Let’s Put Climate Change At The Top Of The Agenda

Credit: FEMA

by Joe Mendelson, via National Wildlife Federation

The election is over—now what on the climate change issue? Hurricane Sandy, the nation’s fiscal situation, and the election results have combined to create three key things that I think compel Congress to action on climate change.

1. Climate Change Impacts are Costing the Federal Government Too Much Money

Congress returns in mid-November to the fiscal cliff debate. Hurricane Sandy should put the issue of climate change squarely within this discussion.  Sandy’s estimated costs are $10–$20 billion in insured losses with at least another $50 billion in economic damages. The $12 billion in government money set aside for disaster relief this year will be easily gobbled up in the recovery. Congress will be forced to seek additional money to help effected citizens. The federal price tag for the recovery from Hurricane Katrina reached $120 billion. Sandy may not reach that total, but the amount of federal money spent on the relief will be significant.

Hurricane Sandy, however, is only one piece of the climate impact puzzle. This year the country has also experienced record drought, widespread wildfires, and the worst West Nile virus outbreak ever. Munich Re put the cost of the first six months of 2012’s extreme weather events at over $14.5 billion. All of these impacts have required a federal government response. Lawmakers sought $800 million in additional funds this year to deal with wildfires and new legislation for over $300 million in drought assistance to livestock producers hit by the drought is expected soon.

But wait there is more.  Sandy has shown that the country needs a crash course in preparing for and adapting to the changes and impacts that will occur in the future (read NWF’s prescription here). This is not cheap.  For example, Norfolk, VA—home of Naval Station Norfolk and on the frontline of climate impacts—has a comprehensive adaptation plan that will cost about $1 billion. This is roughly twice the city’s entire annual budget and cannot be undertaken without federal dollars.

So, if we are serious about addressing the federal budget crisis, lawmakers need to look at the exploding costs of climate change impacts and how much it will take to better prepare for such events.

The choice Congress will face is who picks up the tab.

The past failure to put price on carbon pollution means that the costs of dealing with these “externalities” (read: impacts) have never been borne by the polluters. Instead, the federal government and taxpayers like you and me foot the bill. The looming fiscal crisis and the costs of climate change demand this equation be changed.

We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet. President Obama, 2012 victory speech

2. Big Oil and King Coal’s Money Play Was A Costly Failure

Early last year the political punditry predicted a significant loss in the Senate for a number of Senators that voted to support using the Clean Air Act to limit the carbon pollution causing climate change.  Big polluters sought to make this a reality with enormous campaign expenditures through independent entities like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads. Together, just these two organizations funneled over $31 million into the Senate races against candidates that hold key votes in preserving the Clean Air Act during the next Congress. Guess what?  The polluter attempt to buy the election failed miserably.

Let’s take a deeper dive. A key moment in the last Congress was a vote on a Senate amendment to a small business bill that would have rolled back the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to fight climate using the Clean Air Act. The amendment failed.  Cross referencing some of the key votes that fought to defeat the climate rollback amendment with the new election results reveals that the millions of polluter dollars did not alter the political equation. This holds true across the whole map of the recent Senate elections. Tuesday night’s results actually weakened the polluters’ political hand on climate and the Clean Air Act. The results mean politicians don’t have to be afraid of Big Oil and King Coal and it’s time to move forward.

*Sen. Casey’s opponent, a coal company executive, self-financed his campaign with over $17M. All figures from

3. Poll After Poll Shows the Public Increasingly Wants Action on Climate Change

Additionally, the future for politicians that have spent their time on the fossil fuel dole and opposing action to address climate change does not look so, pardon the pun, hot. Polling undertaken before Hurricane Sandy has shown that the public attitude toward taking action on climate on the significant upswing.  Three recent examples:

  • Yale’s September poll finding that 70% of Americans see global warming as a reality that is occurring. This number is up 13% since January 2010 and those who do not see climate change as occurring declining to a low of 12%.
  • NWF’s September poll of sportsmen finding 66% in agreement with the statement that “We have a moral responsibility to confront global warming to protect our children’s future.”
  • Kaiser Foundation Foundation/Washington Post poll in August finding that 74% support government action to “regulate” the climate changing air pollution that is emitted from power plants, cars and factories. The support was bi-partisan with 87% of Democrats, 73% of Independents and 61% of Republicans in support.

