Climate Change Mitigation – Bargain!

“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy-tales of eternal economic growth, how dare you”

These were the evocative words, spoken by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg to an audience of the world’s leaders at the United Nations Summit last week. In that same week, the climate strikes that Greta inspired echoed around the world, bringing cities to a halt. Estimations suggest that over 4 million people participated globally, a strike of this nature is entirely unprecedented – but then again so is climate change.

In her speech, Greta pointed to the greed and inaction of business and world leaders and the effects their actions (or rather inaction) will have on generations to come. She emotively called out weak, ineffective targets and the lack of consideration for tipping points, feedback loops and aspects of equity and climate justice. In under 5 minutes this 16-year-old articulated what many have spent lifetime’s trying to convey. And, according to researchers at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Greta’s right – about almost everything.

Almost Everything?

Greta’s anger and denouncement of greed is not misplaced, however, when it comes to talking about climate change: money matters. When considering climate action, there is a tendency towards separating the economic from the environmental, as often economies grow at the expense of the environment. Common narratives seem to say, “It’s one or the other”, but according to a study recently published in Science that’s not the case. Experts at the University of Witwatersrand have confidently concluded that investing in measures to reduce climate change is economically advantageous.

A Solid Long-term Investment

This study, released to coincide with the UN Summit, has ascertained that the costs estimated to reduce climate change are expected to be significantly less that the costs of the damages that climate change will inflict. These calculations, based off numerical evidence, draw on the feedback loop and tipping point scenarios Greta referred to. The comprehensive research encompasses the disproportionate effects climate change will have on developing nations, framing the outcomes of climate change as being far worse than a “sum of the parts”.

For example, a single sum of the “climate change parts” is rising global temperatures: this is causing glacial, ice cap and sea ice melt, leading to sea level rise. A rise in sea levels will no doubt impact coastal towns and cities, but when considered as single event it’s a relatively manageable risk. Why invest in climate change mitigation when the money might be better spent building on higher land?

Beyond a “Sum of the Various Parts”

According to leading scientists, melting glaciers, sea ice and ice caps will trigger an ice-albedo effect, causing further glacial melt, which in turn causes higher and higher sea-levels. Meanwhile, rising temperatures are also causing more severe and frequent weather events. So, we have increased storm frequency and severity, partnered with a sea-level rise – not to mention feedback loops, perpetuating these phenomena. It’s no longer about building on higher land; the issue has become far more complex.

For Example…

Regions such as the Bahamas where Hurricane Dorian recently hit, know this all too well. Under current projections, the Bahamas can expect continued hurricanes incurring ongoing costs of rebuilding, protection and adaption. For a developing country this is already quite the bill, these costs are then partnered with continuing rises in sea-levels, potentially leading to uninhabitable environments. How much does it cost to resettle an entire population? The researchers argue the costs of acting now will be far less than the costs of waiting to see what happens.

And it’s not just the Bahamas, it’s all over the world. This study, and many like it are trying to emphasis the complexity and the costs that humanity as a whole will face if we choose not to act now. So, while I wholeheartedly support Greta and value the importance in her words, talking money helps paint the bigger picture of what we face if we chose the path of inaction now.

2 Responses to “Climate Change Mitigation – Bargain!”

  1. coatesa says:

    Thank you for your response Caroline. I couldn’t agree more – this is a systemic issue and in order to generate systemic change environmentalists and economists needs to be one and the same rather than working in isolation of each other

  2. Caroline Norton-Smith says:

    As an economist before turning to science, this post really struck a cord with me. I believe there is a strong need in environmental activism to advocate for the economical benefits of making environmental friendly changes e.g. pay-back periods for renewable energy are shortening. To change the minds of governments and big business, we need to talk their language.