Climate change is not just an environmental problem; it’s an economic problem, as well. The consequences of climate change — more intense precipitation events, longer and more destructive wildfire seasons, increased risk of drought or flooding, sea level rise — will harm plants and wildlife, but they will also damage crops, reduce availability of natural resources, and destroy infrastructure. Economic studies that seek to quantify the cost of climate change have found figures ranging from $180 billion for just the United States to $400 trillion globally by the end of the century.
It’s entirely possible, then, that efforts begun by the executive order President Donald Trump released Tuesday — which began the process of rolling back U.S. climate policies in favor of fewer regulations for the fossil fuel industry — will end up costing American taxpayers in the long run. One analysis from the Center for American Progress estimated that, based on preliminary figures associated with the order, actions directed by the Trump administration could cost taxpayers more than $58 billion by 2030.
The largest cost to American taxpayers, according to the CAP analysis, would come from rolling back the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s signature piece of domestic climate regulation aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector. The Environmental Protection Agency’s own numbers from 2015 found that the public health and climate benefits of the Clean Power Plan would equal $54 billion per year by 2030 — far outweighing the $8.4 billion cost of implementation. A different study, released earlier this year by researchers at Harvard, found that carbon rules similar to the Clean Power Plan would produce economic benefits of $38 billion a year.
In defending their move to roll back the Clean Power Plan, the Trump administration cited a study from NERA Economic Consulting. That study, which was paid for by the coal lobby, found that the Clean Power Plan could have resulted in double-digit electricity price increases in many states, though other studies have shown that electricity prices would actually have fallen under the Clean Power Plan.
The Clean Power Plan isn’t the only policy that would have potentially saved American taxpayers in the long run — other Obama-era policies targeted by Trump’s executive order came with economic benefits, specifically by cutting down on wasteful practices within the fossil fuel industry. The Obama-era limits on methane pollution for new oil and gas operations, for instance, would have created $170 million in climate benefits by 2025. And an Obama-era rule to eliminate methane leaks from oil and gas operations on public lands would have saved taxpayers some $800 million in lost royalties over the next 10 years.
Trump’s latest executive order also lifts a moratorium on coal leasing, a moratorium that was put in place in order to reassess the practice of leasing coal mines to coal companies on federal land. Under the Obama administration, it appeared that the federal coal leasing program would be reformed to better reflect the actual costs associated with coal production and coal mining. Without those reforms, it’s possible that United States taxpayers could lose $1 billion a year in lost royalties.
Despite its insistence that the executive order was aimed at revitalizing the coal industry, boosting the American economy, and creating greater energy independence, the Trump administration did not appear to take the economic benefits of climate action into account when drafting the order.
When asked about the economic losses that could be associated with inaction on climate change — from floods to sea level rise — a senior White House official told reporters they were “not familiar” with studies showing the economic impacts of climate change. When asked whether they thought the prospect of sea level rise submerging portions of cities like New York or Miami, as some studies predict, could hurt the U.S. economy, the official responded that “it certainly could,” but did not comment further on the administration’s plans to protect the economy while dismantling climate action.
Environmental experts have already begun pushing back on the Trump administration narrative that the executive order will be good for the American economy. In a statement released on Tuesday, said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said that “regulations provide huge economic benefits to our society, with minimal, though generally positive, effects on jobs and productivity.”
Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a nonprofit focused on sustainability in business, warned that the order could make the United States less competitive on a global scale.
“These orders will be damaging for American innovation and competitiveness, investment and job creation,” Lubber said in a statement. “By taking this backward step, the U.S. risks a stalled transition to a low-carbon economy, thus giving China and other countries the upper hand as they embrace renewable energy and other low-carbon technologies that are proliferating all across the globe.”