Climate-change costs: Unaddressed at our peril

As the academic director of the University of Southern California Schwarzenegger Institute, a professor of public policy, and a decadeslong teacher and writer on the environment, I have grown significantly more concerned that the public and our civic leaders are unaware of the serious implications of climate change for our state.

The absence of attention, unfortunately, has not halted or even slowed the increasingly troubling economic, political and quality-of-life implications of accelerating climate change that we are now beginning to experience: Three years of a drought with disruption throughout our agricultural sector, the two-month lengthening of our annual summer fire season and the early signs of the projected sea-level-rise along our coastline carrying on into our bays and inlets.

It is time to get out in front of the issue.

The problem, as I see it, is not in the absence of credible research on our vulnerability to the effects of climate change. From the increasing average temperature of the planet's surface to sea-rise, droughts and forest fires to the threat against our cities, public infrastructure, roads and health care system to the disruption of plant and animal life common to the state, the effects are clear. These potential consequences have been well-documented by decades of scientific research by leading California and international scholars. Given that this research is seldom accessible to the general public or civic leaders, the public's inaction should not come as a great surprise.

More surprising, however, is that so little attention has been paid to the economic impact of climate change and related studies that highlight the costs we as taxpayers have been paying out of our pocketbooks for climate change's effects. Just as we have to pay for lunch in order to stay healthy, we have begun to pay for the changes in business, transportation, and environmental and resource protections needed to keep the planet — and especially our corner of it — healthy for ourselves, our children and our children's children.

Even more serious still will be the costs of failing to look ahead and proactively anticipating the effects of climate change. The costs of inaction are likely to exceed all the incremental costs already being borne. This is made clear by the nationally released Risky Business Project Report, chaired by the business, political, and financial trio of Michael Bloomberg, Henry Paulson Jr. and Tom Steyer. Yet even this and like reports fly under the radar screen today. Why the issue of climate change — especially the growing recognition of the economic costs of inaction as well as what California is doing as a leader in addressing it within the state — receive so little public attention and civic scrutiny is hard to explain.

We at the Schwarzenegger Institute, together with leaders of the California Air Resources Board and Regions 20, are determined to change this. As a step in the right direction, on Monday a gathering of policy makers and civic leaders convened in the state capital to highlight three points.

One, we are quite vulnerable to the effects of climate change and have the science to substantiate this. Two, our knowledge of the full array of costs, economic and otherwise, is growing, but much more is needed — especially on the costs of inaction. Three, leadership is not about waiting for all the evidence to be delivered or for a problem to reach the crisis stage before acting, but about understanding the direction in which we need to be headed and making sure that we move expeditiously and efficiently as a state, with the long-term public interest in mind.

In the spirit of all Californians, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and current Gov. Jerry Brown keynoted and set the tone of the event, establishing the agenda for the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for several years to come. We look forward to reigniting the discussion on behalf of the California public.

Daniel Mazmanian is academic director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute and a professor of public policy.


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