Last week, a generic right-wing propagandist named S.E. Cupp appeared on Bill Maher's show, spewing what to a certain breed of climate denialist has become a favorite misdirection. They don't flat out deny the science, although they certainly don't acknowledge the gravity of what the science tells us; but they attempt to pretend that the real question isn't whether or not anthropogenic climate change is occurring, rather it's whether or not we can afford to deal with it. But any excuse for not dealing with it is but a different flavor of the same. It all boils down to ignoring the depth of the crisis so the fossil fuels industries can churn right along, reaping massive profits from the destruction of the biosphere.
Cupp's cutesy claim was that we can't afford to address climate change. It's about people's mortgages, she blithered. But not only does she ignore the obvious fact that the environmental consequences of climate change will render such concerns trivial if not moot, she also ignores the actual economics of climate change. Because it's not a question of whether we can afford to deal with it, it's the answer that we can't afford not to. Perhaps living in some fantasy land divorced from science provides people like Cupp with some sort of psychological solace, but it doesn't require exercising one's imagination to consider the geopolitical consequences of some 200,000,000 people being displaced, worldwide. It does require a sober acceptance of the meaning when even the usually staid and cautious National Academies of Sciences reach this conclusion:
The compelling case that climate change is occurring and is caused in large part by human activities is based on a strong, credible body of evidence, says Advancing the Science of Climate Change, one of the new reports. While noting that there is always more to learn and that the scientific process is never "closed," the report emphasizes that multiple lines of evidence support scientific understanding of climate change. The core phenomenon, scientific questions, and hypotheses have been examined thoroughly and have stood firm in the face of serious debate and careful evaluation of alternative explanations.
"Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems," the report concludes. It calls for a new era of climate change science where an emphasis is placed on "fundamental, use-inspired" research, which not only improves understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change but also is useful to decision makers at the local, regional, national, and international levels acting to limit and adapt to climate change. Seven cross-cutting research themes are identified to support this more comprehensive and integrative scientific enterprise.
And while Republicans such as Joe Miller, Ken Buck, Carly Fiorina, Linda McMahon, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, David Vitter, Roy Blunt, Richard Burr, Rob Portman, Jim Huffman, Pat Toomey, Dino Rossi, John Raese, and Ron Johnson are among those Republicans that specifically deny the clear scientific consensus on climate change, other Republicans, such as John McCain, Christine O'Donnell, Mark Kirk, Kelly Ayotte, and both Republicans running in New York are among those opposed to cap-and-trade to address it. The National Academies?
A carbon-pricing system is the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions. Either cap-and-trade, a system of taxing emissions, or a combination of the two could provide the needed incentives. While the report does not specifically recommend a cap-and-trade system, it notes that cap-and-trade is generally more compatible with the concept of an emissions budget.
Of course, those opposed to cap-and-trade don't offer any realistic alternatives, not only because there aren't any to offer but because they aren't interested in a realistic response. But to be even more specific and direct, the false question of whether or not we can afford to deal with climate change ignores the economic impacts of climate change itself, which have actually been studied. And written about--for those who actually care about the research and that are capable of reading.
Four years ago, the British government's HM Treasury produced a comprehensive analysis, titled the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. It takes its name from the radical hippie who led the team making the analysis: Nicolas Stern, former chief economist and senior vice president of the World Bank, former chief economist and special counsellor to the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and currently the first holder of the I. G. Patel Chair at the London School of Economics and Political Science, as well as the chair of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics.
