Bottom line on climate change: It’s costing you money

November 18, 2014

Participants wearing masks during a hazy day at the Beijing International Marathon in front of Tiananmen Square, in Beijing

This column by Martin Wolf in the Financial Times last week is a story I’m glad I saw. It prompted me to think about how to make reporting on a subject I usually find boring a lot more compelling.

In the wake of the midterm elections and the victories of candidates like Senate Majority Leader-elect Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose prime campaign plank was to preserve his state’s environmentally lethal coal industry at all costs, Wolf writes:

Many Republicans seem to have concluded man-made climate change is a hoax. If so, this is quite a hoax. Just read the synthesis report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. One is asked to imagine that thousands of scientists have put together a complex fabrication in order to promote their not particularly remunerative careers, in the near certainty they will be found out. This hypothesis makes no sense.

“Likely consequences” of ignoring the scientifically obvious, Wolfe continues, “include disease, extreme weather, food and water insecurity and loss of biodiversity and valuable ecosystems.”

That all makes sense. But the point in this powerful, cogent essay that really got me thinking was this: “One justification [for continued inaction] is that cost of action to mitigate emissions would be inordinate. It should be noted, however, that the costs … would be less, possibly substantially less, than the costs to the high-income countries of the recent financial crises. These have lowered gross domestic product by around a sixth, relative to pre-crisis trends, in the U.S., UK and euro zone. In some economies, when the losses are counted, they will be far bigger. Moreover, it seems likely that these losses will never be recouped.”

U.S. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell holds a news conference after he was re-elected to a sixth term to the U.S. Senate at the University of Louisville in Louisville

So here’s my idea for new sustained reporting that would get Americans and people around the world to focus more on climate change. We need a constant barrage of reports on the bottom-line effects of climate change that drive home the reality that this is a pocket-book issue.

It’s not enough to write that global warming is causing South Florida to lose x feet of land per decade to the ocean, or that climate change is behind the increasingly severe hurricanes or wildfires that more regularly dominate our headlines. How much more is flood insurance costing Florida homeowners? How much are property insurance premiums rising where hurricanes, tornados or wildfires are most likely to strike?

How much more is federally supported flood insurance, as well as disaster relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, costing taxpayers?

What do insurance companies have to say about their projections for premiums next year or 10 years from now? How much more is the reinsurance they buy to protect them from over-the-top disasters expected to cost?

How have food prices been affected? How much will they be affected in the near future?

Are we starting to see declines in property values in venues most vulnerable to global warming?

What is the projected cost of measures being taken — such as the billions of dollars worth of barriers being suggested for the waterways coming into New York harbor — to protect against us doing nothing about climate change?

Wolf also makes a convincing case that we have a core ethical obligation when it comes to climate change:

We are the beneficiaries of the efforts of our ancestors to leave a better world than the one they inherited. We have the same obligation even if, in this case, the challenge is so complex.

That left me imagining that a generation or two from now kids will be huddled on the remaining high ground in classrooms reading a world history textbook trying to explain how the lack of an urgent news hook allowed politicians who were accountable to their parents or grandparents to continue bowing to industry lobbyists and ignore taking the necessary and costly steps to avert the slow-motion disaster that became global warming.

Or, as Wolf put it, “however strong such a moral argument may be, it is most unlikely to overcome the inertia we now see. Future generations, and even many of today’s young, might curse our indifference. But we do not care, do we?”

"Storm chaser" Derek Sibley of Hollywood, FL reviews photos on his camera as Tropical Storm Isaac moves over Key West, FL

The way to make us care is to make the issue anything but an abstract moral argument by attaching current, tangible price tags to that inertia.

With President Barack Obama’s announcement last week of an agreement with China to set ambitious carbon emissions goals, opponents of climate-change action lost one of their main arguments — that it makes no sense for the West to act if China continues to be the world’s worst polluter. The agreement comes at a time when parts of China, including Beijing, are often unlivable because of near-apocalyptic pollution, which poses a crippling threat to the country’s economy.

The way to help make sure that both countries keep to those commitments is to keep driving home the cost of not doing so with tangible, dollars-and-cents journalism.

As for McConnell and Kentucky’s coal industry, here’s an idea for a related story: Since McConnell is about to take charge of the Senate, the politics of shifting away from coal are challenging, to say the least. And the cost to the families in Kentucky and elsewhere who depend on that industry for their livelihoods cannot be ignored.

So, if coal is so destructive — if it is so much a cause of those economic losses from global warming that Wolf calculates — why wouldn’t it make fiscal sense to finance an aid program, unprecedented in size and cost, to help families displaced by the coal industry’s decline? Why wouldn’t a massive grant to coal-mining regions, including huge tax incentives for new economic development, along with, say, $50,000 a year for each coal family for a five- or 10-year transition period, be the right thing and the politically smart thing to do?

Why wouldn’t it be the most cost-effective way to get over this hurdle? Someone should tally up the numbers.


PHOTO (TOP): Participants wearing masks during a hazy day at the Beijing International Marathon in front of Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, October 19, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) holds a news conference the day after he was re-elected to a sixth Senate term at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky, November 5, 2014. REUTERS/John Sommers II

PHOTO (INSERT 2): “Storm chaser” Derek Sibley of Hollywood, Florida, reviews photos on his camera as Tropical Storm Isaac moves over Key West, Florida, L August 26, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity

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