I recently had a wide-ranging discussion with an elected official on the coast that turned to the costs associated with mitigating climate change. He suggested that, while virtually all of us see the need to turn off the gas (so to speak) before we all bake (as a figure of speech), few of us would be willing to pay for all that may be necessary to turn down the heat.

He may be right, but that may be because we haven’t properly considered the monetary costs of doing nothing.

Look no further than the clamor over the mere suggestion that Half Moon Bay residents replace their dirtier natural gas appliances with cleaner electric ones as the old ones break down. Or consider the situation in Pacifica, where 3 million gallons of stormwater and sewerage bypassed treatment because of a day of heavy rain. Would we have to pay to replace appliances and run electricity? Yes. Would it be expensive to expand capacity of a municipal sewer system that is likely to face increasing deluges in the years to come? Stipulate.

But, with respect, there are gargantuan expenses that come from doing nothing as well.

We could just accept what the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change characterized earlier this year as “a code red for humanity.” Doing so bakes in (ahem) unfathomable costs that go beyond the human suffering that would be born disproportionately by the world’s poor. Consider:

Wildfires? Combined, they cost Americans $17.7 billion in 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Heat and drought? The Center for American Progress says such conditions cost the country $6.4 billion a year since 1980.

Hurricanes? On average, each one now costs people, insurance companies, and state, local and federal governments nearly $20 billion, NOAA says.

The combined cost of the 22 billion-dollar disasters that NOAA recorded in 2020 was nearly $99 billion.

And you think swapping your gas water heater is expensive?

In fact, we shouldn’t have to bear the cost of living in a sustainable planet, at least not alone. Last month, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group lent support to Maryland Sen. Van Hollen’s “Make Polluter’s Pay Plan.” It notes that 20 polluters — you know them by their more palatable names like ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron — have been responsible for 35 percent of global greenhouse emissions over 55 years. The plan would raise $500 billion from these bad actors in 10 years. That could buy a lot of mitigation.

The International Monetary Fund also supports a carbon tax on fossil fuel producers in order to keep the global temperature rise at 2 degrees Celsius rather than 4 C, which is the catastrophic place we’re headed by the end of the century. Would it be expensive? Absolutely. The fund estimates coal prices could double by 2030 if implemented. Gasoline prices would rise as much as 15 percent. Your electric bill would rise too.

Of course, we could do nothing. We’ll just have to explain that to our children.

— Clay Lambert

Clay Lambert is the editorial director for Coastside News Group. After years working at regional daily newspapers, he began as editor of the Half Moon Bay Review in 2004.

(1) comment

Christine Boles

Thank you for this important piece Clay. I hope that Pacifica can get to a place where we can do more to fight climate change and prepare for adaptation. Right now it seems all we can manage is to go from one climate crisis to the next…We must do better.

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