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Congress runs up the climate tab; Americans stuck with the bill

By continuing to drag its feet in taking meaningful action to address climate change, the United States Congress may be violating one of its most sacred principles: That it should never impose any massive, “unfunded mandates” on the American people.

The fact is, dealing with the effects of climate change over the coming decades will be costly. The public and private sectors will need to repair bridges and roadways, treat the increased incidence of climate-related illness, improve building codes and strengthen infrastructure, and protect coastlines from storm surges, to name only a few necessary actions society will be forced to take. We will also need to respond and rebuild after extreme events, such as hurricanes, heat waves, wildfire, drought in some areas, and flooding in others.

And yet, one year after Superstorm Sandy devastated communities along the eastern coast, we’re still not focusing nationally on the reality of what climate change is already costing u. Sandy alone caused more than 150 deaths, damaged or destroyed 659,000 homes, and disrupted millions of lives and hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses. While President Obama’s Climate Action Plan (announced in June) will move the U.S. in the direction of reducing carbon pollution, encouraging clean energy, and preparing for future climate change, far more action is needed.

Even with immediate and significant steps to curb climate change risks, managing the unavoidable risks and costs of a warmer world will be expensive. The high costs of responding, rebuilding, and preparing for the future will be the responsibility of already overburdened federal, state, local, and tribal governments, and – directly and indirectly – the American people. These costs may well represent the largest unfunded mandate Congress has ever imposed on our nation.

In September, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the summary for policy makers from its newest comprehensive report on the science of climate change. The report states unequivocally that climatic effects, such as warming, rising sea level, and diminished sea ice, are occurring at unprecedented rates, and that human-influence is likely the dominant influence on climate over the past half century.

How much will it cost us to prepare for and adapt to this warmer world? A new report from the Center for American Progress pulls together estimates of the costs of actions to respond to and prepare for climate change, from both the peer-reviewed literature and anecdotal evidence. Taken altogether, the combined costs of responding to climate change risks, rebuilding in the wake of more extreme storms, and making communities more resilient to more extreme weather-related disasters and other effects of climate change – are likely to be in the tens of billions, and could reach hundreds of billions of dollars, annually, by the middle of the century.

State and local governments are already taking the lead to respond and build resilience to climate change. While the federal government helps shoulder some of this cost, much falls directly on state and local budgets. If the aggregate cost to state and local governments rises into the billions annually, it will represent a significant bite on many state budgets, which averaged $33 billion across all states in 2011. An increase of even a few percentage points in necessary expenditures could increase the pressure on cash-strapped state budgets. 

Moreover, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office earlier this year found that the impacts of climate change present a significant financial risk to the federal government, suggesting that federal assistance will be harder and harder to come by. 

The Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA, Pub.L. 104-4) requires Congress to assess whether any legislation it considers would impose an unfunded mandate – that is, impose new responsibilities and task on state, local, and tribal governments, without providing additional funding to cover the incremental costs. The threshold for an unfunded intergovernmental mandate is currently $75 million – not billions, but millions.  Climate change will easily surpass Congress’s threshold by an order of magnitude or more.  

Congress needs to take immediate action in three critical areas to rein in this unprecedented unfunded mandate: 

  • Assess the unfunded mandate it is imposing on state, local, and tribal governments, and require carbon audits of any proposed energy legislation to ensure it does not further escalate the mandate
  • Adequately fund community resilience efforts, including providing the information that state and local governments need to make wise decisions and supporting more resilient roads, bridges, ports and building designs through federal infrastructure and disaster assistance programs
  • Reduce future climate change risks by enacting legislation to curb emissions of heat-trapping gases, including by putting a price on carbon, reining in emissions of super pollutants as methane; tropospheric ozone; hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs; and black carbon, and continuing to support tax credits for alternative energy, such as the Production Tax Credit for wind power and credits for alternative fuels, energy efficient homes and appliances

By taking these steps, Congress – and the Republican party, which voted unanimously for the original UMRA legislation – can finally make good on its goal: ensure that Congress has information about the costs of mandates before imposing them, and encourage funding to cover the cost of mandates. Or, to quote the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman at the time UMRA was passed, let’s end “the steady stream of dictates from Washington on how to spend locally raised tax dollars.” Yes, let’s do that to reduce the high risks and costs to states of unchecked climate change.

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