It’s safe to say after witnessing the suffering of millions from the aftermath of Sandy these numbers will only continue to rise.

The Bottom Line

All of these factors lead to the cumulative conclusion that members of the next Congress must address the climate crisis soon or risk their political well-being. Simply put:

  • The nation can no longer afford to bail out polluters and foot the bill. Putting a price on carbon pollution will help the fiscal state of the country, drive adoption of clean energy technologies, and place the responsibility of paying for climate change damages on those that cause the problem;
  • Counting on Big Polluter campaign money to win you an election will not succeed and it will not overcome the public’s desire to vote for those that will protect our families, homes, and communities from the ravages of climate change; and
  • Politicians that step forward to provide leadership in addressing climate change and its impacts will be meeting the expectations of the electorate and rewarded in 2014.

Joe Mendelson serves as NWF’s Director of Policy, Climate & Energy Program where he leads a team of legislative and policy professionals to develop and implement solutions to global warming. This piece was originally published at NWF and was reprinted with permission.

43 Responses to Let’s Put Climate Change At The Top Of The Agenda

  1. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    While Global Warming is the cause,Climate Change is the Effect. It is hoped President Barack Obama gives top priority to Tackling Climate Change as the it affects Globally.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  2. Nope says:

    Climate change will end up at the top of the agenda for sure, because it’s one of the few progressive issues that affects the bourgeois directly. Poverty, drone warfare, the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex… these will continue to flounder under this center-right administration.

  3. It will take more work than I see here. While I admire the work of the NWF, we need to understand the following:

    Given the size of the current debt, there will not be enough money available to loan anyone to make all of the infrastructure fixes that we will need in the coming decade, let alone the coming century. Watch the rebuilding of the NY, NJ shores and see if anyone takes seriously the threat of this happening again.

    If the climate continues to warm as we all know it will, how do we rebuild our transportation systems to accommodate the realignment of industry that must take place?

    Finally, how does all of this happen as demand for petroleum products goes up while production costs are also rising? In light of the new cost structures, what will happen to aviation when only an elite are still able to afford to fly?

    As you can tell, I have been reading Kunstler and I see way to avoid his Long Emergency as long as we continue to genuflect before the great god Growth.

  4. Broadlands says:

    Because the steady increase in atmospheric CO2 since the late 50s has been the direct result of the concomitant steady increase in the global population (it has an almost perfect statistical correlation 99.85%) it is folly to think that anything plausibly realistic can be done to stop the climate from changing. Lowering collective carbon footprints can do very little when the number of feet keeps rising. All manner of geo-engineering was offered in the 70s to avert the impending climate change. It was global cooling back then. Oil companies were proud of their products adding CO2 to the atmosphere to save the planet! Fortunately, and in retrospect of course, none of it was implemented. Unintended consequences are difficult to predict, much less unanticipated natural changes. It seems that the best approach to dealing with climate is to learn to adapt.

  5. ThisOldMan says:

    For answers to many of your questions, in particular how we can both “grow” and prosper even in the face of the daunting tasks ahead of us, see e.g.,,

  6. prokaryotes says:

    “Lowering collective carbon footprints can do very little when the number of feet keeps rising.”

    Do you have any serious data to back up this claim?

  7. fj says:

    Obama must immediately start directing climate action at wartime speed to force emissions to near zero in the next 5 to 10 years while restoring the environment.

    As Joe Stiglitz has written, the US prints its own money which is accepted as payment for its debt so it won’t go bankrupt; and we must start channelling all our resources try to bring this rapidly accelerating crisis under some sort of control.

    Nothing else is more important and Obama must act on it with the highest level of urgency.

  8. fj says:

    That hurricane Sandy’s impact was so far out of control, as well as many other domestic and global extreme climate events, Obama must make the case immediately for action on a scale never before believed possible.

