Menopausal Mother Nature

News about Climate Change and our Planet


February’s freeze highlighting climate-change costs paid by all – Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Fallout from last month’s deadly deep freeze in Texas has quietly spread to people living hundreds of miles away. Minnesota utilities have warned that monthly heating bills could spike by $400 after the crisis jacked up natural gas prices across the country. Xcel Energy’s Colorado customers could face a $7.50 monthly surcharge for the next two years.

February’s Texas cold snap demonstrates the way Americans are sharing the financial burden of climate change. The disaster left dozens of people dead, stranded millions in dark homes, and sent a shockwave of higher gas prices across the nation. Other natural disasters, such as tropical storms and wildfires, also highlight the increased cost of climate change.

The federal government spent about $2.3 billion fighting wildfires last year, roughly 10 times what it spent in 1985, an increase tied to the hotter, drier conditions that global warming has created in the western U.S. That money comes from taxes.

So, too, does funding for the National Flood Insurance Program, which has piled up $20.5 billion in debt after a record-setting hurricane season across the Southeast and Gulf Coast. The program now pays about $1 million in interest per day, according to a recent federal report, and won’t be able to repay its debts in the next decade as warmer oceans bring more flooding.

“There’s just no question that we’re paying the costs of climate change today — this isn’t something that’s going to happen to polar bears in 2050,” said Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy program at Stanford University. “And in certain parts of the country, those costs are becoming more apparent than others.”

The costs may be more obvious in whichever state is suffering the latest fire or flood, but all Americans shoulder some of the financial burden. Many climate costs have become socialized, spread out among taxpayers throughout the country. That wasn’t the result of a deliberate, comprehensive federal policy on climate. It just happened that way, as programs created decades ago to deal with weather-related disasters became more and more essential.

“It’s a bit of a roulette how much these disasters cost year after year, but Congress always steps in,” said Tamara Grbusic, a senior associate on climate finance at the RMI think tank in Colorado.

U.S. lawmakers over the past two decades have failed to enact a more cohesive approach to these costs. The government could impose a carbon tax, which would prod businesses to cut their emissions while creating a pool of money to help communities prepare for climate-related disasters.

“A carbon tax is a prudent choice because we are already paying the climate disaster tax,” Grbusic said. “It’s just that most of us aren’t aware of it.”

While federal spending is spread out nationwide, residents of individual states may face their own climate costs. In California, for example, many wildfire-prevention efforts are now funded through utility bills. That socialization of costs came as a result of two decades that saw an increasing number of fires triggered by fallen power lines. The state’s three big investor-owned utilities could spend $40 billion on wildfire prevention over the next decade, according to a recent state report.

To pay for that work, the average California utility customer will see an additional charge that is estimated to be in the range of $96 to $144 a year, according to the state report. By 2030 those charges are likely to rise by another $30.

Considering the costs Americans already incur responding to climate-related disasters, spending more to prevent them or reduce their impact may seem a hard sell for politicians. Roy Wright, chief executive officer of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, said such investments can “absolutely save money,” just as preemptively strengthening a roof can help a home survive a major storm.

“They don’t eliminate the storm, they don’t eliminate the wildfire,” said Wright, who used to be chief executive of the National Flood Insurance Program. “But they can narrow the impact.”