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Trump refusing to even measure economic cost of climate change

Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed signs a document calling on all countries to cut down their carbon dioxide emissions ahead of a major U.N. climate change conference in December in Copenhagen in Girifushi, Maldives, 2009. Government ministers in scuba gear held an underwater meeting of the Maldives' Cabinet to highlight the threat global warming poses to the lowest-lying nation on earth. (AP Photo/Mohammed Seeneen)

How much are the damaging impacts of climate change costing our economy?

Even as some of America’s top economists and scientists are seeking a precise answer — amid a growing realization that the toll is being significantly underestimated — the Trump administration is signaling that it has no intention to find out.

Worse still, the White House may be poised to order government officials to ignore that calculus altogether in making environmental policy.

In business, ignoring the long term is not only risky but also foolhardy. And it’s no way to run a country.


A rather opaque term of art — ”the social cost of carbon” — has come to define the price tag we ascribe to the economic damage inflicted by the far-flung ravages of climate change. The phrase refers to the cost climate change imposes on society — hence the “social” cost. The contributing factors include droughts, wildfires, ”sunny day floods” caused by rising ocean tides, and an array of extreme weather events that destroy lives and property, as well as lost productivity and agricultural output.

To measure that cost, experts began in 2009 assigning a monetary value to the emission of every ton of carbon dioxide, the primary pollutant that fuels dangerous climate change. The federal government uses this figure to calculate the cost-benefit analysis for a variety of environmental rules.

Today, that value is set at $41 per ton of carbon pollution spewed into our atmosphere. Let’s do the math. Last year alone, the nation’s power plants pumped 2.1 billion tons of carbon pollution into our atmosphere, accounting for 38 percent of the U.S. carbon footprint. At $41 a ton, that comes to more than $73.8 billion in economic costs.

But that figure fails to fully capture the true cost of greenhouse gas emissions, and a December report by the National Academy of Sciences recommended a major update to how we calculate the social cost of carbon. One indication that the current number is being underestimated is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report that said just 15 extreme weather events last year cost our economy more than $200 billion. In 2012, the federal government spent nearly $100 billion to respond to Superstorm Sandy and other similar disasters.

As Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said during a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Feb. 14: ”Climate change is real and it’s not merely an ecological issue or a political issue, but an economic one.”

Yet Thomas Pyle, a fossil fuel industry lobbyist who led President Trump’s transition team at the Department of Energy, issued a memo after the election declaring an intention to either lower the assigned price tag on the cost of carbon or eliminating its use entirely.

But ignoring the economic costs of climate change, accompanied by inaction, will not make them go away. Rather, that head-in-the-sand attitude will end up costing us, our children and future generations trillions of dollars.

According to Jason Channell, global head of the alternative energy and “cleantech” research program at Citigroup, “Costs in terms of lost GDP from not acting on climate change can be $44 trillion dollars by the time we get to 2060.’’

We now know that 2016 was the hottest year globally since records-keeping began in 1880. And according to NASA, the 10 warmest years on record, with the exception of 1998, have occurred since 2000.

The planet is telling us — in every way it knows how — to get on with the task of slowing, stopping and reversing climate change before it’s too late.

The evidence is quite tangible. Arctic sea ice last year shrunk to its second-lowest level ever. A record annual increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was recorded at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii during 2015 — the largest year-to-year increase in 56 years. The largest die-off of corals was recently observed on Australia’s Green Barrier Reef due to warmer water.

It’s long past time to take swift and decisive action to curb our carbon pollution. And the very least we should do is conduct an honest appraisal of the costs of inaction. But the Trump administration wants to block even that.

Maybe that’s because climate change’s true economic costs create an iron-clad case for action.

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz is the chief program officer at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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