Cities are increasingly footing the bill for climate change as they strain to adapt their infrastructure to rising temperatures, new rainfall patterns, and extreme weather.
Towns and cities in Ohio now have a pretty good sense of the daunting climate bill they will face in the absence of state and national support, all thanks to a report published this year by three local policy and environmental groups, writes Yale Climate Connections.
The Ohio Environmental Council, Power a Clean Future Ohio, and Scioto Analysis collaborated on the report, which identified [pdf] 50 actions cities will need to take to prepare for climate change, then calculated the price tag for just 10 of them.
“Considering measures such as installing air conditioning in public buildings, protecting drinking water from harmful algal blooms, and pruning trees to protect power lines during storms, they arrived at a highly conservative estimate of US$1.8 to $5.9 billion in new annual costs by mid-century,” writes Yale Climate.
For Ohio’s capital, the climate bill has already been plenty steep. “Since 2019, Columbus has spent more than $62 million on flood mitigation projects and $21 million on a flood tunnel designed to prevent stormwater runoff from overpowering the sewer system.”
City councillor Rob Dorans said climate change was “the driving force” behind those investments.
The city also paid a local air-conditioned museum $60,000 per day to open its doors to the public during an extended power outage that hit much of Columbus in June, as powerful storms rode shotgun on a brutal heat wave, writes Yale Climate.
Too few people grasp the reality that local and state governments across the country are typically left to pay for repairs and upgrades to public infrastructure, said Albany Law School professor Christine Sgarlata Chung, a municipal finance expert.
“It is really local taxpayers who are bearing enormous burdens associated with climate change,” Chung said. “If I could change one thing about the conversation, it would be to get people to understand that.”
That burden is already enormous, Yale Climate writes. “In 2014, state and local governments paid 88% of the nation’s costs to operate and maintain transportation and water infrastructure.”
The hit will be particularly hard for places like Youngstown, a three-hour drive from Columbus. Unlike the state capital, whose “steady population growth and a strong economy give the local government a sound economic basis for increasing resiliency,” the former steel town is shrinking—and its poverty rate is high.
“Our city, with no outside help from the federal or state government, is having to pay for $150 million of upgrades to our sewer system because of overflow rainwater,” city councillor Lauren McNally told Yale Climate.
“We don’t have more people moving into the city,” she said. “We can’t collect more income tax to cover these added costs. So they just fall back on the residents that we do have, the majority of them being an aging population on a fixed income and/or below the poverty line.”
If raising taxes and petitioning the federal government are not an option, the report outlines another source for a potential climate fund to cover infrastructure costs: consider who is responsible for climate change “in the first place,” say the authors.
They cite a 2017 study that found just 100 oil and gas companies are responsible for more than 70% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. “Many of these same companies conducted early climate change research and found that burning fossil fuels would raise global temperatures,” they write.
“Instead of relying on taxpayers to bear these costs, local governments have the option to ensure that the corporate actors most responsible for causing and exacerbating climate change should be responsible for their fair share of the financial costs of adaptation and resilience.”
That recommendation echoed Vancouver’s recent decision to back the Sue Big Oil campaign and allocate $1 per resident to help get the class action off the ground.