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Ominous US climate report offers few policy solutions

Eric Roston, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

A scenario with dramatically less pollution could slash projected losses by 48 percent ($75 billion) a year in labor costs, 58 percent ($80 billion) in heat-related deaths and 22 percent ($25 billion) in coastal real estate, according to the report. But that still leaves a 12-figure taxpayer burden every year. As far as money to build such solutions is concerned, current-day America faces a $21 trillion national debt fueled by corporate tax cuts, rising healthcare costs, defense spending and Social Security.

But Andrew Light of WRI said many options to address climate change already exist, and that spending on such technologies should be seen as an investment that will be recouped. The opportunities are real and there's money to be made, he said.

"The old days ... when acting on climate change was all pain and no gain -- are done," Light said.

When the first version of the NCA came out in 2000, researchers were still thinking through how different parts of the U.S. might be vulnerable to natural and human-driven changes. Almost two decades later, the latest assessment incorporates a grim accounting of actual damages, and the tremendous financial implications for individuals, companies, government operations and national defense.

"A lot has happened in 20 years," said John Furlow, a contributing author and deputy director of Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society. "Now it's seen much more as a societal or economic issue."

One critical focus of the new study was agriculture. The sector directly contributed $136.7 billion and 2.6 million jobs to the U.S. economy in 2015. It's also a significant source of pollution -- about 9 percent of the U.S. total in 2016 -- and vulnerable to its impacts both at home and from abroad. The damage predicted for U.S. food availability and pricing in the coming decades is significant.

"The U.S. food system is a globalized food system, and we import a lot," said Diana Liverman, a Regents' professor at the University of Arizona. Since the global nature of food-system risk drew interest during the 2014 report discussions, researchers conducted deeper analysis "on things like the vulnerability of U.S. supply chains."

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There are adaptation efforts occurring across the country, seeking to counter the changes already happening due to global warming, but often they are too incremental given the challenge faced.

"In many cases, however, addressing the full range of future climate change requires substantial changes in organizational practices and procedures, in public- and private-sector institutions, in individual and societal expectations and norms, in capital investment planning and in laws," the reports states.

So are there any quick fixes, now that quick fixes are the only option? For decades, researchers have sought that holy grail -- how clean energy and low-carbon industrial change might be accomplished with minimal up-front costs. Research that could potentially inform U.S. federal policy, and is already helping shape city, state, corporate and foreign activity, was recognized in October, when William Nordhaus, a Yale University researcher focusing on such responses, received the Nobel Prize.

(c)2018 Bloomberg News

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