Carbon fee and rebate" program in the USA. The fee is charged at the well, mine or port and is based on the carbon content of the fuel. All revenue from the fee would be rebated to every legal resident of the USA. This market based solution would provide a long term, predictable price signal to individuals and corporations, allowing them to plan their future around a cost element that they have some control over. Most families will realize more in the rebate than they would experience in additional costs of goods and services and those who make changes in their purchasing habits will have even more cash to use in whatever way they find useful. Corporations which change their practices in line with the price signals will gain advantages over their competitors.

    For more details on this proposal, see "carbontax.org".

  • Dan Lambert

    Power plant photo taken in Poland. No date given but guessing it's quite old. With that as a lead I can't believe anything in this article is anything but speculation. Climate change is a given. Merely research the evidence going back millions of years since earth has existed. Long before man put a match to anything.