Putting a price on climate change: ‘The cost of inaction is far larger’

Recent studies anticipate climate change will cost the globe trillions over the next decade, and Illinois is no exception.

In fact, the counter on global warming’s price tag already is running, state climatologist Trent Ford said.

Costs include public health impacts, rising insurance prices, and, most notoriously, severe weather damage.

Between 1980 and 2020, Illinois ranked fourth in the nation in the frequency of billion-dollar weather and climate events, according to data gathered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The disasters resulted in an estimated $38.4 billion in damages specific to Illinois.

And those estimates don’t account for health care costs and economic losses due to deaths, Ford noted in a 2020 analysis of climate change’s impacts and costs to Illinois communities.

“There are hazards and disasters that they contribute to that cost way over a billion dollars, but are much harder to quantify,” Ford said. “Those are things like heat waves, for example, where we have costs from reduction in productivity and health care costs, especially for those who are (under- or uninsured). And, of course, lives that are costing.”

One 2019 study estimated the cost of excess all-cause mortality, hospital admissions, and emergency department visits attributable to exposure to high temperatures in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area alone was $1.17 billion per year, Ford highlighted in his analysis.

Putting a price on such a broad and permeable global phenomenon as climate change can be a good exercise in awareness, but it also can have legal implications, Ford added.

For instance, the city of Chicago announced in February it filed suit against major oil companies including BP, Shell and ExxonMobil for “climate deception,” joining the ranks of New York, California and other cities and states seeking to recoup potentially billions in damages.

“Those types of initiatives and litigation will likely depend on some kind of quantitative estimate of the cost of climate change to, for example, the city of Chicago,” he said. “If it's agreed that fossil fuel companies or whatever sector should pay for municipal or public damages due to climate change, well then the first question is, ‘What are those damages?’”

Other contributors to the cost of climate change include the enormous mitigation and adaptation efforts unfolding as communities respond to the global crisis, such as investing in more robust stormwater drainage systems, boosting urban tree canopies, and electrifying buildings.

Despite the upfront costs, Ford added with every tree that’s invested in today, there will be a cooler city in the future. The same principle can be applied to countless adaptation and mitigation dollars being spent today.

“The cost of adaptation and mitigation to climate change is substantial, but the cost of inaction is far larger,” he said. “The research shows time and time again — in the areas of public health, in the areas of insurance, in the areas of infrastructure and emergency management — every $1 spent today is going to save much more than that dollar 30 years down the road.”

• Jenny Whidden,, is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. Help support her work with a tax-deductible donation at

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