Inaction on climate change likely to cost us much more down the road
CATASTROPHIC SCENARIOS OF ECOLOGICAL and social collapse are part of the climate change narrative. However it plays out – and we’re all along for the ride, some of us longer than others – it won’t be painless.
Those advocating measures to mitigate climate change today paint a payme-now-or-pay-me-later picture: either we spend time and money combating rising global temperatures, or we spend what’s likely to be a whole lot more down the road dealing with more severe weather-related disasters and applying technological fixes, if we come up with any.
While we’re cautioned against extrapolating today’s weather with climate issues, it’s easy to see the recent spate of hurricanes and the resultant toll, human and financial, as a harbinger of things to come.
Just this week, in fact, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported the federal government spent more than $350 billion over the last decade on disaster assistance programs and losses from flood and crop insurance. That number does not include this year’s major hurricanes – Harvey, Irma and Maria – for which more than $50 billion has already been allocated, nor a series of wildfires.
Future weather events are expected to cost more than $35 billion a year over the next decade. The intensity is getting worse, leaving large swathes vulnerable to flooding and surges (northeast and southeast coasts), droughts and wildfires (West) and crop-related issues (Midwest).
As well, the World Health Organization estimates that 12.6 million people die globally each year due to pollution, extreme weather and climate-related disease. Climate change between 2030 and 2050 is expected to cause 250,000 additional global deaths.
The worst-case scenarios of such changes are the focus of the film Two Degrees: The Point of No Return, which I recently caught on the History Channel (like other would-be educational channels, long largely bereft of educational material in favour of very bad reality TV, as an aside). In this case, the message was one of impending doom should global temperatures reach two degrees above the preindustrial average, a course that may be irreversible at this point. We’re on a pace for that somewhere around mid-century.
It’s a rather apocalyptic view, suggesting we might be on the road to our own demise in relatively short order due to floods, famine and disease that follow in the wake of a climate change tipping point.
The dire consequences we experience over the next century are likely overblown, but mesh somewhat with the much more limited crises we’ve seen already. And the film lends to a sense of urgency that some advocates for change would like to see from more of us, particularly those making the decisions.
“How do we develop the necessary sense of urgency?” asks Michael Purves-Smith, an Elmira environmental activist who’s organizing a public roundtable discussion about what can be done to avoid the tipping point.
There’s plenty to be worried about, but no easy answer to bringing more people on board, he admits.
There’s some irony in models that show widespread epidemics – perhaps the result of rising temperatures allowing tropical diseases and pests into new, unprepared areas – as one possible undoing of humanity. Such was the premise of Purves-Smith’s novel Rocky Mountain Locust, though the story was actually an optimistic view of recovery in a post-technology world.
In that vein, he remains optimistic we can find some way to avoid the worst-case scenarios of some climate change predictions.
Flooding, soaring temperatures and forest fires abound. We tend to take such stories in isolation, however, failing to connect the dots to form a (big) picture of trouble on a planetary scale. Well, even more than failing, we’re determined not to connect to those dots. And those content with the status quo – largely those profiting thereby – have absolutely no interest in drawing the perils to our attention.
The disregard for the consequences of the changes – consciously ignored in order to focus on unsustainable consumption – is problematic whether or not you believe what man does is having any impact on the climate. Extreme weather, flooding, landslides and forest fires will wreak havoc nonetheless. The same principle applies to all forms of pollution, loss of fresh water, habitat destruction, degradation of arable land and a host of other someday-catastrophic ills that we’d rather not dwell on just now.
The fact is, however, that we’d be well advised to take steps to combat climate change, and ramp up the precautionary measures in those places likely to be hardest hit – rising water levels, droughts and violent weather seem like certitudes, so some planning would be in order.
Does going on and on about climate change help or hinder the cause?
I think people have tuned out. Our attention spans being what they are, we’ve moved on. Oh, we occasionally take passing note of some conference or summit, where politicians make nice speeches about the fate of our planet and what needs to be done. As with many other issues, we suppose that all the talk leads to action, assuming the inevitable decline in news coverage means the problem has gone away.
And, as is always the case, short-term thinking will dominate. Politicians worried about re-election won’t do anything that seems expensive or puts national interests at an apparent disadvantage.
Canadians have grown tired of the debate, and will not support one dime travelling out of the country on some ill-fated cap-andtrade, carbon offsets or environmental reparations scheme cooked up by an unaccountable international group.
We simply do not believe politicians and bureaucrats capable of creating a system that isn’t corrupt, ineffective
and likely to waste money. History has shown us such agreements are rarely to the benefit of average citizens.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t be making our own efforts to combat climate change. Canada contributes about two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions despite having less than half of one per cent of the world’s population. Clearly we can do better.
Estimates tied to the kind of emission reductions deemed necessary to offset the worst of climate change run into the hundreds of billions. Coupled to the lifestyle changes and potential economic upheaval, the costs seem too onerous.
If the worst does happen, we’re going to be spending far more to deal with the damage and mitigation factors … but that’s something that may happen in the future. And the future is always tomorrow, not today’s concern.