Market Forces

How we underestimate the costs of climate change, and why it matters now

This post, co-authored with Maureen Lackner, originally appeared on Voices.

Costly flooding in Houston after Hurricane Harvey

Cities, states and businesses are still feeling the shock. The coronavirus has stolen more than 138,000 lives and obliterated budgets. Had the U.S. better prepared for the fallout, some of the impacts would have been less severe.

Countries in Asia, for example, accustomed to managing fast-moving viruses after their experiences with SARS, have fared much better than the United States, which leads all countries with 3.43 million COVID-19 cases.

Costs from climate will likely have similar effects, and sooner than we think. Understanding—or better yet, predicting—what we could face in the future is crucial for making the case for policy action today, not after calamity strikes.

Calculating climate costs is daunting

To make these calculations, economists rely on Integrated Economic Assessment models to estimate future costs of climate change. These models are complex tools that link emissions projections to climate and ultimately societal impacts, measured in metrics such as the costs of poorer health outcomes, lost labor, damage to infrastructure, agricultural losses and death. Economists can then value the economic cost of a changing climate in dollar amounts.

The estimated costs from prominent models vary, but they all emphasize how much we currently underestimate climate damages. One recent study focuses on just a few sectors, (agriculture, crime, coastal storms, energy, human mortality and labor), and finds that damages will cost about 1.2% of gross domestic product per +1°C on average.

Even so, estimating outcomes is exceedingly challenging, and many assessments have been leaving out or significantly underestimating several of the serious consequences of climate change on lives and livelihoods.

For example, some economists argue that integrated assessment models do not capture the potential for tipping points adequately, where impacts from climate change can either accelerate abruptly, or become irreversible, leaving us in an unprecedented scenario — perhaps much like the unprecedented times we are experiencing right now. Integrated economic assessment models do their best to reproduce the world’s climate, economy and systems as they exist and function today. Even so, they are ill suited to estimate what will happen in a world where our climate system is pushed past a breaking point.

In addition, there are many intangible impacts that cannot be evaluated solely using economic costs – among them, the loss of cultural heritage, or the trauma of losing your home, getting hospitalized, or losing a loved one.

Every economic model under-values the costs of climate change

What is clear: the damage estimates from these models do not adequately value future well-being and non-monetary factors. Simply put, no matter the model, the numbers it produces are more likely than not too low.

We’ve seen this play out in other major disasters.

The California Wildfires, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and even the Mississippi river flood of 1927 not only resulted in direct catastrophic economic losses to the residents of those areas, they also contributed to trauma, loss of stability and displacement from those communities. Losses that weren’t quantified in damage assessments. Even less well-known disasters resulted in monumental damages. The 2006 California heat wave, for example, cost $5.4 billion, while an outbreak of West Nile Virus in Louisiana cost an estimated $207 million.

We know that climate change is going to be expensive. And it will likely be more expensive than we are able to estimate. That knowledge should prod policymakers to take action now—before it’s too late.

Inaction brought the entire world economy to its knees in a matter of weeks during a pandemic that scientists warned us would come.

Climate change is already starting to wreak havoc on the planet. We don’t have time to wait while the federal government is stymied under the Trump administration’s inaction—and in some cases—proactive rollbacks of climate protections. Just as they have in the pandemic, state and local leaders can and should lead the way to prepare for an uncertain and costly climate future.

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Moody’s Challenge: Prepare for Climate Change or Risk Credit Rating Downgrades

This post was co-authored by Aurora Barone

In the face of havoc wrought by recent storms and hurricanes, Moody’s Investors Services, Inc. has declared that state and local bondholders must account for climate change or face downgrades. It is the first of the three major credit rating agencies to incorporate climate change risks into its ratings assessment, a move that may incentivize policymakers to make smarter, long-term investments in resilience efforts like stormwater systems or flood management programs.

Bond rating agencies like Moody’s help investors determine the risk of companies and governments defaulting on repayments. Revenue, debt levels, and financial management are all common measures of creditworthiness.

States at high risk–mainly on the coast–including Texas, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, will have to account for how they are preparing for the adverse effects of climate change, including the effects of storms and floods, which are predicted to become more frequent and intense as temperatures climb.