When it was released, the BBC summarized the Stern Review's conclusions about the environmental impacts of climate change:
# Carbon emissions have already pushed up global temperatures by half a degree Celsius
# If no action is taken on emissions, there is more than a 75-percent chance of global temperatures rising between two and three degrees Celsius over the next 50 years
# There is a 50-percent chance that average global temperatures could rise by five degrees Celsius
# Melting glaciers will increase flood risk
# Crop yields will decline, particularly in Africa
# Rising sea levels could leave 200 million people permanently displaced
# Up to 40 percent of species could face extinction
# There will be more examples of extreme weather patterns
And the economic impact:
# Extreme weather could reduce global gross domestic product (GDP) by up to 1 percent
# A two-to-three degree Celsius rise in temperatures could reduce global economic output by 3 percent
# If temperatures rise by five degrees Celsius, up to 10 percent of global output could be lost. The poorest countries would lose more than 10 percent of their output
# In the worst case scenario global consumption per head would fall 20 percent
# To stabilise at manageable levels, emissions would need to stabilise in the next 20 years and fall between 1 percent and 3 percent after that. This would cost 1 percent of GDP
But what is that compared to the cost of dealing with climate change? For Cupp and anyone else who might need things explicitly spelled out, The Guardian two years ago quoted Stern from a London speech:
Lord Stern of Brentford made headlines in 2006 with a report that said countries needed to spend 1% of their GDP to stop greenhouse gases rising to dangerous levels. Failure to do this would lead to damage costing much more, the report warned - at least 5% and perhaps more than 20% of global GDP.
But speaking yesterday in London, Stern said evidence that climate change was happening faster than had been previously thought meant that emissions needed to be reduced even more sharply.
This meant the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would have to be kept below 500 parts per million, said Stern. In 2006, he set a figure of 450-550ppm. "I now think the appropriate thing would be in the middle of that range," he said. "To get below 500ppm ... would cost around 2% of GDP."
Yes, the cost of stopping the rise in greenhouse gases is now estimated at up to 2 percent of global GDP. But the cost of the damage from them is estimated to be- at a minimum- more than twice as much, with a maximum of up to 10 times as much. Even someone with Cupp's challenges and values ought to be able to understand that!
And a little closer to home, the University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Environmental Research compiled a series of reports, some broken down by state and some by region, which can be found here. As explained in the introduction of the full report, titled The US Economic Impacts of Climate Change and the Costs of Inaction (pdf):
In the West and Northwest, climate change is expected to alter precipitation patterns and snow pack, thereby increasing the risk of forest fires. Forest fires cost billions of dollars to suppress, and can result in significant loss of property. The Oakland, California fire of 1991 and the fires in San Diego and San Bernardino Counties in 2003 each cost over $2 billion. Every year for the past four years, over 7 million acres of forests in the National Forest System have burned with annual suppression costs of $1.3 billion or more.
The Great Plains and the Midwest will suffer particularly from increased frequency and severity of flooding and drought events, causing billions of dollars in damages to crops and property. For example, the North Dakota Red River floods in 1997 caused $1 billion in agricultural production losses, and the Midwest floods of 1993 inflicted $6-8 billion in damages to farmers alone. The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region will see increased vulnerability to sea level rise and storms. Depending on the category of the event, evacuation costs for the Northeast region may range, for a single event, between $2 and $6.5 billion. Since 1980, there have been 70 natural weather-caused disasters, with damages to coastal infrastructure exceeding $1 billion per event. Taken together, their combined impact surpassed $560 billion in damages.
Decreased precipitation levels in the South and Southwest will strain water resources for agriculture, industry and households. For the agriculturally productive Central Valley in California alone, the estimated economy-wide loss during the driest years is predicted to be around $6 billion per year. Net agricultural income for the San Antonio Texas Edwards Aquifer region is predicted to decline by 16-29% by 2030 and by 30-45% by 2090 because of competing uses for an increasingly scarce resource – water.
The true economic impact of climate change is fraught with “hidden” costs. Besides the replacement value of infrastructure, for example, there are real costs of re-routing traffic, workdays and productivity lost, provision of temporary shelter and supplies, potential relocation and retraining costs, and others. Likewise, the increased levels of uncertainty and risk, brought about by climate change, impose new costs on the insurance, banking, and investment industries, as well as complicate the planning processes for the agricultural and manufacturing sectors and for public works projects.
In other words, climate change isn't just an environmental issue, and it isn't just a humanitarian issue. Those who don't much care about the environment or humanity can't find comfort in making economic excuses, unless they don't really care about the economy, either. To be as explicitly clear as is possible: The climate crisis is an economic crisis, and unless one cares only about the continued staggering profits of the fossil fuels industries, there are no rationales or excuses not to be addressing climate change as the global environmental, human and economic crisis that it is.