The broad takeaways from a lengthy new federal report on climate change aren’t exactly shocking. The climate is changing, humans are a major factor in that change, and the consequences of failing to take action would be devastating.
But the specifics, and there are many in the fourth National Climate Assessment’s several hundred pages, are deeply concerning.
Take, for example, this warning: “Without significant adaptation measures, many coastal cities in the Southeast are expected to experience daily high tide flooding by the end of the century.”
Charleston got a preview of that scenario over the past few days.
A worst-case prediction suggests “two billion labor hours are projected to be lost annually by 2090 from the impacts of temperature extremes.” The cost would be $160 billion in lost wages, mostly in the South.
Southeastern cities face damage to infrastructure and threats to human health, a dramatically increased risk from flooding, loss of critical ecosystems and biodiversity and further hardships for rural communities that depend on agriculture.
Some of the costs related to climate change are difficult to put into monetary terms. Quality of life, livability and a healthy environment are in many ways priceless.
But other climate-related impacts, like lost productivity, heat-related deaths, property loss, infrastructure damage and increased health care costs, are indeed measurable. And federal scientists put the total economic cost of unchecked climate change at more than $500 billion per year by the end of the century.
In other words, it is irresponsible and unscientific to suggest that preventing, mitigating and preparing for climate change is too expensive. On the contrary, doing nothing would be devastating.
Much of the coverage of this most recent climate report focuses on the Trump administration’s decision to release it on Black Friday, a busy shopping day in which many people in the United States are off work, spending time with family or doing just about anything other than reading about climate change.
It’s possible that decision was simply a coincidence. Certainly, if the intention was to downplay the report’s significance or reduce media coverage, the effort failed.
President Trump has nevertheless made it clear that he doesn’t find the new data alarming.
“I don’t believe it,” he said, when asked about the report’s assertion that the economic impacts of climate change would be devastating.
Mr. Trump rightly pointed out that other major polluters will have to take significant action as well to stop climate change, which is an inherently global problem.
A recent report from the United Nations found that most of the world’s wealthiest countries are behind on their climate goals.
And the United States, which remains the world’s second-worst greenhouse gas emitter behind China, has a long way to go.
Contrary to Mr. Trump’s protestations, fighting climate change and preparing for its impacts don’t have to be economically painful.
Efforts to prevent flooding, for example, provide significant economic benefits now in addition to helping cities prepare for a future of higher sea levels and stronger storms. Charleston in particular is well aware of the costs of decades of insufficient action.
Adopting utility-scale solar power — an area in which South Carolina has lagged — can be more cost-effective as a new source of electricity generation than dirtier technologies like coal and natural gas.
Planting trees, using more efficient light bulbs, carrying groceries in reusable bags, driving less and making dozens of other affordable personal and community-scale choices add up to make significant changes that are likely to be a net benefit to the economy rather than a negative.
Besides, as this recent climate report makes abundantly clear, the costs of doing nothing are almost certainly greater than any expenses associated with becoming a more sustainable, resilient society. And that’s likely to be the case, whether our leaders choose to believe it or not.