In its report to its clients, Moody’s outlined parameters that it will use to assess the “exposure and overall susceptibility of U.S. states to the physical effects of climate change.” Some of these parameters include reviewing an area’s economic, institutional, fiscal strengths, and susceptibility to event risk – all of which will influence the borrower’s ability to repay debt. Coastal risks, like rising sea levels and flooding, and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, like tornadoes, wildfires, and storms, are just a few of the indicators that will be incorporated into the rating.

This wasn’t always the case. Take New Jersey’s Ocean County, for example. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated Seaside Heights, destroying local businesses and oceanfront properties. Yet, last summer, Ocean County sold $31 million in bonds maturing over 20 years – bonds which received a perfect triple-A rating from both Moody’s and S&P Global Ratings. In 2016, major bond companies issued triple-A ratings for long-term bonds to Hilton Head and Virginia Beach, despite the U.S. Navy’s warnings that the latter faced severe threats from climate change. A recent World Bank study calculated future urban losses that many coastal cities may face because of climate change; Miami, New York, New Orleans, and Boston ranked highest in overall risk.  In March 2016, Moody’s and S&P gave top ratings to bonds issued by Boston of $150 million maturing over 20 years, evidently not accounting for any associated climate risks.

In Moody’s new effort to incorporate the risk of climate change into its ratings, it is trying to account for “immediate and observable impacts on an issuer’s infrastructure, economy and revenue base, and environment” as well as economic challenges that may result, such as “smaller crop yields, infrastructure damage, higher energy demands, and escalated recovery costs”.

The hope: in facing the threat of a rating downgrade and more expensive debt, local governments should move to implement major adaptation and resilience projects as a way to entice investors, and of course, to plan for the effects of climate change.


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California Bucks Global Trend with another Year of GHG Reductions

This post was co-authored by Maureen Lackner and originally appeared on the EDF Talks Global Climate blog.

The California Air Resources Board’s November 6 release of 2016 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions data from the state’s largest electricity generators and importers, fuel suppliers, and industrial facilities shows that emissions have decreased even more than anticipated. California’s emissions trends are showing what is possible with strong climate policies in place and provide hope even as new analysis projects that global emissions will increase by 2% in 2017 after a three-year plateau.

California’s emissions kept falling in 2016

The 2016 emissions report, an annual requirement under California’s regulation for the Mandatory Reporting of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (MRR), shows that emissions covered by the state’s cap-and-trade program are shrinking, and doing so at a faster pace than in prior years. Covered emissions have dropped each year that cap and trade has been in place, amounting to 31 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent (MMt CO2e) over the whole period, or 8.8% reduction relative to 2012. The drop between 2015 and 2016 accounts for over half of these cumulative reductions (16 MMt CO2e; 4.8% reduction relative to 2015). The electricity sector is responsible for the bulk of this drop: electricity importers reduced emissions about 10 MMt CO2e while in-state electricity generation facilities reduced emissions by about 7 MMt CO2e.

Some sectors’ emissions grew in 2016. Just as with global transportation emissions, California’s transportation emissions have steadily crept up in recent years, and the MRR report suggests this trend is continuing. Transportation fuel suppliers, which account for the largest share of total emissions, reported a 1.8 MMt CO2e increase in emissions covered by cap and trade since 2015. Cement plants and hydrogen plants also experienced small increases in covered emissions. One of the benefits of cap and trade, however, is that if the clean transition is occurring more slowly in one sector, other sectors will be required to reduce further to keep emissions below the cap while the whole economy catches up.

Emissions that are not covered by the cap-and-trade program dropped, from 92 MMt CO2e in 2015 to 87 MMt CO2e in 2016. While small, this represents the largest reduction in non-covered emissions since 2012 and is mostly driven by suppliers of natural gas/NGL/LPG and electricity importers. Net non-covered and covered emissions reductions resulted in a 20.5 MMt CO2e drop in total emissions from these sectors.

These results are a welcome reminder that the cap-and-trade program is working in concert with other policies to accomplish the primary objective of reducing emissions.

