This post is by ClimateProgress guest blogger Bill Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.


A dirty little secret of climate change is that somebody wants us to pay much higher taxes and higher energy bills. But it’s not the advocates of climate action. It’s the other guys.

Make no mistake: The costs of switching to clean energy and an energy-efficient economy are far less than the costs of doing nothing.

midwest-floodA study released by the University of Maryland last October helps bring the cost issue into clearer focus. It concludes that the economic costs of unabated climate change in the United States will be major and nationwide.

Climate change will damage or stress essential municipal infrastructure such as water treatment and supply; increase the size and intensity of forest fires; increase the frequency and severity of flooding and drought; cause billions of dollars in damages to crops and property; lead to higher insurance rates; and even increase shipping costs in the Great Lakes-St Lawrence seaway because of lower water levels. And that’s just a sampling.

“Climate change will affect every American economically in significant, dramatic ways, and the longer it takes to respond, the greater the damage and the higher the costs,” lead researcher Matthias Ruth told ScienceDaily.

How big are those costs?

Much more work is needed to quantify them, and the national Climate Change Science Program should give more emphasis to both the social and economic costs of local climate impacts. But recent experience gives an indication of how large the costs could be. The University of Maryland study puts the combined storm damages in the U.S. since 1980 at more than $560 billion, even though the impacts of climate change are far from fully felt. Various estimates project that the maintenance of Alaska’s infrastructure will cost $10 billion; property damage from rising sea levels will cost as much as $170 billion by 2100; and upgrading drinking and water treatment facilities will cost up to $2 billion over the next 20 years. Two federal insurance programs also are a harbinger of pain. Since 1980, taxpayer exposure under the Federal Crop Insurance Program has increased 26-fold to $44 billion (PDF). Several of the predicted consequences of climate change — drought, wildfires, extreme weather, new exposure to pests — will make that liability much worse.

Our liability under the National Flood Insurance Program will increase, too. Taxpayer exposure in that program has quadrupled since 1980 (PDF), approaching $1 trillion in 2005. The program had to borrow more than $17 billion from the Treasury to pay claims following Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, and it’s likely that taxpayers will have to foot the bill.

“The national debate is often framed in terms of how much it will cost to reduce greenhouse gases, with little or no consideration of the cost of no response or the cost of waiting,” the University of Maryland’s lead researcher, Matthias Ruth, told ScienceDaily.

We can expect the demagogues to continue stressing that carbon pricing will mean higher energy bills, while aggressive federal action will mean higher taxes. They will continue to argue that climate action will ruin the economy. We shouldn’t let them get away with it.

The truth is that spending money now to mitigate and adapt to climate change is an investment. Spending money later to cope with public health emergencies, drought, crop damage, and natural disasters is a waste.

It’s climate change, not climate action, that will break the economy and burden the nation’s taxpayers, and that liability gets bigger every year we delay.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.