The costs of inaction

World map of Kyoto Protocol SignatoriesThe nations of the world met last month in Copenhagen. Unfortunately, they weren't able to hammer out an agreement with binding pledges to reduce carbon emissions.

In 1997 nearly all of those same nations gathered in Japan to face up to the challenge of climate change, and most signed the Kyoto Protocol. This map from Wikipedia shows those who agreed (in green), those who abstained (in grey) and those who refused to consider the agreement (in red).

What has been overlooked are the costs of inaction. And make no mistake, we've been paying dearly.

As Congress will soon be debating the costs vs. the benefits of legislation to address climate change, it's important to realize that nations who committed to Kyoto have benefited (as we have lost!). Their people are healthier, their cities are cleaner, and they are further on their way toward energy independence. What's more, these benefits have outweighed the costs, and they are benefits that translate into human lives literally saved.

A comprehensive cost-benefit analysis published in Britain concluded:

Tackling climate change is the pro-growth strategy for the longer term, and it can be done in a way that does not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor nations. The earlier effective action is taken, the less costly it will be.

Speaking of lives saved, one of the "ancillary benefits" of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the benefit of reducing air pollution.

Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new regulations for our country which will improve air quality in California and bring down the number of premature deaths due to dirty air in our region,estimated to be in the range of 6,500 a year. Though complying with the standards could cost up to $90 billion nationwide, according to the EPA it could also save $100 billion in health costs over time.

This doesn't enter into the computations of industry groups that warned the regulations would increase business costs.

Countering this, a recent study from Cal State Fullerton finds that air pollution costs the California economy more than $28 billion annually.

According to lead author Jane V. Hall, "These findings come at a critical juncture as lawmakers grapple with California’s commitment to protect public health in a weak economy. It may be tempting to think California can’t afford to clean up, but, in fact, dirty air is like a $28 billion lead balloon on our economy."

"Given the state of California’s economy," she added, "imagine what could be done if that $28 billion was being spent productively.”

The forces of opposition say that we can't afford to take action, on air pollution, on climate change. That depends on what we value, and the price we are willing to pay for our inaction.