The true cost of extreme weather events

Hogan Dwyer is a former Our Climate Fellow, and is now working on the New York State campaign to #PutAPriceOnIt. 

The United States experienced 16 separate billion-dollar disaster events in 2017, including three tropical cyclones, eight severe storms, two inland floods, and numerous droughts and wildfires. Although there is insufficient understanding of climate systems to directly link manmade climate change to these disasters, climate scientists agree that these extreme weather events are becoming more frequent as global temperatures rise due to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

While it is definitely important to consider the monetary costs of last year’s natural disasters, the fact that people are losing their lives to these events is sufficient reason for urgent and potent action to counter the causes of climate change. Most U.S. citizens already recognize the need for climate action, but many are unsure of what that action should be. A simple and effective solution is implementing a price on carbon pollution.

A price on carbon entails charging businesses that extract and/or burn fossil fuels a fee per unit of CO2 released, essentially making them pay to pollute our atmosphere just as you and I pay for our trash to be taken away. Burning fossil fuels has been our primary method of generating energy for the past few centuries because it is cheap. A carbon price would make burning oil, natural gas, and coal more expensive and thereby less financially attractive than renewable energy alternatives like solar and wind. With a sufficiently high price, the transition to clean energy would rapidly accelerate and greenhouse gas emissions would drop, potentially preventing future climate change-induced disasters.

The details of a carbon pricing policy can vary. Most proponents agree that the fee should steadily rise over time, incrementally increasing the pressure on businesses and individuals to switch to renewable energy. This would give businesses and the overall economy time to adapt to a new energy landscape while still making the urgently-needed transition to clean sources. Many also agree that the fee should be charged as far “upstream” as possible, meaning companies importing or extracting the fossil fuels pay the actual fee (based on how much CO2 that fuel will generate when used) and pass on the increased cost of fossil fuels downstream. Carbon pricing proponents also generally claim that a carbon fee should eventually expand to all greenhouse gases (charging per CO2 equivalent).

The major area of disagreement among proponents is how the money raised by the fee should be spent. A revenue-neutral policy would distribute all the money back to citizens, while a revenue-positive policy may distribute some money that way but also would channel some money to government projects or grants. For instance, a revenue-positive policy might help fund new renewable energy projects or help fossil fuel workers obtain jobs in other industries. Either type of policy could effectively transform a fossil-fuel economy into a clean renewable energy economy.

In the U.S., carbon pricing policy proposals exist on both the state and federal levels. In Washington D.C., the volunteer-focused nonprofit Citizens Climate Lobby (“CCL”) has lobbied Congress for over 10 years for a specific carbon price proposal called Carbon Fee and Dividend. In the process, CCL helped form the ever-growing Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives, which currently stands at 34 Republicans and 34 Democrats. Meanwhile, momentum is rapidly growing for carbon pricing proposals in states like Oregon, New York, and Massachusetts, each backed by a state coalition of various interest groups. Many of these campaigns are supported by the national student-based non-profit Our Climate.

2017 demonstrated that there are tangible and immense costs to altering the earth’s natural systems, particularly the atmosphere. If you are concerned about the increasing frequency of natural disasters in the U.S. and beyond, then you should seek out and support carbon pricing efforts wherever you live. Citizens' Climate Lobby (citizensclimatelobby.org) has chapters across the country (at least one in every state), and more and more state-based carbon pricing coalitions are coming together and in need of support from people like you. Together we can use our political will to change the future of the planet.


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