View of Hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Katia, form the GOES-16 satellite, 4 September 2017 - 9 September 2017. Photo: NOAA

(New York Magazine) – For decades, a kind of market logic has governed the way we talk about global warming, emanating from the moderate right: Climate change may well be real, the Chamber of Commerce types say, but the need for economic growth is much more urgent and climate action will hamper American business (perhaps even enough to delay development of new, dramatic planet-saving technologies). More recently, especially under Obama, progressives have pushed the positive-case counterargument: that green energy could be a booming growth sector and massive job creator. Which, by the way, it is already: Solar employs more people today than coal, and overall clean energy accounts for more jobs than dirty in almost every state (the job-growth numbers are even more impressive, with green energy generating work 12 times faster than fossil fuel). But the negative side of things is just as important — and here the calculus is just as clear. Even in the short term, and even with cost defined in the narrowest ways, inaction on climate change is likely to be devastatingly more expensive than action. That is what happens when centuries worth of natural disasters are compressed into a few decades — or in our case, a few weeks.

This month of extreme weather demolishes the old economic-cost paradigm — or should, if we could let ourselves really see climate change for what it is and what it does. Last week, Hurricane Harvey — an “unprecedented” storm, it was said, a “thousand year flood” — became the most expensive hurricane in American history, with damage running as high as $200 billion. A week later, we are looking at an even more unprecedentedly destructive storm, with Hurricane Irma now predicted to move up the Florida peninsula, potentially laying waste to Tampa and other cities along the state’s west coast, as well as Orlando and much of central Florida. Early estimates of potential damage run as far north as Atlanta and as high as $1 trillion.

When Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, he left any benefits from green-energy growth out of his tabulation and cited a probably inflated cost of cutting emissions to those goals of $3 trillion by 2040. The United States’ GDP is about $19 trillion, meaning that this one month of hurricanes — Harvey, Irma, Jose — could deliver an economic blow equivalent to 5 percent of all American economic activity, and possibly more. In a period of just two weeks. And then, on top of all that, there is the cost of the heat wave and wildfires that swept across the American west last week, blanketing almost a quarter of the country in smoke so thick you could see it by satellite. [more]

Will Irma Finally Change the Way We Talk About Climate?

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