A common talking point in political circles is that climate action costs a lot. Even among proponents of strong climate action, there is a common tendency to just accept that as fact. However, this is not like going shopping for toys at Toys-R-Us (or I guess Amazon these days). It’s not like you either spend money or you spend $0. Lack of climate action comes at a cost, a very high cost.
As Arthur Hasler pointed out earlier today, if you just look at the costs of oversized, over-pumped storms, the results are horrendous. “Hurricane Sandy was the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season. Inflicting around $210 billion in damage, it was the second-costliest hurricane on record in the United States until it was surpassed by Hurricane Maria ($215 billion) in 2017. It was also approximately tied by Hurricane Harvey ($210 billion) in 2017. (Hurricane Katrina is estimated to have cost $320 billion.) All of these disasters have occurred since 2005.”
Storms are getting stronger, and much costlier. So are fires. So are droughts. So are agricultural disruptions. So are floods. Interestingly, at the same time, technology costs for key cleantech industries have been coming down. Several years ago, some researchers and analysts published the following chart based on a study on the impacts and costs of climate change. The key finding: climate disruption will be smaller and cost a lot less if we take strong climate action sooner.
If you spend a little bit on climate action today, the costs of climate damage are going to be relatively large. If you spend a lot on climate action today, the damages from climate-related disasters won’t be nearly as high.
That said, that chart above has a couple of issues. Firstly, it’s from 2005. Global heating and all of its ramifications have been occurring at a much quicker clip than expected back then. Secondly, solar, wind, and battery costs have dropped much more quickly than people expected. That means the chart should show a significantly higher gap between the costs of climate action and the costs of total climate catastrophe from inaction.
I don’t have up-to-date figures, and no one really does since even a thorough report would have to estimate and forecast assumptions about sales, pricing, etc., but however many trillions of dollars it costs to adequately address global heating, it would cost multiples of that amount if we ignored the need to act and simply let global heating play out.
Growing climate catastrophes are going to grab more and more headlines in the coming decade. They are already baked in, but will only get worse and worse as time marches on. The more we can do so, we should point out that, yes, it costs money to investment in solar power, wind power, battery storage, and electric vehicles, but it would cost several times more to face destruction from larger and larger hurricanes, fires, drought, flooding, and heat — not to mention all the extra suffering. It may cost $30 trillion to make adequate investments into energy and technology transitions, but if so, it’d probably cost $60 trillion, $90 trillion, or some other larger amount to do nothing. Ahem, Manchin.