WASHINGTON — Climate change could cost Americans billions of dollars, destroy coastal communities and put agriculture, healthcare and military facilities at risk unless the government acts swiftly, experts warned Congress Wednesday.
Business leaders, health experts and former military commanders warned the U.S. House Budget Committee of impending disaster if there is no plan to address the rising sea levels, warmer temperatures, more frequent floods and other severe weather events that come from global climate change.
“If we do nothing and continue business as usual, that stability that we have built human civilization on is absolutely over, and we are going to take ourselves into a place, not to be apocalyptic, but we are going to take ourselves into a place where we have not seen civilization before,” said retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley, now a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University.
Titley called on the federal government to develop and invest in a sweeping, coordinated effort to solve the problems of climate change, just as the country once did in what seemed a near-impossible race to the moon 50 years ago. He said $100 billion to $200 billion in an “Apollo-type project” with defined goals could help address the problem.
“The way we buy down this risk is to ultimately decarbonize not only the U.S., but the world economy. And then we can get back to stability and can manage this problem,” said Titley.
Without a massive investment, experts warned the cost to respond to the problems associated with climate change could rise to the hundreds of billions — or even trillions — of dollars. Titley said sea level rise alone could cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars.
“Really what we are talking about when we talk about climate change and the budget is the cost of doing nothing,” said Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky. “That is one of the things we have to remain focused on — doing nothing is really not an alternative for this country.”
In terms of public health, climate change could cause more respiratory illnesses, threaten safe water supplies, and lead to more more heat stroke and insect-borne diseases, according to Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
Those risks could have even greater effects for low-income communities and communities of color, Benjamin said.
For food and agriculture, it could significantly increase the cost of growing food and producing products.
“Climate change for us is a risk to our ability to continue operating,” said Stefani Millie Grant, senior manager for external affairs and sustainability for the trans-national food and household product giant Unilever.
Americans currently spend, on average, about 12.7 percent of their household budget on food. But climate change could ramp up costs so that rises to 60 to 70 percent of total household budget, Grant said.
“We ask government to put a policy out there, put a policy out there and help us get there. We can’t do it all ourselves,” Grant said
Republicans said market forces and the private sector — rather than the government — should drive the response.
“The private sector is already working to reduce emissions at their own pace, which is relatively rapid,” said Rep. Dan Meuser, R-9th District. He said businesses and the Army training facility in his district are already use renewable energy like solar or geothermal to lower costs and increase efficiencies.
“We need to look at trends and be data-driven and economically feasible,” Meuser said.
But Rep. David Price, D-N.C., said the Trump administration has created uncertainty for businesses and put the climate at further risk with its rollback of environmental regulations — like fuel efficiency and clean power standards.
“In politics, we often use the term ‘special interest,’ but when it comes to climate change, it strikes me that narrative does not quite do the job,” said Price. “Businesses have not asked for a lot of the anti-environmental measures that this administration has taken. It is my understanding businesses want certainty, where the path forward is clear, but at every turn Trump’s actions have created uncertainty.”
“The American Public Health Organization has opposed every one,” Benjamin said of the regulatory rollbacks. “We don’t have a clue why they are doing it. It does not make sense, and quite frankly, we will be seeing them in court.”
Calls to revive Yucca Mountain
Yarmuth and Republican committee members agreed that nuclear power will need to be a significant tool in mitigating potential harm. And the committee’s top Republican, Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, called for the reactivation of Nevada’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage site.
“Nuclear energy is probably among the cleanest things we do in terms of powering our nation,” said Womack. “It is my strong opinion that we need to have spent nuclear fuel stored somewhere, and all the science points to Yucca Mountain.”
Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., whose district includes 119 miles of Lake Huron shoreline, warned that rising temperatures are causing harmful algal blooms and harming cold-water fish populations in the Great Lakes. That’s is hurting tourism and the fishing industry in his state, he said.
“I believe that for the people I represent we actually have to do a lot more,” said Kildee. “Folks say in general we have to do something about it, but then object to every specific suggestion that comes up.”
Kildee’s specific suggestion is to focus on tax credits, particularly those for electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel. He introduced a bill this spring that would expand the number of vehicles that are eligible for an existing credit. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., introduced a similar measure in the Senate.
Ice ‘just keeps melting’
The House Budget Committee is tackling the costs of climate change as a group of House lawmakers floated new plans this week to address efforts to curb emissions.
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he wants his panel to create a concrete plan by the end of the year that would result in net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. His panel also held a hearing on the issue Wednesday.
The more progressive wing of the Democratic Party has rallied around a different ambitious proposal, the Green New Deal, which sets a goal for a carbon-free economy by 2030.
The Budget Committee does not have jurisdiction to advance either of those proposals, but it can set spending levels that affect federal investment.
Lawmakers are preparing to vote this week on a new bipartisan budget deal that would suspend the debt ceiling and raise spending caps, allowing the government to spend more money on climate or other programs.
“The deal to raise budget caps empowers us to continue making an investment in clean energy and resilience, while avoiding the potentially damaging fiscal and environmental effects of the sequester,” Yarmuth said at the hearing.
The House was slated to vote on the measure Thursday and the Senate is expected to take up the vote next week.
“The ice, unfortunately, doesn’t care what our discretionary funding is, it just keeps melting,” said Titley.
Allison Winter is a Washington D.C.-based Correspondent for the Capital-Star.