Credit: FEMA

The election is over—now what on the climate change issue? Hurricane Sandy, the nation’s fiscal situation, and the election results have combined to create three key things that I think compel Congress to action on climate change.

1. Climate Change Impacts are Costing the Federal Government Too Much Money

Congress returns in mid-November to the fiscal cliff debate. Hurricane Sandy should put the issue of climate change squarely within this discussion.  Sandy’s estimated costs are $10–$20 billion in insured losses with at least another $50 billion in economic damages. The $12 billion in government money set aside for disaster relief this year will be easily gobbled up in the recovery. Congress will be forced to seek additional money to help effected citizens. The federal price tag for the recovery from Hurricane Katrina reached $120 billion. Sandy may not reach that total, but the amount of federal money spent on the relief will be significant.

Hurricane Sandy, however, is only one piece of the climate impact puzzle. This year the country has also experienced record drought, widespread wildfires, and the worst West Nile virus outbreak ever. Munich Re put the cost of the first six months of 2012’s extreme weather events at over $14.5 billion. All of these impacts have required a federal government response. Lawmakers sought $800 million in additional funds this year to deal with wildfires and new legislation for over $300 million in drought assistance to livestock producers hit by the drought is expected soon.

But wait there is more.  Sandy has shown that the country needs a crash course in preparing for and adapting to the changes and impacts that will occur in the future (read NWF’s prescription here). This is not cheap.  For example, Norfolk, VA—home of Naval Station Norfolk and on the frontline of climate impacts—has a comprehensive adaptation plan that will cost about $1 billion. This is roughly twice the city’s entire annual budget and cannot be undertaken without federal dollars.

So, if we are serious about addressing the federal budget crisis, lawmakers need to look at the exploding costs of climate change impacts and how much it will take to better prepare for such events.

The choice Congress will face is who picks up the tab.

The past failure to put price on carbon pollution means that the costs of dealing with these “externalities” (read: impacts) have never been borne by the polluters. Instead, the federal government and taxpayers like you and me foot the bill. The looming fiscal crisis and the costs of climate change demand this equation be changed.

We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet. President Obama, 2012 victory speech

2. Big Oil and King Coal’s Money Play Was A Costly Failure

Early last year the political punditry predicted a significant loss in the Senate for a number of Senators that voted to support using the Clean Air Act to limit the carbon pollution causing climate change.  Big polluters sought to make this a reality with enormous campaign expenditures through independent entities like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads. Together, just these two organizations funneled over $31 million into the Senate races against candidates that hold key votes in preserving the Clean Air Act during the next Congress. Guess what?  The polluter attempt to buy the election failed miserably.

Let’s take a deeper dive. A key moment in the last Congress was a vote on a Senate amendment to a small business bill that would have rolled back the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to fight climate using the Clean Air Act. The amendment failed.  Cross referencing some of the key votes that fought to defeat the climate rollback amendment with the new election results reveals that the millions of polluter dollars did not alter the political equation. This holds true across the whole map of the recent Senate elections. Tuesday night’s results actually weakened the polluters’ political hand on climate and the Clean Air Act. The results mean politicians don’t have to be afraid of Big Oil and King Coal and it’s time to move forward.

*Sen. Casey’s opponent, a coal company executive, self-financed his campaign with over $17M. All figures from OpenSecrets.org

3. Poll After Poll Shows the Public Increasingly Wants Action on Climate Change

Additionally, the future for politicians that have spent their time on the fossil fuel dole and opposing action to address climate change does not look so, pardon the pun, hot. Polling undertaken before Hurricane Sandy has shown that the public attitude toward taking action on climate on the significant upswing.  Three recent examples:

  • Yale’s September poll finding that 70% of Americans see global warming as a reality that is occurring. This number is up 13% since January 2010 and those who do not see climate change as occurring declining to a low of 12%.
  • NWF’s September poll of sportsmen finding 66% in agreement with the statement that “We have a moral responsibility to confront global warming to protect our children’s future.”
  • Kaiser Foundation Foundation/Washington Post poll in August finding that 74% support government action to “regulate” the climate changing air pollution that is emitted from power plants, cars and factories. The support was bi-partisan with 87% of Democrats, 73% of Independents and 61% of Republicans in support.

It’s safe to say after witnessing the suffering of millions from the aftermath of Sandy these numbers will only continue to rise.

The Bottom Line

All of these factors lead to the cumulative conclusion that members of the next Congress must address the climate crisis soon or risk their political well-being. Simply put:

  • The nation can no longer afford to bail out polluters and foot the bill. Putting a price on carbon pollution will help the fiscal state of the country, drive adoption of clean energy technologies, and place the responsibility of paying for climate change damages on those that cause the problem;
  • Counting on Big Polluter campaign money to win you an election will not succeed and it will not overcome the public’s desire to vote for those that will protect our families, homes, and communities from the ravages of climate change; and
  • Politicians that step forward to provide leadership in addressing climate change and its impacts will be meeting the expectations of the electorate and rewarded in 2014.

by Joe Mendelson, via National Wildlife Federation

Joe Mendelson serves as NWF’s Director of Policy, Climate & Energy Program where he leads a team of legislative and policy professionals to develop and implement solutions to global warming. This piece was originally published at NWF and was reprinted with permission.