Climate migration: counting the economic value of the crisis is impossible, reform is long overdue

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As California continues to be on fire and the Trump administration caused a scare by briefly denying disaster relief, a depressing thought has crossed the minds of some in the state: is it time to move somewhere else?

The climate crisis and the ensuing migration crisis have been knocking on America’s door for the last few decades; in the past few years, they've been outpacing us. The same can be said for the rest of the world. The Point of No Return — the point at which it will be too late to mitigate carbon emissions and meet the Paris Climate Agreement’s 2 degrees Celsius limit for rising global temperatures — is set to arrive in 2035. If we were to set our standards to the 1.5 degree Celsius limit, we’ve already passed the Point of No Return.

These arbitrary goals and limits are not something most people can truly process. But record fires, heatwaves, floods, and storms are tangible. The smoke from the wildfires in the West had traveled all the way to the far end of the East coast earlier last month, so even those not directly affected by the fires could see the consequences of the dire situation.

We are going to have to grapple with the fact that thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans over the next several years are likely to be displaced by climate change. It’s not just Californians who will be displaced by the wildfires. Southern coastal states like Louisiana are being battered by increasingly strong hurricanes. Heatwaves are becoming more intense and persistent in the Southwest U.S. A lot of coastal areas like Miami may very well be underwater in the next few decades. Areas near rivers are flooding, and the Great Lakes shorelines are rising too. One study projects that one in 12 Americans living in the Southern half of the country will move. In another, an estimated 13 million living on coast lines are going to have to migrate. Half of the country is going to experience a decline in their quality of life due to environmental decay. Low-income and minority communities, in particular, will bear the brunt of this, particularly in coastal areas like Louisiana.

Climate change presents an abstract, existential threat, which is much harder to articulate or even see. As a result of this, the calls to address this threat were, and still are, frequently met with skepticism or dismissal. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the mass disinformation campaigns from the fossil fuel industry and right-wingers trying to “debunk” scientific evidence of climate change. With all this combined, we tabled the issue and thought we could cross the bridge when we got there. The problem is that we have taken several wrong turns, and now that we have found the bridge, it's already collapsing.

Insurance policies are clear evidence of this philosophy. The risk of climate change was not something many insurers were prepared for, and short term property value took precedence over any future risks. Development rapidly expanded in areas across the country that are now being ravaged by wildfires, floods, or storms. Insurance companies and states are already having trouble keeping up with the payouts, and insurance costs are only going to increase exponentially. There is a very real danger that these companies may resort to telling people “why did you buy a property here in the first place?” if they are unable to make all the payouts.

It’s more troubling to see how current public policy and the current EPA don’t care about the future valuation of the climate crisis. Current public policy, particularly environmental ones, uses monetary values to represent a single human life. The EPA uses the value of a statistical life (VSL) to calculate how much we would be willing to pay for a mortality risk reduction, which is used to calculate the benefits of a policy. The policy is also divided by a discount rate over each year it’s implemented to determine its present value.

There are a couple of problems with this framework. First, the current EPA uses fairly high discount rates, doing their analyses at three and seven percent, where the Obama-era EPA used discount rates of 2.5% and 5%. Higher discount rates put much less weight on the future, which is the opposite of what is needed for climate change policy. For any sensible action to be passed and to reflect the growing cost of the climate crisis, we should be considering discount rates between 1.5% and 2% at most.

Second, and this is a drawback of cost-benefit analysis as a whole, is that losing lives should be enough for us to want to implement policies that make sure it won’t happen. This is especially true for the climate crisis, where the benefits of implementing environmental policies are so vast that the costs are negligible. It’s easy to get stuck on the sheer accounting and logistics of it all, but we should be the type of country that values the lives and futures of our citizens above all else, especially when we have the means to do so.

That’s what makes the 2020 election discourse about the climate crisis so frustrating. Let’s take a single issue like fracking. Fracking is absolutely destructive, polluting water supplies and the air we breathe. Gas and oil are also some of the largest contributors to carbon emissions. Trump has been attempting to cause an uproar in rural communities in post-industrial states like Pennsylvania by saying Biden is anti-fracking and will take jobs away. Biden defends himself by saying he isn’t.

Pennsylvanians don’t care that much about fracking. There’s been a shift in public opinion over the years against it, and it’s mainly rural communities that have drilling contracts that are against a fracking ban. There are about 26,000 oil and gas jobs in Pennsylvania, and the industry is declining. On the other hand, renewables provide about 97,000 jobs, and it is the fastest-growing job sector in the state.

Yet, the optics of the issue are focused on the cost of short term job loss, which shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. But it is in politics and the eyes of Americans, and it could very well cost Biden in the general election. It doesn’t help that both parties have monetary support from the fossil fuel industry, who are doing what they can to keep themselves alive and profitable at the cost of everyone’s well-being, even lying about how many jobs are actually in the industry.

Far more needs to be done. We need a carbon fee and dividend, which would implement a carbon tax on corporations, distributing revenues back to American families. The Green New Deal, while not perfect, offers retraining programs and federal jobs programs needed while transitioning to renewable energy. We should aim to be carbon neutral by 2035. There needs to be efficient and free public transit and emissions-free vehicles, which the Green New Deal also covers.

The time for comprehensive environmental reform is long overdue. We all deserve a better future. Even if we over-exaggerate the consequences of climate change — which we most certainly aren’t — I’d rather we overreact to the problem than underreact to it.