Without Climate Action, A $1 Trillion Yearly Price Tag Is in Our Future

The Trump administration’s attacks on the environment exacerbate an already imminent crisis

By Ethan Brown

forest fireScientists have warned for decades that the human-caused climate crisis eventually would cause deadlier, more severe natural disasters. The coronavirus pandemic is not a reason to delay acting on the existential threat of climate change.

However, the Trump administration has done just that. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a large-scale rollback of environmental regulations. This allowed big oil and other emissions-heavy industries free range to police themselves, replacing one public health issue with another. As the West Coast continues to burn and hurricanes ravage the Gulf Coast, we are reminded that climate change is a perennial threat.

We have no more than a decade left to limit the worst of climate change’s effects. California’s fires have burned through more than five million acres of land, which is roughly equivalent to the size of New Jersey. Meanwhile, predominantly Black neighborhoods in Pensacola, Florida, experienced the worst of Hurricane Sally’s damage due to a lack of flood-preventing infrastructure.

These disastrous effects of the climate crisis are due to years of inaction by American leadership, but no administration has done more harm than President Donald Trump’s. Despite the near-universal agreement from climatologists, the Trump administration denies the climate crisis, puts politics before science, and gives regulatory responsibilities to former fossil fuel lobbyists.

Trump doesn’t fail to act — he just acts on behalf of profit instead of our planet’s future, which will come at a massive environmental and financial cost.

Trump: A climate action roadblock

Under the Obama administration, world leaders made commitments on climate action via the Paris Agreement. Countries pledged to curb carbon emissions to limit the post-industrial global temperature increase to 2ºC. It wasn’t the most aggressive option on the table, as many scientists argue that any increase above 1.5ºC will trigger more drastic effects from climate change, such as widespread food insecurity and species relocation. The Paris Agreement was nonetheless a worldwide admission that climate action couldn’t wait.

Not only did Trump tear up this groundbreaking agreement, but he’s also given polluters a boost by eliminating critical environmental regulations that keep air and water clean, handing a gift to the fossil fuel industry. The Trump administration has attempted to save a dying coal industry, which accounts for a fifth of all U.S. carbon emissions, instead of working Americans. Earlier this year, coal companies received a total of $31 million in loans meant for small businesses.

Trump’s presidency also halted progress to eliminate carbon pollution. Reaching that goal before a 2ºC temperature increase was already viewed as a tough task. But with Trump in office, some climate modelers predict a “near-zero” chance of reaching that benchmark. For the sake of our environment, this trajectory cannot continue.

The financial impact of disasters and climate migration

The environmental cost of climate inaction is clear, but the economic burden of a warming planet cannot be ignored. The financial impact of climate change is already substantial. Increasingly common extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Harvey in 2017, cost the U.S. economy more than $240 billion each year.

And while current yearly costs from natural disasters seem large, they pale in comparison to the cost of continued inaction. If emissions stay on their current path, the climate crisis will cost the American economy more than $1 trillion per year by 2080. This may seem decades away, but the time to avoid permanent damage to the U.S. economy has already arrived.

Specific regions of the U.S. will likely experience climate change differently, though. The current most “suitable” regions — where a combination of temperature and precipitation create the most comfortable conditions for human life — include Southern states, pockets of the Southwest and the California coast. However, ProPublica reports that moderate temperature increases could shift these suitable regions into the Northern U.S. by 2070.

Cities like Atlanta, Phoenix and Dallas, which currently sit within or straddle this region, will experience large population decreases as Americans move north to cooler cities. These changes in temperature will have lasting impacts on agricultural production and stunt economic growth in Southern states.

The path to pollution-free

Long-term projections about the climate crisis’s effect on the economy and ecosystem are understandably worrisome. However, there are still ways to eliminate carbon pollution that would limit worst-case scenarios. Our window is dwindling, but not closed; the U.S. can still undergo an energy revolution that creates a fairer economy and a cleaner planet.

The components needed to tackle the climate crisis with an equitable, intersectional approach are included in the U.S Climate Action Network’s Vision for Equitable Climate Action plan. The proposal would cut carbon emissions through clean transportation. a modernized electric grid and sustainable agricultural practices.

Opponents of climate action often claim it would result in economic ruin, but that is the opposite of the truth. The International Labor Union reported that the Paris Agreement will create a net gain of 18 million green jobs by 2030 while investing in clean jobs. We can do the same in an equitable fashion. The Vision for Equitable Climate Action tackles environmental injustice through a focus on empowering working-class Americans and communities of color who face the worst of U.S. corporate pollution.

There are caveats to this future, though: It can’t wait any longer and it won’t begin under the Trump administration. Some studies suggest the next five years determine the climate’s path for the next century. Trump showed his priorities when he used the COVID-19 pandemic to give emission-heavy industries a break, and a second term would feature more of the same deference to industries that puts profit over our future. The Trump administration’s attacks on the environment have racked up a massive bill — the world can’t afford another.