Courtesy Dallas Goldtooth
Twitter post from Dallas Goldtooth ‏@g0ldtooth November 29: This morning Indigenous people gathered to offer a sunrise ceremony before the start of the COP21. #IndigenousRising.

How Much Will Climate Change Cost?

Mark Trahant

The world’s leaders are in France over the next couple of weeks to debate what ought to be done about climate change. Organizers say the United Nations Conference on Climate Change is “crucial because the expected outcome is a new international agreement on climate change, applicable to all, to keep global warming below 2°C.” Any deal would be based on a nation-by-nation approach, so it would be up to each country to figure out how to reach their own climate goals.

That’s the word from the United Nations. But in the United States, climate change, or global warming, highlight a deep political division between most Democrats and most Republicans. The conservative National Review put it this way: “Republicans have already made it clear that the Senate will not ratify any agreement Obama makes requiring either steep, economy-killing, greenhouse-gas emission reductions or climate payoffs to developing countries.”

What if we could vote on the choices ahead? What if climate change (and the alternative courses) could be presented on a ballot? Unfortunately that’s not likely to happen because of the politics of geography. Geography trumps politics: Some of the Republicans facing re-election in states like Maine or Illinois are closer to the Obama administration than their own party. And, in states like Alaska, Montana, and North Dakota, there are few Democrats keen on making a climate referendum. Most Democrats in energy states run on the pretense that the country doesn’t have to make hard decisions about jobs and the environment.

Mark Trahant

Take the Keystone XL pipeline debate as an example. A story in The Montana Standard said Montana’s two most prominent Democrats, Governor Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, were unhappy with President Barack Obama’s recent decision to deny a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. “I’m disappointed with the President’s decision. After dragging his feet for years on the Keystone pipeline, the president missed an opportunity to strengthen America’s energy security,” Tester said. “This decision prevents more good-paying Montana jobs and ensures that we continue to do business with hostile countries in the Middle East.”

But as the president pointed out the United States cannot lead the world on climate change issues and develop projects such as Keystone XL. “Now, the truth is, the United States will continue to rely on oil and gas as we transition — as we must transition — to a clean energy economy,” the president said. “That transition will take some time. But it’s also going more quickly than many anticipated. Think about it. Since I took office, we’ve doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas by 2025; tripled the power we generate from the wind; multiplied the power we generate from the sun 20 times over. Our biggest and most successful businesses are going all-in on clean energy. And thanks in part to the investments we’ve made, there are already parts of America where clean power from the wind or the sun is finally cheaper than dirtier, conventional power.”

The president said Monday the United States is ready to lead on climate change and called for a 32 percent reduction in U.S. carbon emissions by 2030.

But while wind and solar power continue to grow, so does the production of oil and gas. A recent op-ed by Sen. Jim Inhofe in The Tulsa World pointed out that oil production is now 97 percent higher in Oklahoma than it was just five years ago. Inhofe is right: During Obama’s watch, the United States has become what OPEC used to be, the world’s largest oil and natural gas producer.

Inhofe is a consistent critic of climate change action. The Washington Post reported that he may attend the Paris talks as a “one-man truth squad.”

On the Senate floor Inhofe called the U.N. meetings “an upcoming international spectacle” and “we should not only be questioning the science but also the intentions and promises each country is making.” He said the president could not commit the United States to any action because “not only does the president not have the backing of the U.S. Senate and the American people, but outside groups are finding that the president’s method to achieve these reductions through climate regulations – primarily the Clean Power Plan – is faulty.”

But the debate in Congress — and in Paris, for that matter — is mostly about the science of human contributions to global warming. Tribes and Alaska villages face a different problem: the actual, on the ground, impacts of climate change.

Last February, Interior’s Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn testified that tribes are already experiencing “the impacts of a changing climate including drought, intensifying wildfires, changes in plants and animals important to subsistence and cultural practices, impacts to treaty and trust resources, and coastal erosion and sea level rise.”

Washburn said climate change will be costly, some $50.4 million (a $40.4 million increase over 2015) for science, infrastructure and other costs that will be required.

“Tribal lands, particularly in the West, on the Coasts, and in Alaska, are on the frontline of climate change, yet many of these communities face immense challenges in planning and responding to the far-reaching impacts of climate change on infrastructure, economic development, food security, natural and cultural resources, and local culture,” Washburn said. “Some communities are already experiencing increasingly devastating storms, droughts, floods, sea-level rise, and threats to subsistence resources. Strengthening access to information and resources, including technical and financial assistance to address the combined and cumulative effects, are among the highest priorities for supporting climate change adaptation and resilience. Examples of projects that may be funded include training, studies, scenario planning, natural resource and infrastructure projects, public awareness and outreach efforts, capacity building, and other projects.”

This kind of spending will not be an easy sell to a Congress that wants to dismiss climate change as wacky science. But extreme weather will not be so easily shunted aside. States At Risk, a new report says states (and therefore tribes) are not ready for the risks associated with climate change.

“Extreme weather will be even more extreme in the future and preparedness plans that fail to take this into account will fall short, perhaps tragically so,” the report found. “As put by the nation’s top climate science agency, NOAA, ‘…communities would be well-served to look beyond the range of past extreme events to guide future resiliency efforts.’ Failing to prepare today will only increase response and recovery costs tomorrow. Since the 1980s, $1 billion disasters in the U.S. have nearly tripled, from fewer than three a year to more than eight, adjusted for inflation.”

This is how the election debate will change — even in pro-energy states. I think this could happen in a couple of ways. First, the number of jobs is already shrinking, making it much easier to be critical of industry (both for companies’ environmental and safety practices). And, second, there is now the growing issue of cost. Climate change is going to be expensive and the impact of extreme weather is a cost that taxpayers cannot avoid. No matter what happens in Paris.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports.

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