We are in 2020. It is not 2040. It is not 2050. It is not 2100. And it is certainly not 2200! Humans, so far, are a brief blip on the timeline of Earth. Yet, we have a horrible problem assuming that everything will be fine and dandy for us forever simply because we’ve been here longer than we remember. We also have a problem assuming that we can’t mess up the climate so badly that society is ruined and life on Earth becomes much more horrendous than we thought possible. Oh yeah, also: we’re totally stupid when it comes to math, even math we know.
In recent weeks, much of the West Coast of the United States was covered in flames. This coincided with nearly getting a double hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, which would have been a first according to human record books. We can expect much worse than this, though, because we keep heating up the planet, and 2020 is like Day 1 in a movie about the Apocalypse.
Nonetheless, when many in the media talk about taking climate action, they decide to cut off half of the equation. They bring up the “cost” of climate action, or the cost of a particular policy or program, but they mostly ignore the topic of averted costs. The repeatedly ask about the “cost” of the Green New Deal, but not about the economic savings from such a deal. Let’s tackle the idea that you should ignore the economic benefits of a proposal while focusing on its costs (something the media and critics have also repeatedly done with regards to health care, but we won’t go there today).
Nearly a decade ago, Skeptical Science published a superb chart based on a few studies on this topic. Here it is:
I referenced this chart many times for years. Bigger websites than CleanTechnica referenced it. But it seems the message never penetrated into mainstream discussion of this topic. Note the y-axis — we’re talking about trillions of dollars here. It was projected in this analysis that the cost of climate inaction would be trillions of dollars more than the cost of strong climate action. By 2200, those costs are expected to be in the tens of trillions of dollars.
“Yale’s William Nordhaus is one of the foremost experts on climate economics. His research has frequently been misrepresented by climate ‘skeptics’ to argue that CO2 limits will harm the economy,” Skeptical Science wrote in 2012. “In a recent article, Nordhaus sought to set the record straight that the climate economics literature clearly indicates that CO2 limits will save money.”
The story has, unfortunately, changed very little since 2012. We are emitting far too much pollution and are not digesting the urgency of the situation well enough. This was a key conclusion of that 2012 article: “Despite the economic reality that CO2 limits will save money, the myth that they will harm the economy is a pervasive one. However, this myth is based on nothing more than a misunderstanding of climate science and economics, and misrepresentation of the climate science and economics body of research.” The same could be said today. We’ve made progress in our efforts to raise lagging human awareness, but the same narrative is trotted out over and over again in the mainstream media and among lay people when the topic of certain carbon-reduction policies are brought up, including the Green New Deal.
The costs of climate action have come down dramatically since 2012, while the urgency of action has increased. The costs of solar, wind, and electric vehicles have seen huge reductions, but climate policy is still timid in the United States and many other places. In fact, in the US, due in large part to changes in political leadership, climate policies were several times strong at the end of 2012 than the are today.
As coverage and commentary on unprecedented wildfires across the West, double hurricanes in the Gulf, and other heavily amplified natural disasters have gently rolled in, the threats from global heating and society-threatening climate change have become more tangible. But there’s still a lack of focus on how costly climate inaction is compared to climate action when climate policies are the focus of discussion. Instead of asking “how much money will the Green New Deal save the United States,” news anchors and journalists still ask about how much it will cost? Does it make any sense at this point to focus on one-sided costs rather than total net savings? I think not.
When was the last time someone on NBC, CNBC, CNN, or Fox News showed the cost of “business as usual” and weak climate action versus the cost of strong climate action? We need this discussion to happen much more, and we need it now.