The massive costs of climate impacts such as rain-soaked hurricanes like Florence were highlighted in the latest government climate report. Photo credit: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

The cost of climate change has already reached into the billions of dollars and the tab will continue rising along with global temperature and sea levels, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment released last Friday. The report, released by the government as mandated by law, provides a stark rebuke to the Trump administration’s frequent argument that climate action, not climate change, threatens the U.S. economy.

The reality of those financial consequences adds fuel to the debate over who should pay the skyrocketing costs. While fossil fuel giants like Chevron and ExxonMobil report billions in quarterly profits and news reports have shown the industry understood climate change and its role in it for decades, the idea that oil giants should pay for those damages has gained traction and spawned a multitude of lawsuits across the country.

“By highlighting the enormous and mounting burden of climate change on our economy, infrastructure, health, and well-being, this report should inform robust conversations in communities across the country about who should pay for climate damages and generate additional momentum toward holding major fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron accountable for the harmful effects of their products,” said Kathy Mulvey, climate accountability campaign director at Union of Concerned Scientists.

Friday’s report was the second volume of the National Climate Assessment, which builds upon the extensive climate science in the first volume, the Climate Science Special Report released last year. The assessment is a Congressionally mandated report compiled by 13 federal agencies and hundreds of experts comprising the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

The report left little doubt that harmful climate impacts are driven by human activity and are increasing and intensifying. It unequivocally stated, the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social, and economic well-being are rising” (the italics are in the report for emphasis).

Increasing risks include the potential loss of thousands of American lives and a huge economic toll.

“With continued growth in emissions at historic rates, annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century—more than the current gross domestic product (GDP) of many U.S. states,” the report said.

Extreme weather and natural disasters, increasingly exacerbated by climate change, are already costing billions of dollars in damages. The report’s Overview chapter details some of those costs:

  • The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season alone caused more than $250 billion in estimated damages and more than 250 deaths throughout the U.S. Caribbean, Southeast, and southern Great Plains
  • In August 2016, 20 to 30 inches of rainfall over several days devastated a large area of southern Louisiana, causing more than $10 billion in damages and 13 deaths
  • In 2015, drought conditions caused about $5 billion in damages across the Southwest and Northwest, as well as parts of the northern Great Plains. Two years later, extreme drought caused $2.5 billion in agricultural damages across the northern Great Plains
  • The Tubbs, Atlas, Nuns, and Redwood Valley Fires in October 2017 caused a total of 44 deaths, and their combined destruction represented the costliest wildfire event on record. It was surpassed this month by the Camp Fire, which has killed more than 80 people, with hundreds still unaccounted for, and its costs are likely to set a new cost record.

The report also puts a price tag on the health risks that accompany climate impacts like drought, heatwaves and wildfires. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions would save thousands of lives and avoid hundreds of billions of dollars in health-related costs, the report said. But without significant mitigation, a high emissions scenario would cost $140 billion annually in  temperature-related deaths and $160 billion in lost wages due to lost labor hours by 2090. By 2100, increasing outbreaks of infectious diseases like West Nile virus could result in $3.3 billion in annual hospitalization costs.

Infrastructure damage was also quantified, with the report estimating annual damages to paved roads due to precipitation and temperature impacts will total $20 billion by 2090 under a high emissions scenario. Inland flooding is estimated to cost $1.2 to $1.4 billion annually by 2050 due to bridge damage.

Coastal areas are highly vulnerable as well. According to the report, “Along the U.S. coastline, public infrastructure and $1 trillion in national wealth held in coastal real estate are threatened by rising sea levels, higher storm surges, and the ongoing increase in high tide flooding.” High tide flooding could become a daily reality for southeast coastal cities like Miami by 2100 without significant adaptation.

Resilience projects will not come cheaply, with the report highlighting “the estimated cost to elevate and retrofit the major commercial ports of California (such as San Diego, Los Angeles/Long Beach, San Francisco) to adapt to 6 feet of SLR is $9–$12 billion.”  

Who Should Pay?

The California communities that have filed climate liability suits have sought to highlight those kinds of mitigation costs to judges. Those lawsuits are fundamentally about the question of who pays those costs. They argue that local governments and the nation’s taxpayers, already shouldering much of the cost burden, will be pinched even further as diminished property values lower tax revenues and the National Flood Insurance Program continues to absorb extensive losses. The report acknowledges the central challenge of determining who should pay for losses already incurred and for future coastal protection. It notes that current financial resources “are insufficient to meet the projected challenges ahead.”

Daniel Zarrilli, chief climate policy advisor to the New York City Mayor’s office, said New York City has filed suit against five major oil companies to recoup those costs not just because they are expensive but because the industry had a driving role in them, and have known about their role for many years.

“For decades, fossil fuel companies spread misinformation to downplay and obscure the risks of climate change so clearly documented in the fourth National Climate Assessment while continuing to promote their products. We are suing to hold them accountable for the damage they’ve done,” Zarrilli said.

The lawsuits come not only from communities against the oil industry but also young people trying to force the federal government to deal with the climate crisis.

The landmark youth-led lawsuit Juliana v. United States, which has overcome numerous attempts by the government to dismiss it before trial, is currently on hold while the Ninth Circuit Court reviews yet again an extraordinary mandamus request, the fourth time defendants have sought this kind of appeal.

The young plaintiffs’ attorneys say the newest government report is an admission of the damage being done to future generations. They contend that government policies favoring fossil fuels have exacerbated climate change, and they hope a verdict in their favor forces a science-based climate plan to mitigate the damages.

“The National Climate Assessment further supports the youth Plaintiffs’ claims in Juliana,” said Phil Gregory, co-counsel for youth plaintiffs. “As this administration does not have the courage to exercise leadership over the national fossil fuel energy system, Juliana presents the case for the federal judicial branch to recognize the fundamental Constitutional violation evidenced in Defendants’ own documents and immediately order development and implementation of a national climate recovery plan.”

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