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Failing to Curb Global Warming Could Cost the Nation Hundreds of Billions by the End of the Century, New Report Finds

Sept 10, 2009 - Union of Concerned Scientists

WASHINGTON (September 10, 2009) — Unchecked climate change could saddle taxpayers, businesses, and state and local governments across the country with hundreds of billions of dollars in damages, according to a new report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The report, "Climate Change in the United States: The Prohibitive Costs of Inaction," is an overview of more than 60 studies analyzing the potential financial toll of global warming if we fail to dramatically curb emissions. The costs are largely due to rising sea levels, more intense hurricanes, flooding, declining public health, strained energy and water resources, and impaired transportation infrastructure. UCS has assembled separate summaries of findings for the East Coast, Midwest and Western states.

"If we don't address global warming, you can imagine a cash register going 'ka-ching' all across the country," said Lexi Shultz, deputy director of the Climate Program at UCS. "By late this century, the Midwest could be inundated with more torrential rainstorms costing tens of billions of dollars. California, Washington and Oregon could be hit with an additional billion dollars in property damage from wildfires every year. The Northeast and Northwest, meanwhile, could lose most of their snowpack, which would kill the ski industry."

The good news is that the cost of taking preventive action would be dramatically less than the cost of doing nothing. Two federal agencies recently calculated the cost of a climate and energy bill, passed by the House of Representatives in June, that would promote clean energy technologies and curb global warming emissions. The Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration estimated that the bill would increase U.S. household energy bills by only $10 a month in 2020. The Congressional Budget Office arrived at a similar estimate. As Energy Secretary Steven Chu pointed out, "We can move to a clean energy future at a cost of less than a postage stamp per family per day."

"The investments we need to make in a clean energy economy are clearly affordable and will pay major dividends," said Rachel Cleetus, climate economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "What we can't afford are the steep and rising costs of doing nothing."

Global warming already has altered the U.S. climate, the report pointed out: "Average U.S. temperatures have already risen by 2°F over the past 50 years, and are projected to rise another 7°F to 11°F by the end of this century" if we do not significantly cut emissions. Given that heat-trapping gases remain in the atmosphere for decades or even centuries, continuing to emit them at current rates would place a massive burden on generations to come.

Below are just some examples of costs that would be incurred due to sea level rise, extreme weather events, and diminished tourism if global warming continues unabated.

In the Northeast
If emissions continue on their current trajectory, many winter recreation areas are projected to become unsuitable for skiing or snowmobiling. The region could lose $405 million to $810 million in annual skiing revenues.

Sugar maples and other trees that produce the region's stunning fall foliage also are vulnerable to a warming climate. The region stands to lose $5 million to $12 million annually from maple sugar losses alone, due to shrinking tree habitat and decreased sap flow.

Sea level rise, meanwhile, comes with a high price tag. Constructing seawalls to protect Northeast towns and cities could cost as much as $1.2 billion.

In the Southeast
In North Carolina: A projected sea level rise of 18 inches could cost the beach recreation industry $11 billion in cumulative damages by 2080 and cause $2 billion in cumulative property damage by 2100. 

In Georgia: A sea level rise of 20 inches could require a cumulative $1.3 billion in sand replenishment by 2100, and lead to a loss of 5,000 jobs in the tourism industry.

In Florida: Sea level rise is projected to result in residential real estate losses of as much as $60 billion per year by 2100. Florida's tourism industry risks losing $178 billion annually by 2100 due to severe beach erosion, Everglades flooding, and coral bleaching. In addition, by 2100, Florida residents could be socked with $19 billion annually in additional costs for air conditioning. And property damage associated with more intense hurricanes is projected to reach $111 billion annually by 2100.

In the Midwest
More Floods: According to a June 2009 climate report by 13 federal agencies, heavy rainstorms are projected to increase as much as 40 percent nationwide, and the Midwest and Northeast likely would experience the greatest increase in heavy downpours. Recent floods portend significant future costs. In May and June of last year, thunderstorms, tornadoes and floods caused more than $18 billion in damage and 55 deaths nationwide, primarily in the Midwest.

More Crop Damage: Climate change may mean wetter springs, which could delay crop planting. One study projected a 7 percent increase in precipitation in Illinois, which would increase soil erosion as much as 38 percent by 2060, driving up the costs of agricultural production. When combined with a predicted 4.5°F increase in annual average temperatures, the annual costs of climate change for Illinois's agricultural sector could reach $9.3 billion.

In the West
New Mexico: The combined annual health costs from heat waves and ground-level ozone are expected to jump by $1.6 billion by 2080. Reduced stream flows from rivers primarily supplied by snowmelt would cost farmers an estimated $21 million per year by 2080. In addition, wildfires would cost New Mexico an estimated $2 billion in timber value and additional firefighting expenditures a year by 2080.

California: Annual heat-related health costs could reach an estimated $14 billion by 2100, while rising ground-level ozone levels would boost medical bills by another $10 billion. The cost of protecting low-lying coastal property from sea level rise and the resulting storm surges, particularly around San Francisco Bay, would range from $6 billion to $30 billion annually by 2100.

The state's economy also would take a major hit. By the end of the century Sierra snowpack could diminish by 80 percent. As a result, California's ski season could disappear, and with it 15,000 jobs and $500 million in annual industry revenues. Total annual tourism industry losses could reach $7.5 billion. Meanwhile, annual losses to state agriculture, forestry and fisheries could reach $4.3 billion. Hotter conditions would slow production and reduce the quality of many of the state's agricultural products. For example, milk production could fall as much as 22 percent by 2100.

Additionally, annual large wildfires would increase by as much as 53 percent by 2100. Last year, the federal government spent $200 million on firefighting efforts in California, three-quarters of which went to fight just three fires.

Washington and Oregon: These two states together could lose $1.7 billion in annual revenues from hydropower by 2080 because of shrinking snowpack and water shortages. By 2080 the states' ski industry would suffer an estimated $525 million dollar annual loss due to reduced snowfall, while the cold-water angling industry would experience more than a $1 billion annual decline. Oregon likely would suffer an additional $497 million in annual property damage from wildfires beyond today's price tag. Washington's wildfire bill, meanwhile, would likely be $380 million higher.

Alaska: Over the last 50 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the nation, and melting permafrost has damaged roads, runways, water and sewer systems, and other infrastructure. Continued thawing would add $3.6 billion to $6 billion to the cost of publicly owned infrastructure by 2030, and $5.6 billion to $7.6 billion by 2080. Oil and gas infrastructure is particularly vulnerable to warming temperatures. Much of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, for example, is built on permafrost.

Alaska also is threatened by sea level rise. The cost of locating just three threatened towns—Shismaref, Kivalina and Newtok—is estimated at $405 million.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading U.S. science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also has offices in Berkeley, Chicago and Washington, D.C.


Updated: 2016/06/30

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