The Costs of Inaction

Despite what has been said in recent Congressional hearings and debates; despite the House vote to block the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate regulations; and, despite what a handful of vocal skeptics are saying, climate change is real. It is happening. But, it is not just about changes in weather patterns. This phenomenon could cost the U.S. billions of dollars and thousands of jobs if we doing nothing to slow it.

Climate change will impose hefty costs on our economy, security, competitiveness, and public health. Rising temperatures across the globe threaten to harm our national landscape, causing negative impacts on our communities, industries, and livelihoods in each state. During our lifetime, we will see the effects of climate change and the impacts on the U.S. economy.

The American economy is dependent upon its environmental landscape. Severe weather events can devastate the environment and critical industries across the country. In a warmer climate, not only is severe weather likely to increase but drier ecosystems will likely host more pests and more frequent forest fires, hurting our timber industries. In Arkansas, the timber industry employs tens of thousands. In Kentucky, it generates over $9 billion in revenue and employs approximately one out of every nine manufacturing workers in the state.

Droughts, heavy precipitation, an increase in pests, and warmer temperatures—consequences of climate change—are likely to also place strains on American farmers, reducing the quantity, quality, and value of crop yields. In the Midwest, warmer temperatures and increased precipitation could cost the region $9.3 billion per year in lost agricultural profits.  

Climate change also threatens our security. Water shortages and increased contamination threaten to place strains on, and increase competition for, one of our most precious natural resources. This is especially true in the Great Plains where water is currently being pumped from the Ogallala Aquifer faster than it can replenish. The aquifer is essential for irrigation and provides drinking water to 80% of the region. Furthermore, the Southwest’s Lake Mead could dry up as soon as 2050, perhaps as early as 2021, leaving 12-36 million people across the region without a dependable water supply.

Predictions show increasingly severe storms and coastal erosion could further place the security of over 10 million people living in Florida’s coastal communities in jeopardy, and erosion could require Alaska’s coastal communities to relocate. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates a $30-50 million price tag (PDF) for each Alaskan village that needs to be relocated; other estimates place costs as high as $400 to $450 million. Alaska is home to 160 such villages, at least six of which are already planning to move.

Certainly, there could be positive effects associated with climate change.  Warmer temperatures could increase the growing season for many agricultural products.  South Dakotan crops could fare better than their counterparts further south; increased rainfall and temperatures could cause lumber yields to increase in Pennsylvania; and, in some regions of Georgia, a warmer, wetter climate could increase some crop yields.

But for every upside to climate change, there seems to be more downsides. For example, warmer temperatures also bring pests, forest fires, droughts, and generally increase agricultural strains while reducing dairy cow milk production.

So, what does it all mean?

We’re going to pay a price for climate change, whether we try to slow it or not.  The data tells us that the cost of doing nothing will far out-weigh the cost of action.  But beyond that, if we invest now in a cleaner economy and in green technology, economic growth will follow.

For example, while Texas has more renewable energy potential than any other state in the country — it remains largely untapped.  And the story repeats itself across the country. An investment of $516 million in the green economy could yield 12,100 jobs in West Virginia.

A $2.7 billion investment in Virginia’s green sector could generate nearly 56,500 jobs. Vermont’s only wind farm powers about 2,000 homes in southern Vermont and further development of wind farms could significantly stimulate the state’s economy. Colorado stands to gain in the upwards of 30,000 jobs and $7.5 billion in energy savings with proper clean energy legislation and investment.

It may be an overly used political cliché, but now more than ever it is fitting: we cannot afford to continue business as usual. Our research shows that our old energy economy is not only costing us too much, but it is also not sustainable given the toll climate change will take on our environment, communities, and industries.

To do something is a choice, but to do nothing is also a choice. The facts tell us, there are going to be costs either way, but we must decide if inaction is worth the strength of our economy, security, competitiveness, and public health hanging in the balance.

To learn more about how much climate change will cost each state in the US, please visit the American Sercurity Project website to read the Pay Now, Pay Later reports.

Dr. James M. Ludes (pictured about halfway up this article, right) is the Executive Director of the American Security Project (ASP), a nonprofit, bipartisan national security think tank in Washington D.C. 

 Lindsey Ross (pictured left) is a Policy Analyst at ASP.


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