  9. Matt says:

    I agree.If we take this on with the urgency it deserves, the result will be three fold. we will emerge as the leader and set the precedent in the world movement to renewable energy. Our economy will thrive with the new technology and manufacturing required to make this happen.We will be truly energy independent and as such be able to free ourselves from conflicts in the middle east.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Obama has continued many of the worst policies of Bush, just as Clinton was a Reaganite, Blair a Thatcherite and Rudd and Gillard in Australia follow John Howard’s policies in many areas. This is ‘democracy without choices’ as the Eastern Europeans dubbed it after a few years acquaintance. I’m losing count of the MSM pandits declaring Obama a ‘lame duck’ already, and the shameless assertions that climate derangement will not, indeed can not, be addressed in this term, because the Washington status quo has not changed. The euphoria is dissipating like morning mist. Eighteen months of effort, and the Right and their MSM hacks dismiss it all within days. The Chinese must look on with envy at the expression of ‘The People’s Will’.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’d have a look at Dmitry Orlov, too. He is not optimistic about the USA’s prospects as he expects a collapse like that in the USSR, with the difference that Soviet citizens were not wedded to a gigantic automotive infrastructure, were used to living with a bare sufficiency and grew a lot of their food in their gardens. They had a lower height from which to fall.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I very much doubt your correlation between population and the increase in atmospheric CO2. Much of the population increase has been in poor countries where consumption was and remains low. In the rich Western (formerly rich, that is)countries, per capita emissions have soared in the last 50 years, and it is the consumption of goods and services that drives emissions, not mere population growth.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Of course he MUST, but will he?

  14. John McCormick says:

    Any opinions on the strategy that President Obama trades extension of the Bush tax cuts for a $30/ton carbon tax on the sources?

    I can live with the rich holding on to what they get but their tax offset will have to equal the taking from the carbon tax. I don’t know the numbers but someone out there has already thought of this. Talk it up.

  15. Raul M. says:

    Did they do the story yet about making it illegal to let unsecured things fly with the wind onto a neighbors property etc.
    Did hear of an unsound woman thinking that it was fair to let pennies fly with the wind from her hand to the bankers megatropolis. With the storm force winds the pennies landed not near but broke much of the neighering building.
    It is probably to much to think that careful actions of the few could withstand the onslaught of the crased public.
    Much like the used to be rush of the shoppers, people might want to make their new climate change action relate to making it illegal to leave unsecured items laying around durring hurricanes. Oh, the woes of enforcement but, still it could be a way for the deniers to take climate change action.

  16. Matt says:

    We will soon find out. One thing is certain, If Romney had won,we would have expanded on our current unsustainable path.At least there is hope.

  17. Merrelyn Emery says:

    A good summary of the recent evidence for a new wave of social change in the USA which builds on changes in the last 3 years or so such as the Occupy movement. While N America has been slow to visit the beach this time around, probably courtesy of the Dark Age thinkers and climate science deniers, it has finally made the trip to rejoin the global community and surf the latest great wave rolling around the world, ME

  18. paul magnus says:

    “Climate Change Impacts are Costing the Federal Government Too Much Money”

    Already! Global civil socity is not compatible with 2C. The current rate of extreme weather events will not sustain our current modern institutions.

    We must plan for how we can cope with the new Eaarth. We must plan and act now. Like yesterday.

  19. Mark E says:

    I too commend NWFs work and this piece is a good starting place… but I utterly reject this part:

    The past failure to put price on carbon pollution means that the costs of dealing with these “externalities” (read: impacts) have never been borne by the polluters.

    The dudes that pull the stuff out of the ground are not the polluters – the people who burn it or pay others to burn it for them are…. that means you and me.

    And thats what makes 350s divestment/LeaveItInTheGround campaign so inspiring. Its exactly like that moment in Gandhi shown here…. but when he says British think (fossil fuel cos) and he says cloth think (fossil fuels).

  20. fj says:

    Mother Nature might just give an unsubtle hint like a repetition of Irene or Sandy or similar on an annual basis, or worse.

    And, he’d have to come up with a good reason he is not doing everything he can to slow it down even though supposedly current extreme events result from emissions in the late 1980s.

    If Sandy does NOT serve as the climate change “Pearl Harbor” or tipping point for extremely aggressive action, most likely during Obama’s term in office there will be other extreme events even worse.

    He will be vindicated if he acts here and now with extreme urgency despite other extreme events that most likely will happen. But, if he does little and extreme events happen — which is highly probable — he will likely have hell to pay.

