Just last month, a hopeful scholar envisioned how addressing the pandemic could inform making progress to mitigate human-caused climate change.
“Policymakers should not throw up their hands in despair because climate policy is too complicated,” Roland Kupers wrote on the site Project Syndicate. “Rather, they need to look beyond mainstream economics and engage with people who understand complex systems, in the same way that they listen to epidemiologists and doctors during a pandemic.”
Maybe that’s true in Western Europe. Alas, in divided America it’s not to be.
With the West experiencing historic wildfires and major West Coast cities clocking some of the worst air pollution on Earth, scientists who actually specialize in studying climate change put most of the blame on a warming planet. With that comes the imperative to stop pumping so much carbon into the atmosphere.
But the president and powerful right-wing media deny this is happening at all.
In a meeting with firefighters in California this week, Trump said, “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch,” continuing his confusing of weather with climate. And he said of climate change, “I don’t think science knows, actually.”
Science does know, actually, as supported by repeated, authoritative assessments from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But this doesn’t matter for the president, his party or many voters. This cohort also dismissed epidemiologists over the pandemic.
The Pew Research Center reported in June that two-thirds of Americans think government should do more to address climate change, but this hasn’t been translated yet into our politics and habits.
Many major companies are taking climate change seriously, trying to reduce their carbon footprints. The Pentagon also sees it as a major threat to national security. BP, the oil giant, is working to reinvent itself as an energy provider amid climate change, focusing on solar, batteries and wind.
But we have yet to develop climate economics that can be popularized when the dismal science continues to exert powerful influence in our debates.
Climate specialists see a planet warming much faster than expected, confounding past scenarios and causing the costs of climate change to be consistently underestimated.
In reality, the Earth may already be hotter than at any time in human history.
Let that sink in for a moment. I’ll wait.
One problem facing the economics of climate change is the lack of accounting for so-called negative externalities — the costs of something to third parties. In this case, it’s the cost of what burning carbon is doing to the environment. Find a way to factor that in and we’re talking real money. This would make taxes on carbon imperative.
Yet another is the emphasis on short-term growth, when addressing climate change could provide substantial “green growth,” but potentially on a longer timeline.
This makes clean-energy and other climate-friendly policies a hard sell — with critics saying they will hurt jobs — even though rising temperatures are already costing the economy. In recent years, climate change-related weather disasters have shaved about 2% off American GDP alone. And the cost will rise rapidly in the coming decades.
By 2050, unaddressed climate change is expected to cost the global economy nearly $8 trillion annually, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Again, this may be underestimating the butcher’s bill, and is based on drought, crop failure, fires, more intense hurricanes, ocean acidification and the consequences of rising sea levels.
This doesn’t account for how these effects can produce rising international conflict as well as massive migration and spread of diseases. A study this past year estimated that 1 million species could become extinct as a result of climate change.
In other words, the choice isn’t between a healthy economy and lowering carbon emissions. The two are intertwined. And neither adapting nor murky, hoped-for techno-magic will be enough.
Developing an effective way to tax carbon — and keep more of it in the ground — is the topic of a report from the High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices, an international panel backed by the World Bank. The group lays out flexible and equitable ways to make this very doable.
One of the co-chairs was Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, a proponent of the Green New Deal. In the Guardian he wrote, “When the U.S. was attacked during the Second World War no one asked, ‘Can we afford to fight the war?’ It was an existential matter. We could not afford not to fight it. The same goes for the climate crisis.”
So smart carbon pricing is only the beginning.
Investment in advanced infrastructure is another must, and I don’t mean “roads and bridges.” The United States is the only advanced urbanized nation in the world without high-speed rail. Fixing that not only would reduce emissions by providing an alternative to flying and driving, but would also create large numbers of construction and operating jobs. We need more green transit, especially efficient rail transit, in more cities.
Electrifying our intercity passenger and freight railroads is another must. Where the electricity comes from matters — the current “upstream” power sources (including for electric cars) are too often carbon emitters. This is a reason I support nuclear power, as well as solar and wind.
Further public investment is needed in research for clean power. We’re not quitting fossil fuels anytime soon — for one thing, they are important components in making many renewable-energy systems.
We need to rethink the 10,000-mile supply chain. Carbon taxes and regulation of such things as dirty bunker fuel on ships would help (a switch to a lower-sulfur blend is already looking promising). But incentives for more local sources of goods and food are important, too.
Mustering the political will to accomplish these goals and restoring American leadership on climate — including returning to the Paris Accords — is on the ballot this November.
One candidate believes in climate change and has constructive plans. The other doesn’t.