OP-ED: Since last Earth Day, climate impacts have only hit harder

Jon Clark and Mark Reynolds
Citizens’ Climate Lobby
FILE - In this Monday, Feb. 1, 2021 file photo, emissions from a coal-fired power plant are silhouetted against the setting sun in Independence, Mo. A United Nations report released on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 says humans are making Earth a broken and increasingly unlivable planet through climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. So the world must make dramatic changes to society, economics and daily life. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The amount of heat-trapping emissions humans have spewed into our atmosphere since last Earth Day was 10 percent less than a typical year, 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 billion and $65 billion.

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.

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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 taken into account. 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.

Here in Pennsylvania, we’re feeling the impact of climate change with more precipitation.  According to state Department of Environmental Protection, “In Pennsylvania, our climate has undergone a long-term warming of more than 1° C (1.8° F) over the past 110 years. Pennsylvania’s climate has also become wetter, with a 10 percent increase in the amount of precipitation, on average. Pennsylvanians can expect to see an additional 8 percent increase in precipitation by 2050.”

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 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 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, Senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey and Reps. Scott Perry and Lloyd Smucker 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’s time for Congress to act, and an ambitious price on carbon is a big step in the right direction.

— Jon Clark is Appalachia Regional Coordinator for Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Mark Reynolds is the Executive Director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.