Last month alone, Western states suffered three major hurricanes and 76 wildfires, and these weren’t even included in the study.

Climate change halves economic growth

According to a new study from the Universal Ecological Fund, the impact of climate change is already taking a huge toll, causing severe economic damage. In the past decade, climate change (which president Trump believes to be a hoax) cost the United States $240 billion a year. Weather extremes and air pollution from burning fossil fuels are among the main drivers of this cost, and things are only getting worse year after year.

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“The increasing damage from climate-change related storms, wild fires, human health, agriculture loss and the like are taxing the potential of economic growth,” said James McCarthy, a Harvard University professor whose co-authors included Robert Watson, former chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The researchers weren’t paid for their work, according to Bloomberg.

The study broke down the costs. Air pollution caused by fossil fuels averaged costs of $188 billion / year, whereas losses from weather extremes such as droughts, heat waves and floods set the US back $52 billion a year. Of course, not all extreme events are caused by climate change, but there is no question that their frequency and intensity is being exacerbated by human activities. Just think about the extremely intense hurricane season we just had: warmer ocean temperatures are directly powering hurricanes by offering more moisture in the air. The connection between climate change and droughts and wildfires is even more straightforward.
“The evidence is undeniable: the more fossil fuels we burn, the faster the climate continues to change,” leading scientists wrote in the study published by the non-profit Universal Ecological Fund.

Graph of global temperature anomaly from 1880 to 2015. It’s worth noting that 2016 was the hottest year on record. Credits: NASA.

Researchers also show that the number of climatic events costing the US over $1 billion has grown dramatically decade after decade, in tight correlation to climate change. For instance, there were 92 extreme weather events that caused damage exceeding $1 billion in the United States in the decade to 2016, against 38 in the 1990s and 21 in the 1980s.
They also emphasize that some areas will be hit stronger than others, and many other costs haven’t been accounted for, due to their sheer complexity.

“The Gulf Coast will take a massive hit. Its exposure to sea-level rise—made worse by potentially stronger hurricanes—poses a major risk to its communities. Increasingly extreme heat will drive up violent crime, slow down workers, amp up air conditioning costs,” said co-author Robert Kopp, director of the Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Rutgers University. 

Growing the economy while fighting climate change

Until recently, most policymakers would argue that it’s simply not possible to raise the economy without increasing fossil fuel consumption — and subsequently, emissions. Today, it’s clear that that is not the case. Even in China, the world’s greatest polluter and still a country largely reliant on coal and oil, economic growth has decoupled from emissions. In many parts of the world, renewable energy is associated with accelerated economic growth, as well as a reduction of emissions. In the US, doubling the share of renewable energy can generate 500,000 new jobs, while saving money both directly and indirectly (ie improving air quality and reducing health costs).

The problem is that even though the economic reality has changed, profit-oriented groups have maintained the same narrative. Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (which under its new leadership is doing anything but protecting the environment) accused climate scientists of trying to “politicize an ongoing tragedy.” Energy Secretary Rick Perry said that fossil fuels are saving lives in developing countries. Trump himself has made protecting oil and coal a central part of his campaign, even though it doesn’t make economic and social sense. We can make a difference, but we need to start working fast, and we need good policies to promote and support action.

Amir Jina of the University of Chicago and co-author of one of many studies looking at the impact of climate change in the US says that we no longer have an excuse for inaction. Everything is on the table. Climate change is not only an environmental threat, and it’s not only a social threat. It’s also an economic threat. It’s threatening all the pillars on which our society is built on. Inaction in the face of climate change is no longer irresponsible — it’s criminal.

“The ‘hidden costs’ of carbon dioxide emissions are no longer hidden, since now we can see them clearly in the data,” he concludes.