How Will – and Who Will – Pay for the Mounting Cost of Climate Change?

Posted by NYPIRG on April 24, 2023 at 8:00 am

Last week, state Comptroller DiNapoli issued a new report identifying a growing cost facing local governments. 

According to the report, a sample of local governments across New York reported $1.34 billion in actual and anticipated spending on capital projects over a 10-year period, with about 55% of the total in response to climate-related hazards, such as increased flooding and storm damage.

The report represented only a tiny sample of localities and did not include New York City’s costs.  Only 95 communities out of 353 surveyed (roughly 25%) responded.  Those entities estimated that a combined $737 million would be spent over the 10-year period from 2017 to 2026 in response to climate change, with flooding and increased storm activity far outweighing other issues.  Respondents reported that they funded or anticipate shouldering a majority of these costs locally (about 52%), with grants or other aid from state and federal sources accounting for the remainder.

In other words, local residents will have to pony up more tax dollars to cover the anticipated damages caused by a worsening climate. 

A large chunk of that spending will involve big-ticket items like retrofitting or rebuilding infrastructure, such as wastewater or drinking water facilities.  The estimated total cost of all such projects totaled $632 million, $401 million (64%) of which was attributed to climate change adaptation.  The local cost of these totaled $368 million, with $235 million attributed to climate change.

DiNapoli’s office conducted a separate analysis of the costs to New York City.  The report found that the City would this year spend $829 million for projects that could be considered full adaptation and resilience and another $1.3 billion that were partially for these purposes.  Looking ahead, bigger financial hits were expected with the biggest costs including sewer projects ($2.3 billion over the four years), water pollution control ($1.8 billion) and the broad category of resiliency, technology and equipment ($1.6 billion).

Of course, all localities will spend more as the years progress since climate change will only be getting worse in the short term.  If the world acts, eventually things could improve.

The findings of the DiNapoli report came on top of another analysis showing the looming costs New York faces from an aging and decaying infrastructure.  The Reason Foundation released its 27th annual highway ranking, a national report on states’ spending and performance on roadway quality.  That report had New York near the bottom of the survey, which underscores the need for additional spending on the state’s roadways.

Bottom line – New York taxpayers are, and will be, on the hook for significant infrastructure costs – much of the spending is driven by climate change.

These reports are consistent with others.  A report released by the think tank Rebuild by Design estimated that the climate costs to New York could be $55 billion by the end of this decade.  Furthermore, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that it would cost $52 billion to protect NY Harbor alone.  And while storms get worse, sea levels and groundwater tables are rising posing higher risks of flooding – and we don’t know how much.  Clearly, New York is facing staggering – and growing – climate threats and costs.

While we may not know the ultimate climate costs, what we do know is that unless something changes you and I will be paying those bills. 

Shouldn’t the biggest oil companies pick up the tab?  After all it was the world’s largest oil companies that had conducted the cutting-edge research in the 1970s that concluded with precise accuracy what would happen if fossil fuels continued to be combusted.  And wasn’t it the oil lobby that spent big bucks on public relations and lobbying campaigns to undermine independent science and block public health initiatives?  Had those reforms been embraced years ago, the world would not be facing the climate crisis it is today.

Unlike most New Yorkers, the oil industry has the money.  They’ve been raking in record-setting profits over the past few years. 

Yet around the state Capitol, little has been said about these looming costs.  It appears that Albany prefers to stick its head in the sand and hope that New Yorkers won’t notice the increasing costs – or worsening infrastructure – resulting from climate change.  The state Senate did advance in its one-house budget a plan to make the largest oil companies pay $3 billion annually to cover these costs.  Unfortunately, the Assembly did nothing and the governor is reportedly resisting the Senate plan.

How the state assesses the costs of climate change will be decided one way or the other in the state budget.  Right now, the default plan is to make average New Yorkers pay more.  Hopefully, the real culprits in the climate change catastrophe will be forced to pick up their share.  We’ll soon know what Albany decides.