Three Certainties: Death, Taxes, and a Warming Planet
June 11, 2016
Take what you want and pay for it, says God. – Spanish Proverb
As the damages from a changing climate mount up in areas from Texas to Miami Beach, citizens of Planet Earth will be faced with greater and greater damages from coastal flooding, extreme storms, and other signals of a warming planet.
While a favorite climate denier talking point is to rail against sensible taxes on fossil fuels, its an illusion to think we are not already paying the costs – in damage to infrastructure, homes, agriculture, health, and economic activity. A sober view of what we face in the real world is unfashionable in the Trumpiverse, but some communities will go ahead and face it anyway.
Rising sea levels will now take small but distinct bite out of the pocketbooks belonging to land owners around the San Francisco Bay. In an historic first, Measure AA was approved by San Francisco Bay Area voters on June 7, establishing the first tax to pay for the impacts of climate change. Local property will be dinged with a parcel tax of $12 per year to help finance shoreline projects to defend against rising sea levels in the San Francisco Bay. The parcel tax is expected to bring in over $500 million in the coming years, and an even greater number of dollars in matching grants. That’s all to the good. Agreeing to a tiny tax now in order to avoid ruinous costs later is just common sense. However, that tiny ding might turn into a tiny sting whenever one looks up the road at the big oil refinery run by Chevron over in Richmond and wonders: why aren’t Chevron and the other big carbon polluters paying this bill?
On it’s own, Measure AA is a no-brainer. Denying the existence of rising sea levels is a bit like sticking your head in the sand. It just guarantees flooded basements and submerged roads during high tides and storms over the years to come.
But denying the existence of climate change is exactly what Chevron and the other big carbon polluters have been doing for decades. Even as recently as last year Chevron and other big oil companies were outed for funding a stealth campaign to delay climate action in California.
It’s hard to know how exactly much of the coming damage could have been avoided had the U.S. and other governments moved to act as soon as the science was clear. But now the bills are rolling in and it’s only going to get worse. Temperatures will continue to rise until fossil fuel pollution is reduced all the way down to zero. Only then will warming stop completely. And even the most optimistic believe that will take several decades.
Making the transition to zero emissions by 2050 or so will probably be enough to avoid truly catastrophic climate change. But it won’t be enough to stop the damages in the meantime, and the bills will continue to mount until the warming is the stopped, completely.
Florida has more flood insurance policies than any other state, but fewer than it used to have just three years ago. Since 1968, the federal government has had a monopoly in flood insurance after private insurers stopped offering it. That has started to change, slowly, in Florida, where a handful of companies now offer flood protection. Still, the federal insurance program remains the default option for homeowners wanting or needing flood insurance. And that federal program is broke. It’s $23 billion in debt.
Legislation reforming the flood insurance program passed in 2012 and costs to homeowners rose. Another bill in 2014 rolled back reform provisions that had led to the sharply higher flood insurance premiums.
(Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff) Atwater: For Florida, the economic driver is the acquisition of real estate and the transferring of real estate. It is significant to our general revenue to the state. It is significant to all economic activities in our communities. This would have hugely detrimental impacts on our economy if we have an event and those (flood) losses can’t be sustained by those families (without flood insurance).
None of us can escape the broad reach of global warming. But that doesn’t mean it impacts all of us equally.
For years, low-income, of-color, immigrant and other vulnerable communities have been the first and worst impacted by the climate crisis. During Hurricane Katrina, a majority of New Orleans experienced catastrophic flooding and devastation, but it was the lower Ninth Ward that was ravaged, and predominantly poor families who lost their homes and loved ones.
We all remember the images of people stranded on their roofs, begging for help or wading through waist-deep water to try and get to safety. But even after the waters receded, trouble remained. Promised insurance and Road Home money never came, and tens of thousands of people were forced to live in FEMA-issued trailers, which were later found to contain high levels of toxic formaldehyde.
New York isn’t immune from the uneven toll of the climate crisis either. Hurricanes Irene and Sandy caused severe devastation upstate and down. Irene spilled raw sewage into the streets and water supply, downed public transit, knocked out power to hospitals and tens of thousands of New York families, and forced hundreds of thousands more to evacuate their homes. Families with the means were able to ride out the storm at a hotel, drink bottled water and drive to work instead of taking the train. But not everybody had those options. Nurses, cops, doormen and firefighters, for example, didn’t have the luxury of being home with their families, and minimum wage workers could hardly afford to take a cab to work or to a hospital across town.
In New York City, Sandy displaced low-income renters and destroyed public housing, leaving thousands stranded for weeks without food, heat, medicine or running water. Nearly half of the city’s 40,000 public-housing residents were displaced by Sandy and in the aftermath, it was low-income renters who were vulnerable to being left without affordable housing.
These storms cost billions of dollars in damages and took many lives, but it was our most disadvantaged who had it the hardest: Nearly half of the New York and New Jersey households that asked for federal aid after Sandy reported annual incomes of less than $30,000.
These storms aren’t the only impact climate change has had on working families. Extreme winters have taken a toll on apple orchards and hurt farmers’ ability to keep their land. Upstate tourism continues to suffer the effects of unusual weather patterns. And Jonah, New York City’s largest blizzard on record last year, prevented millions of hourly workers — those most likely to be living paycheck to paycheck — from getting to their jobs and earning money.