Congress Just Got a Harsh Reminder of How Much Climate Change is Going to Cost [Updated]

Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Back in November 2015, a Republican senator and a Democratic senator jointly requested a report on the costs and risks to the US government from climate change, to be completed by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO). Little did they know their report, which was released Tuesday and found that costs may rise to as much as $35 billion per year by 2050, would land in the hands of an administration that won’t even acknowledge human-caused climate change as a serious problem.

Undertaken at the request of Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the report urges the Trump administration to take heed of climate change or force future administrations to pay an even bigger price. As the toll from floods, fires, and hurricanes—all of which are likely to become more severe as temperatures rise—grows, so does the cost of inaction. Trump’s first year has been extremely discouraging on this front; as natural disasters pile up across the country, leaders turn a blind eye to the role of climate change. Adding insult to injury, the administration has been unusually determined to roll back environmental protections across the board, looking to do-away with the Clean Power Plan and pull the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.


The GAO report, which compiled 30 government and academic studies examining the national and regional impacts of climate change, warns lawmakers that the cost to the federal government of negligence on the issue will be extremely high. For instance, on study found that climate change poses grave risks to defense infrastructure near coasts, and the replacement value on these facilities could reach up to $850 billion. As US News & World Report noted, another study found that “climate change-related weather events could cost the nation between $4 billion and $6 billion from 2020 to 2039 in annual coastal property damages from sea level rise and more frequent and intense storms.”

The cost of recent natural disasters, many of which are being tied to climate change, is already high. According to the report, in the last decade the government has incurred direct costs including $205 billion for domestic disaster response and relief; $90 billion for crop and flood insurance; $34 billion for wildland fire management; and $28 billion for maintenance and repairs to federal facilities and federally managed lands, infrastructure, and waterways.

According to Reuters, “the economic losses of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the wildfires in nine western states combined this year alone are poised to exceed $300 billion.”

This week, Congress is pushing its latest disaster relief bill, which the Chicago Tribune describes as “a $36.5 billion hurricane relief package that would provide Puerto Rico with a much-needed infusion of cash and keep the federal flood insurance program from running out of money to pay claims.” As big as the bill is, it still doesn’t include additional recovery funds requested by Texas and Florida congressional delegations to help rebuild after hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Image: GAO

The authors acknowledge that their extensive analysis of the literature and their dozens of interviews with experts does not mean that predictions of future climate change impacts are to be taken as precise forecasts. There are limitations in our data and our models. Still, the authors urge that the “appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President, including the Office of Science and Technology Policy, use information on potential economic effects to help identify significant climate risks and craft appropriate federal responses.”


So, what does the administration have to say about all this?

Neither the White House or the EPA provided official comments to be included in the report when given the chance. Considering the EPA won’t even allow its scientists to talk about climate change publicly anymore, this should not come as a surprise.


President Trump is yet to even appoint a chief scientific policy officer, a person who would likely play a key role in helping quantify the economic effects of climate change and developing a long-term strategy to address them.

The GAO is considered Congress’s auditing arm, providing the legislative branch with in-depth evaluations and investigations to help with decision making, and make sure costs and benefits of policies are accounted for. These days, no government entity is above the fray, and prominent climate change deniers have already accused the watchdog of being a propaganda outfit.


Sen. Collins disagrees, saying in a statement that she hopes the release of the report “will cause all of us to think more broadly about this issue, take a harder look at the economic consequences of inaction, and use what is known about climate risks to inform federal policy.”

Update: A previous version of this post included statements from outside sources that were not properly attributed. The text has been updated to clarify the source of the language and properly attribute it.


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