COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — If climate change were a landlord, it would charge the city of Columbus exorbitant rent in coming years.

A July report from the Ohio Environmental Council found that combating the effects of climate change, whether it be crumbling roads, rising temperatures, or contaminated water, could cost Ohio municipalities between $2 billion and $6 billion by 2050.

“Unless we see drastic changes at every level of government to address carbon emissions in the next few years, these impacts will only continue to worsen — and the cost to address them will skyrocket,” the OEC said in its report.

ImpactLow-End EstimateHigh-End Estimate
A/C Installation$1.4 million$6.8 million
Electrical Costs$5.4 million$79 million
Cool Roofing$0$4.6 million
Cooling Centers$52 million$590 million
Road Repair$170 million$1 billion
Drinking Water Treatment$580 million$2.2 billion
Storm Recovery$35 million$78 million
Power Lines$140,000$18 million
Stormwater Management$140 million$150 million
Elevating Roads$860 million$1.7 billion
Total$1.8 billion$5.9 billion
Annual costs of climate change for major impacts on local governments expected by 2050. Data provided by the Ohio Environmental Council’s July 2022 report.

Rising costs of road repair

Whether it’s wear and tear from cars or weather-induced damage, the report estimated Ohio municipalities are likely to pay $410 million annually until 2050 to repair their roads and highways.

Nationwide, pavement costs increased by $14 billion from 2010 to ’17 due to rising temperatures, the report found.

The robust estimates reflect the need for Columbus to adapt its approach to what’s currently a car-dominated transportation system – one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to Harvey Miller, director of Ohio State University’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis.

“It doesn’t mean we have to eliminate cars, and the cars that do still operate in our cities should be electrified rather than internal combustion,” Miller said. “But really we need to place much more emphasis on sidewalks, providing protected bike infrastructure, and improving the convenience and quality of public transit.”

About 82% of the 2 million people living in Columbus commute to work via a single-occupant car, according to Smart Columbus. 

More drivers on the roads mean greater greenhouse gas emissions and damage to the city’s infrastructure, contributing to what Miller called a “brittle” car-dominated system that is easily disrupted by traffic crashes or extreme weather.

“That’s our big problem right now, is that if something goes wrong with our roads or highways – a flooding, infrastructure failure – there’s no other choice: Mobility just freezes,” he said.

Miller said he was disappointed by the Central Ohio Transit Authority’s decision to forego plans to add a sales tax initiative to the ballot in November, designed to pay for Columbus’ LinkUS bus rapid transit proposal that’s estimated to cost $6 billion to $8 billion.

Miller said the price tag on the LinkUS proposal, which includes an 11-mile bus rapid transit plan, is more affordable – and more climate-friendly – than restructuring swaths of roadways, like the $1.4 billion construction at I-70/I-71 in the downtown Columbus corridor.

“That’s only for two miles,” he said. “We’re talking like $6 to $8 billion for an entire high-quality bus rapid transit network. Public transit is much cheaper than continuing to build roads and highways and requires much less to maintain.”

Cranking the air conditioning and costly electric bills

As climate change causes temperatures to rise, so will the costs to cool buildings in Ohio. 

By mid-century, the number of days where the temperature surpasses 90 degrees in Ohio is likely to triple from the historical average of 10 to 20 days per year to 30 to 70 days per year, according to the report.

Higher temperatures could lead school districts in Ohio to crank the air conditioning more frequently to ensure a safe and productive environment for its students, according to the report.

“Cumulative heat exposure reduces cognitive performance and academic achievement in schools, and these harms fall disproportionately on low-income students and students of color,” the report said.

Before Columbus City Schools’ Operation Fix It, which installed new air conditioning in several schools within the district, a parent of a Mifflin High School student told NBC4 in August 2021 that her son “would come home, beet red in the face, and for 20 minutes straight just chug water.”

Using federal funds, Columbus schools is poised to reduce the number of non-air-conditioned buildings from 16 to three – out of 113 total school buildings – by the time its summer projects are complete, according to district spokesperson Jacqueline Bryant.

While plans are in place to add air conditioning to the remaining three buildings, Bryant said the district is mindful of other climate-induced concerns, like relying on mechanical cooling and disruptions to the electrical grid.

Central Ohioans had a taste of the chaos that ensued when severe heat waves and storm damage shut down AEP’s electrical grid in mid-June, leaving more than 240,000 residents, mostly those in low-income neighborhoods, without power in blistering heat — some of them for days.

“Our infrastructure is developed with tolerances and specifications that are based on a climate history that no longer exists,” Miller said. “We’re getting hotter, and our infrastructure is not designed for that.”

Columbus and other municipalities in Ohio cannot continue to “kick this can down the road” when it comes to making its infrastructure more resilient to the threats of climate change, Miller said.

“We have the wealth to do it; we have the technology,” he said. “What we need is the leadership and the political will to make major wholesale changes in how we operate our cities.”