  21. Merrelyn Emery says:

    There’s no point in arguing about who the polluters are Mark but if you look at who has been paying the terrible costs, it has been primarily the taxpayer and particularly those with low SES who can’t afford to move or pay for high cost food or medicine and who watch their kids die like flies, ME

  22. Vic says:

    Is Al Gore our Winston Churchill ?
    What if he were to throw his hat into the ring one more time and announce his intention to run for Presidency in 2016, seeking a clear mandate from the American people for immediate, deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. He’d have four years to tour the US and the world, pointing out the damage being done and demonstrating the viability of renewable energy. A macarbe travelling roadshow of climate destruction and scientific analysis, with a sideline focus on real solutions, tailored for main stream media consumption.
    The planet’s response to CO2 would in effect, be his political ally. The next four years will almost certainly throw up the next El Nino event accompanied by yet another record breaking global average temperature – completely blowing away the absurd nonsense of a “cooling trend”. These same four years will see continued melting of the Arctic and the associated increase in “blocking events” reminicent of hurricane Sandy. Indeed the year 2016 looks set to be the very first year ever that we see the complete melting of the Arctic summer sea ice. In the eyes of the American voters, Al Gore’s name has long been synonomous with global warming. 2016 would mark the 10th anniversary of his move An Inconvenient Truth. If Americans see that he is not going away and neither are the record temperatures and extreme weather events, they might sensibly conclude the man was trustworthy all along.
    It seems to me there is a perfect storm brewing and it’s got Al Gore’s name all over it.

  23. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Let them make idiots of themselves Mulga -who cares? King Canute had a lesson for these chatterers, ME

  24. Matt says:

    Those Dudes are removing mountain tops ,polluting our water system, and releasing vast amounts of methane that is 24 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Those dudes could easily switch their investments to renewable energy, but they don’t because an easy cheep profit is made doing the same dirty thing they are already doing.

  25. sailrick says:


    “All manner of geo-engineering was offered in the 70s to avert the impending climate change. It was global cooling back then.”

    You are a little behind the times. That isn’t the current denier myth.

    There were 44 peer reviewed papers in the 70s, concerned with anthropogenic global warming.

    There were 7 papers concerned with cooling from aerosol emissions.

    SIX times as many for warming.

    Of course the 2007 IPCC report was based on 10,000 research papers. There are thousands more since that report.

    Your comparing apples and Goodyear blimps

  26. fj says:

    And, Bloomberg and others can just as easily turn into an Obama critic if he does not start doing the right thing.

    The power structure must be made to know how extremely dangerous a situation we are in and must act now in critical ways ways at wartime speed.

  27. Mark E says:

    They do not switch because someone (that would be us) keeps paying them enough money to do it.

  28. Mark E says:

    McKibben/Romm in 16 ?

  29. Mark E says:

    Make sense? I suppose, in a toxic festering sort of way….. Note the key difference between this idea and Hansens proposal which the (rich backers of) the GOP blocked:

    In Hansens idea the money is paid out to all share and share alike. Progressive… and govt would have looked to the rich to fix the debt.

    Suddenly the rich are willing to accept the carbon tax only because…… if the progressive dividend is re-directed toward paying down federal debt…. THEY ARE OFF THE HOOK.

    Its a stinking festering evil – but necessary – regressive tax that will hit the poor hardest.

    Isnt it? I would gladly learn otherwise.

  30. Lionel A says:

    Indeed Mulga, and the BBC still don’t get it as climate change is not amongst these US election: Five challenges facing the president in that press report.

    I think recent events WRT BBC reporting on alleged Tory ministerial child abuse in a North Wales home and the Jimmy Savile brouhaha are being stirred by elements seeking revenge and we both can name the top one there. I am not trying to defend Savile BTW it just seems that some elements of the press have grasped this with unwarranted glee.

    Thus I suspect that the already beleaguered BBC will further water down programming for fear of causing further, false, offence.

  31. Anne says:

    The White House and Congress won’t put climate change at the top of the agenda. But… sooner or later… climate change is going to butt in line and force it’s way to the front of the line, like it or not. You know what they say: “You may not be interested in climate change (chaos), but climate change is interested in you!” And of course, remember, “It’s not nice to cool burn Mother Nature!”

