Climate Change Is More Devastating Than Ever - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Authors

Robert Pearsall

Robert Pearsall is a climate mitigation strategist and Congressional liaison to U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz on behalf of the Honolulu chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Mark Reynolds

Mark Reynolds is the executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

The amount of heat-trapping emissions that humans have spewed into our atmosphere since last Earth Day was 10% less than in a typical year, which would be a cause for celebration if not for one salient fact: The reduction in carbon pollution will be short lived as the global economy rebounds from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though emissions were briefly down, the impact of climate change in 2020 was more devastating than ever. The Atlantic hurricane season broke records for the number of named storms with 30, so many that the World Meteorological Organization ran out of names and had to use the Greek alphabet. AccuWeather estimates the economic fallout from these storms to be between $60 and $65 billion.

Hawaii’s economy continues to suffer more than most with our massive reduction in tourism, which was needed to manage the coronavirus pandemic.

The 2020 storm season also saw the rise of another troubling phenomenon associated with climate change — rapid intensification of storms, which can leave coastal communities in the path of deadly hurricanes with little time to evacuate. Rapid intensification is caused by increasingly warmer ocean temperatures.

While hurricanes wreaked havoc in the East, wildfires raged in the West, where dry conditions and record temperatures contributed to one of the worst fire seasons: U.S. wildfires burned a total of 10.27 million acres in 2020, killed at least 43 people and caused damages reaching $16.5 billion.

The human and monetary toll is considerably higher when the health impact of smoke-filled skies is considered. A study looking at the 2018 wildfire season in California found that when the indirect impact of smoke is considered — hospitalizations, lost wages, etc. — the economic damage was $150 billion.

Winter provides no respite from the impact of climate change. The rapid warming of the Arctic, scientists say, played a role in weakening the jet stream that contains the polar vortex. This weakening allowed sub-freezing temperatures to reach all the way to the Gulf coast of Texas earlier this year, knocking out electricity and heat to millions.

We are feeling the impacts of climate change here in Hawaii, and the coronavirus pandemic has given us a preview of what will occur if we do not make climate action a top policy priority. The prolonged economic downturn caused by the pandemic has led to massive lost business and tax and state revenues, which is exactly what will happen time and again if Hawaii experiences more frequent extended weather events such as flooding or drought, in addition to the obvious perils of sea level rise.

Our earth is changing as it grows warmer, and more and more of us across the globe are feeling the impact of that change: storms, fires, droughts, floods, extreme temperature changes and all that comes with them. Flickr: Rubén Moreno Montolíu

The state’s annual revenues are down roughly $300 million due primarily to the drop in tourism, which accounts for more than 30% of Hawaii’s gross domestic product. With such a prolonged and precipitous drop, the state’s general fund coffers will feel the pinch for several years, as will our local businesses and workers. And while the impacts on services have been felt across all communities, those of the underserved and lower incomes have been particularly hard hit.

Expect more of these adverse economic outcomes if we fail to make climate change mitigation a priority at both the state and federal level. It is not overstatement to say the threat to Hawaii is existential. We must act with urgency and with smarts driven by data and science.

The frequency of disasters afflicting nearly every part of the country will continue to rise with temperatures. Unless ambitious steps are taken to curtail the emissions of warming gases, these catastrophes will outpace our ability to adapt and recover.

Among the numerous tools needed to bring down emissions, a robust price on carbon is the most effective and foundational. The key is to set a price high enough to move investments and behavior toward a rapid transition to a clean energy economy. By returning revenue directly to households, thereby protecting Americans from the economic impact of higher energy costs, we can establish a price that gets the job done.

The end game is to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Only then will we be able to imagine a world where each Earth Day doesn’t mark a year of worsening climate impacts.

A recent study by Columbia University economists estimated the level and timing of a carbon price to meet that goal. The price would need to reach between $34 and $64 per metric ton of CO2 emissions by 2025 and between $77 and $124 by 2030.

Several bills that employ the fee-and-dividend approach to carbon pricing fall within the range needed to achieve the needed emissions reductions:

  • The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act in the House, sponsored by Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL-22)
  • The America’s Clean Future Fund Act in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL)
  • The American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), expected to be introduced soon.

By cosponsoring these bills, U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and Reps. Ed Case and Kai Kahele can help to ensure that Congress implements this critical tool this year.

Half a century ago, the first Earth Day kicked off a movement that led to cleaner air and water for all Americans. This year’s Earth Day comes at a time when more and more Americans have personally felt the impacts of climate change. It is time for Congress to act, and an ambitious price on carbon is a big step in the right direction.

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About the Authors

Robert Pearsall

Robert Pearsall is a climate mitigation strategist and Congressional liaison to U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz on behalf of the Honolulu chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Mark Reynolds

Mark Reynolds is the executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Latest Comments (0)

I am a student in university studying Environmental  Science and I was very pleased to read this article. I really believe that a carbon tax is necessary in order for us to reduce omissions especially in line with the admission reduction goals the new administration has set. However, I do believe that we need to ensure that any new legislation is equitable and does not hurt POC, lower income, and middle income people. I think the only way to do this with a carbon tax is to use a carbon fee and dividend. This way we put the tax on the polluters but the money goes back to the people. In doing so we will make renewable energies more cost competitive and not put the burden on the people. 

saralinnea · 2 years ago

If you think that adding a $0.50 or $1.00 carbon tax to the price of 1 gallon of gasoline would change anything, think again. In Europe, the average tax on gasoline is $2.35/gallon, so you'd think Europeans would be falling over themselves to buy hybrid cars. Yet, the sales of the Toyota Prius, by far the most advanced and economical hybrid on the market since 2000, have been nothing short of dismal in Europe, on average x10 lower per capita than in the United States.Battery-operated cars merely replace CO2 emissions with the toxic pollution involved in the manufacturing and recycling (which does not even exist yet) of batteries and the solar panels and wind turbines that the power is supposed to come from. Massive R&D investment into new primary energy generation and storage technologies is needed, on a scale that can be paid for only by the federal government. Instead, the bills currently in Congress propose wealth transfer that would disproportionately affects the middle working class and badly hurt our economic competitiveness.

Chiquita · 2 years ago

Everyone of us shares in our dependance on an economic system that burns carbon and uses non-reusable plastic.Corporations have profited quite handsomely from this system.Now that the repercussions from consuming and using carbons to fuel society's lifestyle are being noticed, what is proposed?Increasing the costs to the working-class that is dependent on carbon consumption, while corporations will be passing on the higher costs, and governments will be skimming off higher taxes with the carbon price increase. Better yet, the financial industry will make huge profits on the new carbon credit trading scheme. Is this fair and equitable?Hardly, to me, it's just another racket that will enrich those in power, while increasing the cost of living on the majority of us.Society's carbon addiction has to change, but this scheme is nothing but a clever way to burden the working-class. 

Joseppi · 2 years ago

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