What we can do to act now to address climate change events, and why such action makes sense economically, is not guesswork. In "The Economic Case for Climate Action in the United States," published online by the Universal Ecological Fund, we find answers.

"Burning fossil fuels comes at a giant price tag which the U.S. economy cannot afford and not sustain," says Sir Robert Watson, co-author of the report and former Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading scientific body on climate change. Its other two authors are Dr. James J. McCarthy, professor of oceanography at Harvard University, and Liliana Hisas, executive director of the UEF.

First, there is an urgent need to cut the burning of fossil fuels, which trap the sun's heat in Earth's air, land and water, warm the planet and increase the frequency, intensity and severity of extreme weather events. Their annual costs are $240 billion in the U.S. currently, or roughly 40 percent of gross domestic product growth of the American economy, according to the report.

Now consider this. The estimated price tag for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in Texas, Louisiana and Puerto Rico, plus 76 wildfires across nine Western states so far this year could exceed $300 billion, according to the report.

"Simply, the more fossil fuels we burn, the faster the climate continues to change and cost," Watson said. "Thus, transitioning to a low-carbon economy is essential for economic growth and is cheaper than the gigantic costs of inaction."

The report estimated $360 billion — or 55 percent of GDP growth per year in economic losses, damages and health costs caused by human-induced climate change, mainly from carbon emissions from using coal, oil and natural gas. These fossil fuels make up 80 percent of the primary energy that the U.S. economy produces and uses, which is unchanged over the past two decades.

An industry at risk of worsening economic losses from climate change is agriculture, which depends on a stable environment with regular rainfall. Extended droughts upset this balance, leading to economic losses to farmers in Western states dealing with drought and wildfires costing $56 billion over the past five years, the report finds. If climate action to reduce such negative economic impacts fails to occur during the coming three decades, corn and soybean producers could lose $17 to $25 billion annually.

What of the nonfarm labor force, the overwhelming majority of workers in the U.S. economy? How many of them work in the fossil fuel industries driving extreme weather events? Further, how can we reduce climate change in a way that boosts economic growth and creates jobs?

Think clean and sustainable energy. How? That "requires smart decisions and smarter investments," according to Hisas, a co-author of the report.

To this end, the report provides data on relevant current and future industries and the labor forces they employ.

  • 1.9 million workers in the energy industry extract and generate energy to power and fuel the residential, commercial, industrial and transportation sectors in the United States.
  • 5 percent of the electricity used in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors is generated from renewable sources — solar, wind, bioenergy, hydropower and geothermal.
  • 95 percent of the fuel used for the transportation sector is fossil fuels — gasoline, diesel and jet fuel (92 percent) and natural gas (3 percent).
  • 500,000 new jobs can come online through doubling the share of renewable energy, while reducing the share of electricity generation from fossil fuels by 23 percent, while 250,000 new jobs can result from the construction of carbon capture and storage plants, which would allow the continued burning of fossil fuels responsibly.
  • 50,000 new jobs can come from research, architecture and engineering to accelerate the identification, testing and deployment of innovative technologies to produce sustainable clean energy.
  • $200 billion in potential revenues are possible with a tax on carbon emissions to be reinvested in reducing emissions, promoting a more efficient use of energy and encouraging the transition away from fossil fuels.

The aforementioned figures to affect action on climate change are a small part of the nearly $19 trillion U.S. economy. The politics of such climate action is another matter, given the political gridlock in Washington, D.C., and the Trump administration's friendly stance toward the fossil fuel industry, e.g., withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accord.