You Break It, You Fix It: Why Carbon Polluters Should Pay for Hurricane Damage

A non-profit in New Jersey, US Strong, is calling for a levy on carbon emissions to pay for storm clean-up.

Why Carbon Polluters Should Pay for Hurricane Damage

A crew puts pilings into the sand during the reconstruction of the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey on February 22, 2013. (Photo: Tom Mihalek / Reuters)

A staff writer for LiveScience, Doug has written for the NYTimes.com. He lives in New York City.

Humans obviously didn’t create Superstorm Sandy, which struck the Northeast corridor slightly less than a year ago, causing about $70 billion in damages, half in the state of New Jersey. But some scientists agreed that we most likely made it worse than it otherwise would have been.

One non-profit organization in New Jersey has a plan to help pay for the devastation that still remains in the state and that could occur in the future: Putting a levy on carbon emissions.

While the group, US Strong, stops short of explicitly calling for a carbon tax, they clearly lean that way. "We don't use the words 'carbon tax' ... (but) there has to be a cost for putting carbon into the atmosphere," Curtis Fisher, the group's national campaign coordinator, told USA Today.

First, the evidence that burning fossil fuels make hurricanes worse: Human-induced warming from carbon emissions has raised global sea levels by about one foot since 1900, Penn State climatologist Michael Mann said last year. Much of Sandy's destruction came from the storm surge—the wall of water pushed ashore by the storm's strong winds. That extra foot could mean life or death for people who drowned inside their homes, for example, and could be the difference between a destroyed basement and a dry one.

There's also evidence that warmer surface ocean temperatures translates to more powerful cyclones, and hurricanes are expected to get more intense with global warming. The unusually warm high-pressure system over the North Atlantic that steered Superstorm Sandy toward the coast may be a type of pattern seen more likely in a warming world, climatologists say.

So since human fossil fuel emissions likely made Sandy worse—and are expected to make for more violent storms in the future—US Strong argues that there should be "a financial cost on emitting more carbon pollution into the atmosphere, which is fueling more extreme weather."

To pay for current and future damages from events like hurricanes and last month's devastating Colorado floods, the group is calling on the federal government to create an "Extreme Weather Relief and Protection Fund," paid for in part by companies that "pollute carbon."

US Strong's plan is laid out in a report published this month entitled "Extreme Weather, Extreme Costs," which included bipartisan input. “Things are changing, so we are going to have to change,” New Jersey State Senator Robert Singer told the group.

A primary goal of the document was to collect stories of Garden State residents who are still struggling to come back from Sandy's devastation.

Take Gigi Liaguno-Dorr, for example, whose popular waterfront restaurant, Jakeabob's, was destroyed. Her $1.2 million insurance policy only wrote her a check for less than the $10,000 deductible, according to US Strong. To make matters worse, the company won't pay anything on her $300,000 business interruption policy, which she said it should. And according to a NY Federal Reserve Bank survey, only 8 percent of small business owners in the Tri-State area whose businesses suffered damage had flood insurance. These people need help, the non-profit says.

Of course, not everybody in Jersey is hurting: Warren Brumel's bankruptcy practice in Keyport is thriving, according to US Strong. This past summer was by far its busiest season in 30 years. "Every day in this office we see people who are making the decision to walk away because of the amount of money they need to rebuild," he said.

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