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The Green New Deal Costs Less Than Doing Nothing

Republicans keep saying Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's plan is too expensive. But their own plan—to ignore the climate crisis—is even more so.

Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Ninety-three trillion dollars is a lot of money. It’s more than the entire globe’s gross domestic product.

It is also, if you ask many Republicans, how much the Green New Deal would cost over the course of a decade. Senators Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, and Thom Tillis have cited that number of late, as have their colleagues in the House, like rising star Dan Crenshaw. The GOP’s Twitter account can’t shut up about it, either.

The $93 trillion figure was dreamed up by a conservative think tank. To get there, the American Action Forum added $5.4 trillion for a low-carbon electricity grid, $2.7 trillion for a net-zero emissions system, and $4.2 trillion for green housing—which, fair enough. But then AAF added $36 trillion for “universal health care,” an estimate from a study by the AAF-linked Center for Health and Economy, and $45 trillion for a jobs guarantee.* More importantly, AAF refused to consider any net economic benefits from transitioning away from fossil fuels and zeroing out emissions. And why would they? As Amir Jina, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies, told me, “You say any number like $93 trillion, people’s eyebrows are going to rise.”

Democrats are trying to correct this disinformation campaign. Senator Ed Markey, who introduced the Green New Deal resolution along with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, called $93 trillion “a total fabrication.” And other legislators have started talking about the costs of inaction on climate change. But the Democrats aren’t doing enough to hammer home how expensive the Republican alternative to the Green New Deal really is. Here’s how much it will cost America to do nothing about the climate crisis.

As the planet warms, we won’t just lose more beachfront property to rising seas, and more riverfront property to rising rivers. An increase in air pollution will cause a concomitant increase in hospitalizations. Bridges and roads will buckle and melt under rising temperatures. The agriculture industry will wither under more frequent, more severe droughts. Wildfires will burn hotter and longer, and further encroach on urban areas. Diseases that we didn’t formerly contend with, like Dengue fever, will spread. Ski season will shorten.

All of this will cost us money. In fact, it already is—because some of these things are already happening.

The costs of inaction have been clear in broad terms for a while now. The Stern Review, a massive 2006 publication covering all aspects of climate economics, arrived at an eventual annual loss of between five and twenty percent of the global GDP, which would run into the tens of trillions of dollars. More recently, however, researchers have started to tease out some fairly specific costs associated with inaction—and the numbers aren’t pretty.

The Climate Impact Lab, a consortium of researchers and experts (including Jina), published a paper in the journal Science almost two years ago that modeled the costs associated with things like agricultural output decline, mortality due to temperature extremes, and increases in electricity demand. They found that by the end of the century, the U.S. could be losing between one and four percent of its GDP—or a few trillion dollars, most likely—every single year. The estimated impact was geographically varied: Some parts of the country might fare better, losing little or none of its GDP, while others could be losing hundreds of billions every year.

A paper published in Nature Climate Change last month got into even more detail. In a high-end warming scenario, there would be $26 billion in annual losses due to worsened air quality by 2090; $140 billion due to temperature-related deaths; another $160 billion in lost labor; and $120 billion in yearly damage to coastal property. That was just four of the 22 sectors—and we’ve already reached almost $450 billion in damages every year.

There’s more. Changes to electricity demand and supply would cost $9.2 billion per year. Damage to rail systems would cost $5.5 billion, and throw in more than $21 billion more for roads and bridges. Increased rainfall totals will stress urban drainage systems, to the tune of $5.6 billion per year. The mosquito-borne West Nile virus will expand its range dramatically, costing $3.3 billion. Inland flooding will cost $8 billion more, along with $4.6 billion due to water quality issues, and $2 billion in lost winter recreation revenue. Damage to various ecosystems will carry extreme costs, from $3.1 billion in damage to freshwater fish stocks to $4.1 billion in losses on coral reefs.

All told, the study suggests, largely unchecked warming would cost about $520 billion dollars across these sectors every year by 2090. If we manage to stave off the worst and instead settle on a more middle-of-the-road amount of warming, that would save $225 billion of that total.

As with most areas of climate science, every new study paints a more dire picture. Research just published in Nature Communications tried to update the computer models commonly used in projecting some of these economic impacts to better reflect reality. Specifically, it incorporated some particularly ghastly climate feedback loops, including carbon released from thawing permafrost in the Arctic and reductions in the planet’s ability to reflect sunlight back into space as ice and snow continue to melt.

With those updated models, the study found that economic losses from climate change would be almost $70 trillion higher than previously estimated for the 2 degrees Celsius warming scenario—the limit that most countries are aiming for in their Paris Climate Agreement pledges. If the world managed to reduce emissions to a far greater degree—and thus hit the extremely ambitious 1.5-degree target—then this additional cost would decrease from $70 trillion down to a mere $24.8 trillion, the study found.

Yet another study found that even without taking into account the economic toll of climate change, a business-as-usual scenario would be more expensive than the strict cost of aggressive climate policies. A 2015 report by Citi GPS, the research arm of Citi, found that an “inaction scenario” where we just build the same way we’ve been building would cost $192 trillion out to 2040 on electricity, transportation, and other trappings of modern life. The “action” scenario, meanwhile, where we build solar and wind power instead of coal and natural gas and switch out the automobile fleet and so on, would cost $190.2 trillion.

“We have to replace quite a lot of our coal-fired power plants with something within the next 20 years,” said Geoffrey Heal, a professor at Columbia University Business School, who has modeled the costs of transitioning to a clean energy supply by 2050. “In some sense, the cost of replacing them isn’t an additional cost. We would have to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in replacing power plants as they die.”

The difference between the “action” and “inaction” scenarios may seem small, but the huge difference is that an “action scenario” actually makes money. A 2018 study by Greek researchers found a correlation between increasing renewable energy use and higher GDP; they concluded that “policy-makers … should take all the needed measures to increase [renewable energy sources] contribution to the energy mix.” A report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate found that “bold action” could result in a direct economic gain of $26 trillion by 2030—a likely underestimation.

Specific policies supporting renewable energy would offer clear economic benefits. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that a “high-end” renewable energy standard could increase jobs in the sector—which already employs close to a million people in the U.S.—by 47 percent. The aforementioned Global Commission report found that “ambitious climate action” could generate more than 65 million new low-carbon jobs in 2030.

The Republican plan to do nothing, then, means America would be double-charged for its inaction: The country would lose trillions in missed opportunities for growth, and many trillions more due to a growing catastrophe. Passing a Green New Deal, or something like it, may sound expensive up front, but Republicans should see it for what it is: a sound investment that will generate the greatest returns imaginable—a livable planet.

* A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the source of the
American Action Forum’s cost estimate for universal health care.