President Barack Obama has written in the journal Science that private-sector incentives can help drive decoupling of emissions and spur economic growth.
In the data-driven article, Obama describes how the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) due to human activity is increasing global average surface air temperatures, disrupting weather patterns, and acidifying the ocean. He says that, left unchecked, the continued growth of GHG emissions could cause global average temperatures to increase by another 4°C or more by 2100 and by 1.5 to 2 times as much in many mid-continent and far northern locations.
The Science article continues the moral narrative that President Obama has made throughout his presidency for investing in clean energy technologies such as wind and solar. All along he has supported US initiatives toward slashing emissions of greenhouse gases to stave off the worse effects of global warming.
Obama reinforces his position that sustainable energy makes economic sense. This is in direct contrast to his successor’s continued climate denier position, which seems to be directed toward renewed fossil fuel production. “Although our understanding of the impacts of climate change is increasingly and disturbingly clear,” Obama writes, “there is still debate about the proper course for U.S. policy — a debate that is very much on display during the current presidential transition.” He asks us to put politics aside and to look to the substantive economic and scientific evidence that trends toward a clean-energy economy will continue.
Indeed, the data that Obama includes points to economic downward spirals should the US decide not to engage in robust economic policies that focus on alternative energies. “Evidence is mounting that any economic strategy that ignores carbon pollution will impose tremendous costs to the global economy and will result in fewer jobs and less economic growth over the long term.” He outlines how one of the most frequently cited economic models pins the estimate of annual damages from warming of 4°C at ~4% of global GDP (4–6), which could lead to lost U.S. federal revenue of roughly $340 billion to $690 billion annually.
Investments will be needed to reduce emissions, Obama conceded. However, he says that such capital expenditures will increase resilience and preparedness for the changes in climate, and they can no longer be avoided. Indeed, he argues that these investments will be modest in comparison with the benefits from avoided climate-change damages. He envisions that governmental infrastructures from states, localities, and businesses will invest, take common-sense steps, and disclose climate risk to taxpayers, homeowners, shareholders, and customers. Global insurance and reinsurance businesses, he reminded us, are already taking such steps as their analytical models reveal growing climate risk.
Businesses, too, are quietly conceding that reducing emissions is good for the environment and for profitability. Obama says that when businesses cut costs for consumers, they deliver returns for shareholders. He points to ways that greenhouse gas mitigation “need not conflict with economic growth. Rather, it can boost efficiency, productivity, and innovation.”
The enormous scientific record shows the urgency of acting to mitigate climate change. “I remain convinced that no country is better suited to confront the climate challenge and reap the economic benefits of a low-carbon future than the United States,” President Obama reiterates, “and that continued participation in the Paris process will yield great benefit for the American people, as well as the international community. Prudent U.S. policy over the next several decades would prioritize, among other actions, decarbonizing the U.S. energy system, storing carbon and reducing emissions within U.S. lands, and reducing non-CO2 emissions.”
Obama ends the Science article by turning to the power of the incoming US executive branch. Since the Trump administration has the autonomy to prescribe policy, the latest science and economics may provide the new US leadership with “a helpful guide for what the future may bring, in many cases independent of near-term policy choices, when it comes to combatting climate change and transitioning to a clean-energy economy.”
He adds, “I believe the trend toward clean energy is irreversible.”
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