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Robert Rubin, the co-chairman of the influential, non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations, says the price of inaction could be the U.S. economy itself.
Writing in the Washington Post, Rubin, a former U.S. Treasury Secretary, argues: “When it comes to the economy, much of the debate about climate change—and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are fueling it—is framed as a trade-off between environmental protection and economic prosperity,
“But from an economic perspective, that’s precisely the wrong way to look at it. The real question should be: ‘What is the cost of inaction?’”
He backed the Risky Business Project, a research initiative chaired by a bi-partisan panel and supported by him and several other former Treasury Secretaries. It reported in June that the American economy could face significant and widespread disruption from climate change unless U.S. businesses and policymakers take immediate action.
In his opinion article in the Washington Post, Rubin argues that, in economic terms, taking action on climate change will prove far less expensive than inaction. He wrote: “By 2050, for example, between $48 billion and $68 billion worth of current property in Louisiana and Florida is likely to be at risk of flooding because it will be below sea level. And that’s just a baseline estimate; there are other scenarios that could be catastrophic.
“Then, of course, there is the unpredictable damage from superstorms yet to come. Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy caused a combined $193 billion in economic losses; the congressional aid packages that followed both storms cost more than $122 billion.
“And dramatically rising temperatures in much of the country will make it far too hot for people to work outside during parts of the day for several months each year—reducing employment and economic output, and causing as many as 65,200 additional heat-related deaths every year.”
Rubin believes a fundamental problem with tackling climate change is that the methods used to gauge economic realities do not take climate change into consideration. He wants climate-change risks reflected accurately, and companies required to be transparent in reporting vulnerabilities tied to climate.
“If companies were required to highlight their exposure to climate-related risks, it would change investor behaviour, which in turn would prod those companies to change their behaviour,” he argues.
“Good economic decisions require good data. And to get good data, we must account for all relevant variables. But we’re not doing this when it comes to climate change—and that means we’re making decisions based on a flawed picture of future risks.
“While we can’t define future climate-change risks with precision, they should be included in economic policy, fiscal and business decisions, because of their potential magnitude.”
Rubin says the scientific community is “all but unanimous” in agreeing that climate change is a serious threat. He insists that it is a present danger, not something that can be left to future generations to tackle.
“What we already know is frightening, but what we don’t know is more frightening still,” he writes. “For example, we know that melting polar ice sheets will cause sea levels to rise, but we don’t know how negative feedback loops will accelerate the process ... And the polar ice sheets have already started to melt.”
He concludes: “We do not face a choice between protecting our environment or protecting our economy. We face a choice between protecting our economy by protecting our environment—or allowing environmental havoc to create economic havoc.”
The White House’s Council of Economic Advisers has estimated that the eventual cost of cutting greenhouse gas emissions will increase by about 40 percent for every decade of delay, because measures to restrict them will be more stringent and costlier as atmospheric concentrations grow.
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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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