As Washington approaches the fiscal cliff and looks to save money in every budgetary corner it can find, experts are sounding the alarms on the costs of disaster relief and the potential costs a warmer planet could inflict on the country. Some relevant figures:
$6 billion: The price tag of this year's election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which makes this year's election the most expensive one ever.
$50 billion: What experts are saying Hurricane Sandy could cost in economic damages, according to the New York Times.
$271 billion: The annual cost, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the country could be paying on disaster relief by 2025 if no action is taken to curb the use of fossil fuels whose greenhouse gas emissions most scientists agree are causing the Earth to warm.
These are the numbers experts are throwing out as they're calling on Congress to step up to the plate on better disaster planning and, in some cases, also aggressive action on climate change.
Josh Freed and Kimble McCraw, two experts at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, cited the $271 billion figure in an op-ed published on Friday urging Congress to pursue a "suite of policies," including clean-energy development and disaster planning, to avoid these ballooning costs. They say rising costs are coming from floods, drought-stricken areas, and increasing energy needs.
"Every year we continue to ignore it [climate change], the worldwide bill for climate change increases by $500 billion," the experts write, citing data from the International Energy Agency.
Separately, a diverse group of experts held a conference call on Friday calling on Congress to implement a national strategy aimed at protecting against natural disasters.
"We can be better prepared and better able to withstand disasters if we have a national conversation and national direction," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group that monitors federal spending. "We know every dollar spent on mitigation saves us $4 in recovery."
Ellis and other experts say the National Flood Insurance Program, which was reauthorized this summer for five years, should be revamped, strengthened, and reformed to include a broader strategy on flood issues. Other potential avenues for better disaster planning are the Water Resources Development Act, which the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hopes to pass by year's end. This bill includes funding for projects improving flood control. A group of Democratic senators is also writing legislation that takes a broader look at planning for extreme weather, which many scientists are say is created or exacerbated by global warming.
"It seems like a pretty good idea to me," said Eli Lehrer, president and co-founder of the conservative think tank the R Street Institute, who was on the conference call on Friday. But the challenge of enacting any such bill circles back to the reason the fiscal cliff looms over the country.
"Given the current fiscal environment I want to be very careful of not spending any money that we don't have, since we don't have any," Lehrer said.