The California climate policies are accomplishing their emissions reductions goals

The 2016 MRR data indicate impactful reductions in GHG emissions and progress toward reaching the state’s target emissions reductions by 2020. The 2016 emissions drop is a consequence of several factors: a CARB analysis of the year’s electricity generation points to increased renewable capacity, decreased imports of electricity from coal-fired power plants, and increased in-state hydroelectric power production. To put it in perspective, the 20.5 MMt CO2e emissions reductions is equivalent to offsetting the energy use of about 2.2 million homes, or 16% of California’s households.

Emissions below the cap are a climate win, not a concern

Total covered emissions in 2016 were about 324 MMt CO2e, well below California’s 2016 cap of roughly 382 MMt. Some observers of the cap-and-trade program worry that an “oversupply” of credits will result in reduced revenue for the state and lesser profits for traders on the secondary market. This concern was especially pronounced when secondary market prices dipped below the price floor in 2016 and 2017.

Importantly, oversupply of allowances is not a bad thing for the climate. As Frank Wolak, an energy economist at Stanford, points out, oversupply may be a sign of an innovative economy in which pollution reductions are easier to achieve than anticipated. Furthermore, having emissions below the cap represents earlier than anticipated reductions which is a win for the atmosphere. Warming is caused by the cumulative emissions that are present in the atmosphere so earlier reductions mean gases are not present in the atmosphere for at least the period over which emissions are delayed.

While market stability is a valid concern, the design of the program has built-in features to prevent market disruptions. Furthermore, the California legislature’s recent two-thirds majority vote to extend the cap-and-trade program through 2030 provides long-term regulatory certainty. Both the May and August auctions were completely sold out suggesting that the extension has succeeded in stabilizing demand.

These results are a welcome reminder that the cap-and-trade program is working in concert with other policies to accomplish the primary objective of reducing emissions, and that we’re doing it cheaply is an added bonus. Early reductions at a low cost can lead to sustained or even improved ambition as California implements its world-leading climate targets.

As California closes its fifth year of cap and trade, it should be with a sense of accomplishment and optimism for the future of the state’s emissions.

Posted in California, Cap and Trade, Cap and Trade Watch, Economics / Leave a comment

How climate policy can mitigate extreme weather’s economic toll


This post was co-authored with Maureen Lackner

In the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Americans are coming together to support communities as they recover from the physical, emotional and economic toll after lives, possessions and livelihoods were washed away. Reestablishing daily routines, including work, school and regular commerce will take time, and for many, life may not return to what was once considered normal. But as we begin rebuilding what can be replaced, it is necessary to first gauge the scale and cost of the damage. It is also time to face the possibility that devastating weather events like Harvey and Irma may become the new normal

Harvey and Irma are among the most expensive hurricanes in U.S. history

Harvey and Irma have brought front and center the high costs of extreme weather-related disasters. While the damage is still being assessed, Harvey’s could cost as much as $200 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history, surpassing Hurricane Katrina ($194 billion in 2017 USD). Estimates of Hurricane Irma’s economic damage are less certain, but the storm will likely also be among the most expensive weather-related disasters in the United States. (And we can’t forget that before reaching Florida, Irma caused damage to many Caribbean islands, which in some cases exceeded their GDP.)

While hurricanes tend to be the most dramatic, other types of severe weather also cause billions of dollars in economic damages. During the first half of 2017 alone, nine weather events including hailstorms, flooding, and tornados racked up $16 billion in damages across several states.

Climate change elevates the risk of severe weather events, and that comes at a cost

Climate change doesn’t cause hurricanes, but sea level rise and warmer temperatures make storms more destructive. Storm surges along the Texas coast where Hurricane Harvey hit are now about 7 inches higher than storm surges a few decades ago as a result of sea level rise, which can make a big difference in flooding. In addition, evaporation intensifies with warmer temperatures, which results in more moisture in the atmosphere and therefore higher rainfall amounts and flooding when storms make landfall. Warmer ocean temperatures also fuel hurricanes, making them more powerful. Hurricane Irma was a classic example of just how powerful a storm can get from increased ocean temperatures.

