Congress this week is considering a $60 billion bill to pay for damages inflicted by Superstorm Sandy across three Northeastern states in late October. Though some Republican congressional members are balking at the sum, which the White House is requesting, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut say the damage is even greater, closer to $82 billion.
In either case, these sums are nothing compared to the long-term price the U.S. will pay as a result of extreme weather caused by climate change, says Michael Hanemann, an economics professor specializing in climate change at Arizona State University.
"What we're going to experience is unprecedented in human history in terms of the type of climate we're creating for ourselves," Hanemann tells The Daily Ticker. "The rate of warming has increased maybe five times what it was in the early part of the 20th century. The earth is getting warmer faster."
The first 11 months of this year were the warmest on record for the United States and this year's drought was the most severe since 1956. The U.S. Climate Extremes Index, which tracks the highest and lowest 10% of extremes in temperature, precipitation, drought and cyclones reached a record high this year.
Hanemann says the increasing frequency of these unusual weather patterns proves that climate change is real and continuing. At the root of the earth's warming, says Hanemann, is the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Those emissions are declining somewhat in the U.S. but globally they reached a record high in 2011 and are likely to do the same this year.
Hanemann says the earth has warmed almost 1 degree Celsius since just before the Industrial Revolution. Another degree of warming and we enter a much more dangerous zone. GDP could drop 2.5% permanently if temperatures increase another 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), says Michael Livermore, Executive Director at NYU's Institute for Policy Integrity and research scholar at NYU Law School's Environmental Law Center.
Using today's GDP of roughly $16 trillion that amounts to a permanent $400 billion decline in GDP. Further warming would erase even more growth.
Livermore says there are steps government and individuals can can take now to slow the rate of increased warming and the damage that would follow.
For the government he suggests cap and trade legislation, development of cleaner renewable fuels and infrastructure projects including sea walls in New York City to protect against flooding and other consequences of more extreme weather.
He recommends that individual insulate homes, drive more fuel-efficient autos and use other fuel efficient products like compact fluorescent light bulbs and Energy Star refrigerators, and support politicians who are focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The costs for all of these moves "is nowhere near the costs we face if we don't act," says Livermore.
Hanemann recommends expanding the electric grid to accommodate increased use of air conditioning and expanded water storage. In the meantime, he says, "We need to prepare for more wildfires, floods and droughts."
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