  32. Amy Luers says:

    President Obama is ready to lead on climate change. I believe him when he said: “We want our kids to grow up in an America… that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” We now need a plan. However, the successful plan will not come the White House. It needs to come from the people. The president cannot lead if the public does not demand action. Polls show that Americans see climate as serious. But turning this concern into action will take time, energy and a focus on values.
    See more on this at Stanford Social Innovation Review post -“Blinded Urgency”. Link here:

  33. Gestur says:

    prokaryotes, yes, this has been in the news the last few days and reading it I was ever hopeful that it meant a carbon tax might get introduced as part of the grand bargaining over how to deal with the fiscal cliff. And I was hopeful because I see this as the *best shot* we’re likely to have at getting a meaningful price on carbon enacted in these next four years. The more direct route of introducing a carbon tax—an Administration-backed bill on its own—did not receive the relentless ground work for it in Obama’s reëlection campaign. And as I’ve commented here on several occasions now, everything we know about 2nd terms tells us that this kind of ground work is simply a necessary condition to get major legislation passed in a president’s second term.

    Alas I read just now in “e2-wire”, the energy and environment blog at The Hill,com, that:

    “President Obama has no plans to propose a tax on carbon emissions, a White House official said. ‘The Administration has not proposed nor is planning to propose a carbon tax,’ the official said.”

    If true and a recent quote—and I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of it—and given my point above, this means that we’re back to depending on our climate itself to so deteriorate in the near term that it forces politicians to enact a carbon tax. Not a good spot to be in.

  34. Matt says:

    You mean the U.S government paying the fossil fuel companies huge subsidies? At the same time those same fossil fuel complies spend millions to misrepresent the facts about climate change and CO2 emissions and spend millions to discredit and stop subsidies to the wind and solar industries.You mean that U.S?

  35. prokaryotes says:

    Uh, oh…. let’s wait a little and observe.

  36. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The BBC news has been nothing but elite agit-prop since the Thatcherisation, followed by Blairification. The nature documentaries remain peerless, drama has fallen into some hole and comedy is rarely mirth-inducing. I am enjoying their travails, greatly.

  37. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Global cooling’ is typical Rightwing fantasisation, group hysteria and mendacious confabulation at work. Each lie branches off into new ones and becomes a sort of petri dish of overflowing hysteria. And, as it is all a matter of revealed wisdom and pseudo-cultish ‘faith’, being disproved only increases the true believers delirium.

  38. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Quite right. Without the income redistribution and hypothecating to renewable research, development and distribution, it just becomes a regressive tax designed to transfer even more wealth to the ‘elite’ parasite class.

  39. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    A bad, but certainly not unexpected, sign of ‘lame duck’ Obamanism.

  40. Jeremy Grimm says:

    Please don’t believe the nonsense that our government lacks the money to do what society needs to have done, most especially at a time of such high unemployment, underemployment, and need for meaningful work. Do please follow the links others have given you. The matter is of critical importance right now as the push is made to adopt the grand budget ‘compromise’. Our government’s place in the economy is not like that of a Mom&Pop Store, that notion is fallacious. The whole is not like a constituent part. Our economy has substantial human resources and slack demand that the government should and must spend money to employ. Dealing with climate change seems like a good place to start.

    [I share your skepticism about rebuilding the Jersey shore and I’m very mistrustful of our governor here in NJ. I expect too little money made available and placed into the hands of the governor’s crony’s to rebuild things close to what they were before — ready to collapse with the next big storm.]

    As far as the great god of growth is concerned — do we really face a dilemma of choosing growth and progress or no growth and no progress? I believe that we can grow in different ways than always producing more and more stuff and progress has deeper, richer meaning than amassing more stuff for ourselves or our society. Other things have value too.

  41. Mark E says:

    I feel bitter and betrayed too.

    Nonetheless reality says quite clearly: consumers (you and me) cooperate with this endeavor via our purchases –

    A. purchases of power derived this way;

    B. purchases of goods who were made or move with power derived this way; and

    C. purchases of services performed with power derived this way.

    Be bitter if you like. Still India would not be free if the millions had continued to buy English cloth instead of walking away from it. And THAT is the point. You can be bitter about the coal Cos choices; you can be bitter about the feds choices; and you can actually DO something about your own.

  42. Andy Velwest says:

    It looks like “The Economy” is winning as the biggest issue for Obama, with avoiding the “fiscal cliff” being the mantra. So a “tax” is just not something he wants to do.

    So don’t call it a tax. What needs doing is simply this: If you take hydrocarbons from underground, you need to put them back. If you don’t, you pay money into a fund to pay someone else to do it. That’s it.

    The question is how to dress it up to pass, and how to administer it. There have been dozens of proposals, which has the best combination of palatability and effectiveness?