It is also possible that severe weather-related events overall are becoming more frequent. One recent EDF analysis shows that U.S. counties experienced, on average, a fourfold increase in the frequency of disaster level hurricanes, storms, and floods between 1997 and 2016 than in the 20 years prior. In the Southeast, this increase is even more pronounced; on average, its states experienced close to four-and-a-half times more disaster declarations over the same time period.

In the coming decades, risk of climate change-influenced severe weather will differ from region to region, but one thing is clear: if left unmitigated, the effects of climate change could come at serious economic costs, not just to those who lose homes and livelihoods, but to their insurance companies or to taxpayers. Other aspects of the economy could experience significant pain as well.

In the Southeast alone, higher sea levels resulting in higher storm surges could increase the average annualized cost of storms along the Eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast by $2-3.5 billion by 2030. In some areas, like Texas, where sea levels are rising faster than the global average, these increases even higher. Research published in Science suggests that even if storms themselves do not become more severe, direct annual economic damage could rise by 0.6 to 1.3% of state gross domestic product (GDP) for South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida under median estimates of mean sea level rise. This translates into billions of dollars in additional economic damage every year for each of these states.

Hurricanes and severe storms pose serious risks to U.S. energy infrastructure

During Hurricane Katrina, the extent of the damages suffered by Entergy New Orleans forced the utility into bankruptcy. Hurricane Irma caused power outages in Florida that left over six million people without power.

Beyond these local impacts, these events can cause damage nationwide. Texas is home to about 30% of domestic oil and gas refining capacity, half of which was disrupted by Hurricane Harvey. This shut down 16% of the nation’s total refining capacity, spiked the average national gasoline price approximately 37 cents per gallon, and forced crude exports to drop from 749,000 to 153,000 barrels per day in the week after Harvey. As of September 10, 2017, more than two weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, five Gulf Coast refineries remained closed, representing 11% of total Gulf Coast refining capacity and 5.8% of U.S. refining capacity.

The Trump administration should focus on adaptation and mitigation

In the short term, the Trump administration should maintain existing programs designed to enhance U.S. energy security and disaster response. For starters, the administration should stop dismantling EPA programs expressly designed to help communities respond to damage from storms.

In the long term, we need to build climate resilient communities and infrastructure, through efforts like wetland restoration and smart development. President Trump would also do well to listen to Miami’s Republican Mayor Tomás Regalado, and rethink his approach to climate policy. Instead of rolling back smart policies and regulations, or simply ignoring the impacts of climate change, we need to stop compounding the problem and mitigate the effects of a warmer climate through policy that sets aggressive emissions reduction targets. Such strategies will do much more than just protect our economy’s bottom line—it will help ensure the safety, security, and well-being of millions of Americans.

Posted in Climate science, Politics / Leave a comment

Why the EPA gives Taxpayers the Biggest Bang for their Hard-earned Buck

This blog was co-authored with Gernot Wagner

The Trump administration’s proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2017 slashes the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget by 31 percent, targeting an entity that already operates with one of the smallest budgets in the government – of every 10 dollars the federal government spends, EPA only gets 2 cents.

But absolute numbers aren’t the right metric. The big question is what the public (President Trump’s employer) gets for its investment. And using that metric, the EPA generates the biggest benefits of any agency, bar none.



Between 2005 and 2015, EPA regulations produced on average $9 in benefits for every $1 spent towards compliance. These benefits include: keeping Americans safe from dirty air, water, and dangerous chemicals – all of which can cause increased hospitalizations, missed work days, premature death, and birth defects. While numerous agencies across the federal government provide vital, lifesaving services, as well, EPA has the best benefits-to-costs ratio of any U.S. agency, according to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which produces an annual report tallying the benefits and the costs of major federal rules for every U.S. agency.

Total numbers are even more staggering: over those ten years, EPA is responsible for $376 billion in social benefits after subtracting the costs incurred by its regulations. That’s an order of magnitude higher than any other U.S. agency.

The message is clear: EPA provides large benefits at a bargain. In fact, while a high benefit-to-cost ratio is good, the goal isn’t to maximize the ratio. The goal is to maximize net benefits to society. EPA has been extremely successful at doing exactly that. Now is not the time to walk back that kind of progress.


