America Under Water: House Hears Call to Take Climate Action

A panel of experts appeared before the House Select Committee on Climate Crisis for its hearing Thursday in Washington.

WASHINGTON (CN) – Warning that billions of dollars of U.S. properties will be under water in the coming decades, a panel of climate experts told Congress Thursday that worst outcomes of climate change can be stopped now. 

Rachel Cleetus, climate and energy policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, painted a startling economic picture of the trajectory for the United States if it continues to treat resiliency planning as an afterthought.

“Our research last year showed the impact of worsening tidal flooding, and we found that by the end of 2100, 2.5 million U.S. coastal homes and commercial properties worth more than $1 trillion will be at risk of chronic flooding,” Cleetus said, testifying this morning before the House Select Committee on Climate Crisis.

“By 2045,” Cleetus continued, “within the lifetime of a typical mortgage issued today, about 325,000 properties, worth $136 billion, will be at risk.”

States like Florida, New York and New Jersey will see the greatest decline in value for homeowners, Cleetus said, noting that this in turn will hurt local economies.

And then there are states with fewer resources, like Maryland or North Carolina, that will be hit even harder as they are forced to deal with rising poverty rates and rising waters simultaneously.  

To stave this off, Cleetus and other panelists said Thursday, the goal must be to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“Every fraction of a degree that we can lower global temperatures matters,” Cleetus said. “We have to go all in right now.”

If the U.S. fails to reach net zero carbon emissions or fails to make a meaningful reduction in emissions, the outlook is bleaker still. 

“What’s worrisome is that we’re seeing land-based ice sheets as more unstable,” Cleetus said. “We may have set off a feedback loop that will set off consequences for hundreds of years and once that ice goes, cutting emissions will not end that feedback loop.”

Rep. Kathy Castor chairs the House Select Committee on Climate Crisis, which held a hearing Thursday in Washington.

Committee chairwoman Kathy Castor called it key Thursday to get lawmakers, the public and industry leaders on the same page about the looming dangers involved with climate change.

Since 2009, when the EPA issued its first endangerment finding for carbon emissions and the Clean Air Act was rolled out to pass pollution restrictions, organizations like the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment in California, have only fortified their position: each degree of warming means greater cost to life on the planet.

“We’ve made tremendous strides in understanding global warming extremes,” Noah Diffenbaugh, a senior fellow at Stanford Woods, told the lawmakers Thursday, pointing to air quality, food production, wildlife and energy infrastructure as all proving the harmful effects of warming.

Diffenbaugh said each 1 degree Celsius of warming means a 1% hit to the GDP.

Even holding to the 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise agreed to in the Paris Climate Accord could reduce the cumulative economic damage to the U.S. by $6 trillion, he added. 

Republicans on the committee, like ranking member Garrett Graves of Louisiana and Representative Morgan Griffith of Virginia, were eager to place responsibility for climate action squarely on China, which only in recent years has eclipsed the U.S. as a source of greenhouse gas emissions.

If China isn’t coming along on lowering emissions, but the U.S. moves from a largely fossil fuel-based market to renewable-fuel market, the two Republicans argued, the harm to U.S. competition and economy would be irreparable.

Representative Sean Casten, an Illinois Democrat, grew impatient with such logic.

Putting a question to panelist Matt Russell, who serves as executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power and Light, a organization that mobilizes religious communities to develop solutions to climate change, Casten said: “Do the religious teachings of the world usually suggest waiting for another person to make a moral decision before you make one?”

Russell said no. 

“I didn’t think so,” Casten said. “I hope all of my colleagues will stop with this nonsensical argument about waiting for China to act before we do. We have a moral obligation here and an economic incentive.”

Russell pointed to farmers as a prime audience for such incentives.

Republican Rep. Garrett Castor is the ranking member of the House Select Committee on Climate Crisis, which held a hearing Thursday in Washington.

In the fossil fuel-based economy, farmers were able to do “amazing things” and were able to “force nature” to meet human needs, he said.

But now, years of unsustainable farming and over-reliance on fossil fuels means the whole dynamic has shifted.

“We have to work with nature now to come up with the benefits we need,” Russell said. “This doesn’t mean throwing out our entire agricultural system. It means leaning into the tools we already have.”

Conservation tillage, better grazing management to increase bioactivity in the soil, extending crop rotations, growing a greater diversity of crops or integrating livestock are all methods that could be put in place right now and incentivized with taxpayer funded subsidies, Russell argued.

Whether a farm is 75,000 acres or just 1, if it can make the switch to net-zero carbon farming, that is a major boost to both climate resiliency and the national economy.

“When you stack these things together,” Russell said, “it makes us more resilient because soil can hold water during a flood or when it rains and the soil will have more water stored when there’s a drought. … We could incentivize farmers and partner with research scientists and lead this like no other place on the planet.”

And if losing a competitive edge over China is a concern, consider this, he added: “If we don’t do this, other agricultural systems in other parts of the world will do it in the next decade. This is our game to lose if we don’t act.”

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