In my Earth in 2100 course at The University of Texas at Austin, we talk about the scientific, psychological, political and economic decisions that have led to our current climate crisis. In the course’s multiple discussions, the most frequent question I get from my students is “Why is the government not acting on climate change?”
They ask this question because of the present and future impacts of climate change. I am a climate scientist and glaciologist who reads article after article after article on the recent rapid loss of the Greenland ice sheet. There are similar articles for the Antarctic ice sheet here, here and here, where the consequences may be more dire.
Although Greenland has a total of 7 meters (23 feet) of sea level rise locked up in its icy mass, a melting Antarctica has the potential to raise sea level by a humbling 58 meters (190 feet). Sea level rise is expected to reach between 0.29 and 1.1 meters by 2100, which at the higher end, will displace 2.2 million people in the United States and 230 million people globally. Today, we are already seeing the early signs of sea level rise. Sunny-day flooding, or nuisance flooding at high tide, is increasing across the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, normalizing the occasional octopus in a parking garage.
What is a nuisance today will be a catastrophe in 2100. During our children’s lifetimes, they may witness the abandonment of large swaths of New Orleans; Charleston, South Carolina; and southern Florida. They may see the rebuilding of infrastructure such as sewage and transportation in numerous other coastal cities. They may observe extensive damage and death from tropical storms that can more easily push winds and waves toward land with a higher sea level. And they may look on as the world enters into a global humanitarian crisis of climate refugees needing shelter, food and access to clean water.
So how do I answer my students? One could argue that there is action in inaction. The business as usual approach in climate policy chooses a future with high greenhouse gas emissions that result in the largest sea level projections. This is a costly and deadly choice. Unabated, estimated U.S. economic damage as a result of climate change by 2090 is expected to be about $450 billion per year (not counting for inflation).
Compare this to presidential candidate Joe Biden’s ambitious plan to mitigate climate change while also shifting America to a green economy at a cost of $2 trillion and you might say that this is actually a bargain. At 10% of the U.S. GDP, the expense of Biden’s plan is similar to U.S. defense spending during the Cold War.
Is this not the action my students are calling for?
The pandemic has made clear that America is not a preventive culture. And, although some may wince when thinking of spending trillions and be unsure that we should rely on climate projections for such large, present-day investments, we should remember that we have already bought and paid for climate change.
Over the past decade, the federal government has spent an average of $1.3 billion per year on disaster relief. During the previous 10 years, spending averaged $925 million per year, compared to just $300 million per year during the 1990s, representing a quadrupling in spending over 20 years. Regardless of whether the U.S. continues to sit on the sidelines with climate policy, Americans will continue to rack up the bills paying for the damage.
None of this is new. Since James Hansen famously testified to Congress in 1988, climate scientists have repeatedly sounded the alarm on the wide-ranging suite of impending climate impacts. So too have social scientists, who have argued that financially, we cannot afford to stay the course, and that a carbon net-zero future is within our reach by 2100. Perhaps the biggest irony: Scientists were conservative in the estimates.
The current rate of climate change and associated damage is unfolding even faster than thought. Yes, climate change is happening, and yes, we are in for a difficult future. Yes, climate action is costly, but the cost of doing nothing is larger. America and our government leaders need to act now.
Ginny Catania is a professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in The Hill.