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The United States Could Lead the Next Tech Revolution by Investing in Clean Energy

New Risky Business Report Finds Transitioning to a Clean Energy Economy is both Technologically and Economically Feasible

In the first Risky Business report, a bi-partisan group of experts focused on the economic impacts of climate change at the country, state and regional levels and made the case that in spite of all that we do understand about the science and dangers of climate change, the uncertainty of what we don’t know could present an even more devastating future for the planet and our economy.

The latest report from the Risky Business Project, co-chaired by Michael R. Bloomberg, Henry M. Paulson, Jr., and Thomas F. Steyer, examines how best to tackle the risks posed by climate change and transition to a clean energy economy by 2050, without relying on unprecedented spending or unimagined technology. The report focuses on one pathway that will allow us to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 through the following three shifts:

1. Electrify the economy, replacing the dependence on fossil fuels in the heating and cooling of buildings, vehicles and other sectors. Under the report’s scenario, this would require the share of electricity as a portion of total energy use to more than double, from 23 to 51 percent.
2. Use a mix of low- to zero-carbon fuels to generate electricity. Declining costs for renewable technologies contribute in making this both technologically and economically feasible.
3. Become more energy efficient by lowering the intensity of energy used per unit of GDP by about two thirds.

New Investments Will Yield Cost Savings

Of course, there would be costs associated with achieving the dramatic emissions reductions, but the authors argue that these costs are warranted. The report concludes that substantial upfront capital investments would be offset by lower long-term fuel spending. And even though costs would grow from $220 billion per year in 2020 to $360 billion per year in 2050, they are still likely far less than the costs of unmitigated climate change or the projected spending on fossil fuels. They’re also comparable in scale to recent investments that transformed the American economy. Take the computer and software industry, which saw investments more than double from $33 billion in 1980 to $73 billion in 1985. And those outlays continued to grow exponentially—annual investments topped $400 billion in 2015. All told, the United States has invested $6 trillion in computers and software over the last 20 years.

This shift would also likely boost manufacturing and construction in the United States, and stimulate innovation and new markets. Finally, fewer dollars would go overseas to foreign oil producers, and instead stay in the U.S. economy.

The Impact on American Jobs

The authors also foresee an impact to the U.S. job market. On the plus side, they predict as many as 800,000 new construction, operation and maintenance jobs by 2050 would be required to help retrofit homes with more efficient heating and cooling systems as well as the construction, operation and maintenance of power plants. However, job losses in the coal mining and oil and gas sectors, mainly concentrated in the Southern and Mountain states, could offset these employment gains. As we continue to grow a cleaner-energy economy, it will be essential to help workers transition from high-carbon to clean jobs and provide them with the training and education to do so.

A Call for Political and Private Sector Leadership

Such a radical shift won’t be easy, and both business and policy makers will need to lead the transition to ensure its success. First and foremost, the report asserts that the U.S. government will need to create the right incentives.  This will be especially important if fossil fuel prices drop, which could result in increased consumption.  Lawmakers would also need to wean industry and individuals off of subsidies that make high-carbon and high-risk activities cheap and easy while removing regulatory and financial barriers to clean-energy projects. They will also need to help those Americans negatively impacted by the transition as well as those who are most vulnerable and less resilient to physical and economic climate impacts.

Businesses also need to step up to the plate by auditing their supply chains for high-carbon activities, build internal capacity to address the impacts of climate change on their businesses and put internal prices on carbon to help reduce risks.

To be sure, this kind of transformation and innovation isn’t easy, but the United States has sparked technological revolutions before that have helped transform our economy—from automobiles to air travel to computer software, and doing so has required collaboration between industry and policymakers.

We are at a critical point in time—we can either accelerate our current path and invest in a clean energy future or succumb to rhetoric that forces us backwards. If we choose to electrify our economy, reduce our reliance on dirty fuels and become more energy efficient, we will not only be at the forefront of the next technological revolution, but we’ll also help lead the world in ensuring a better future for our planet.

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