Thursday, September 17, 2015

Missing the Economic Mark: The New Republican Position on Climate Change

During Wednesday’s Republican Primary DebateSenator Marco Rubio, when asked about addressing climate change, responded forcefully. “America is not a planet… I know the impact [policies addressing climate change] are going to have, and they’re all going to be on our economy. They will not do a thing to lower the rise of the sea. They will not do a thing to cure the drought here in California.” Governors Chris Christie and Scott Walker echoed this sentiment, while the other debate participants did not take issue.

Senator Marco Rubio during Wednesday's debate. Photo: Max Whittaker, New York Times

That climate change was even acknowledged might be viewed as a refreshing change of pace for the political right, which entirely ignored the issue in the previous presidential election. However, the new “protectionist” Republican position on climate change ignores a very simple reality: Doing nothing is going to cost the economy a lot of money.

Rubio's Right

First, give credit where credit is due: Senator Marco Rubio is quite correct that U.S. policies, by themselves, will have no measurable impact on climate change. As of 2011, the U.S. emitted about 5.4 billion metric tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, compared with 35 billion metric tons globally:
Global carbon dioxide emissions by country, 1959 to 2011. The U.S. contribution is shaded dark blue at bottom; total global emissions are given by the sum of all colored curves (top of light blue shaded region). Source: Yale Climate Connections

Currently, the U.S. accounts for about 17% of global emissions. This means that, even if the U.S. were to, by itself, drastically cut carbon emissions to zero, atmospheric CO2 levels would still rise, only 17% slower than otherwise.

The Cost of Doing Nothing

Given the apparent futility of this scenario, the Republican position outlined last night argues that doing nothing is the best option, as at least it would prevent economic harm from implementing climate policies. What this position fails to recognize is that doing nothing about climate change will result in massive costs from—surprise!—climate change.

Research from the Risky Business Project, published last summer and detailed in the recent book “Economic Risks of Climate Change: An American Prospectus,” places numbers on the potential economic impact of climate change in the U.S. The results are staggering. For example, the report projects $35 billion in annual property losses--equivalent to the GDP of Ghana--from hurricanes and coastal storms, and that is just by 2040. By 2100, there is a 1 in 100 chance that Senator Rubio's homestate of Florida alone could lose nearly $700 billion worth of property, submerged by rising sea levels.
In the debate, Senator Rubio cited rising utility costs as a fait accompli of climate policy. "Maybe a billionaire can afford an increase in their utility rates, but a working family anywhere across this country cannot afford it," said Rubio. What Rubio failed to mention is that, barring new policies to combat climate change, the majority of the country will be burdened by rising utillity bills due to increased need for air conditioning during warmer summers and more extreme heat waves. By 2050, electricity demand is projected to rise 10%, leading to up to $30 billion per year in additional utility costs:
Projected change in electricity demand(in percent from 2012) for the period 2020-2039 (bottom), 2040-2059 (middle), and 2080-2099 (top). Source: "Economic Risks of Climate Change: An American Prospectus"

The Upside

These projections are certainly depressing, and I'd hate to end on a low note. The good news is that, like many global problems before, carbon dioxide emissions and climate change are the subject of intense international efforts. On November 30th, negotiators from 195 countries will convene in France for the United Nations-organized 2015 Paris Climate Conference. Already, sixty-two countries, representing 70% of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, have pledged emissions reductions. These pledges, though not sufficient to limit global warming to less than 4°F (2°C) by the end of the century, nonetheless represent a step in the right direction. The cost savings realized by companies reducing emissions, and the increasing cost competitiveness of renewable energy production, provide even more reasons for optimism that the worst-case projections of climate change might be avoided. U.S. policymakers on both sides of the aisle would be wise to acknowledge these developments, and that the economic burden of addressing climate change is not as heavy as they think. Rather, the economic burden of inaction is far worse.

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