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What the climate fight is really about

Jul 18,2023 - Last updated at Jul 18,2023

NEW YORK — Climate change is no longer a future problem. It is here, and the effects are all around. Worse, today’s extreme weather events are just a preview of the pain that awaits humanity in the coming decades, almost regardless of how fast we manage to de-carbonise the economy this year or next.

Such sobering observations tend to provoke arguments about the importance of “climate optimism”. Pessimism, after all, demotivates. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, not a nightmare, for the future his children would inhabit.

I typically join these calls for optimism. The accelerating pace of the clean-energy race is heartening, as is the emergence of positive socioeconomic feedback loops to match all the negative ones associated with climatic tipping points. Still, while the pace of clean-energy deployment is faster than it has ever been, the world overall is racing in the wrong direction: Global greenhouse-gas emissions are still rising.

So, how should we talk about this challenge, with these two dynamics tugging in opposite directions?

One answer is to embrace the language of risks and uncertainties. Not too long ago, those resisting climate action were the ones playing up the issue of uncertainty. The “merchants of doubt”, marginal scientists and other commentators in hock to the fossil-fuel industry, focused on our lack of complete knowledge to challenge the strengthening consensus around anthropogenic climate change. Uncertainty was their friend. But for the rest of us, it is public enemy number one. The unknowns and unknowables are what make climate change such an urgent problem.

Over the past few decades, advances in climate science and economics have helped to quantify more climate-related uncertainties. This progress has been both helpful and alarming, because it has further underscored just how dangerous those uncertainties truly are.

Above all, it shows that we need climate action not only to keep relatively slow-moving averages from increasing further, but, even more importantly, to keep uncertainties in check. The floods, droughts, wildfires, and other extreme climate-driven phenomena are what make the problem so costly. Conversely, climate policymaking that cuts off the tail end of the extreme-weather distribution should be regarded as a major success.

Sometimes, this will literally mean taking out insurance against the worst phenomena. Insurance mandates, for example, would compel homeowners to account for the cost of floods and wildfires when deciding where to live. As the price of homeowner’s insurance rises in disaster-prone areas, mandates could become one of the most effective ways to encourage climate-change adaptation.

Similarly, investments in low-carbon energy sources are often best viewed as investments in resilience, and thus in decreased uncertainty. Lowering one’s average carbon footprint ought to be valued and appropriately rewarded. But whether you are installing solar panels on your roof, using a battery pack as backup storage, or switching to a heat pump and induction stove, the biggest payoff comes in extreme circumstances, or the lack thereof.

The solar panels and battery packs will ensure that your lights stay on even if the grid goes down because of extreme weather. Similarly, a heat pump and induction stove will allow you to cut off your gas line and declare independence from future gas supply shocks that directly affect your heating bill. (The indirect effect via the electric bill points immediately back to solar panels and battery packs, and it further reinforces the urgency to de-carbonise the overall electric grid.)

The cost of solar and all-electric appliances will only decline over time, whereas natural gas and oil markets will continue to fluctuate, owing to the vagaries of geopolitics and the global economy. A surefire way to prevent fossilflation is to get off fossil fuels altogether.

What is true for homeowners also is true for whole economies. Less dependence on fossil fuels means less uncertainty. True, the clean-energy transition also relies on potentially volatile commodities like copper, lithium, and other critical minerals. But there are crucial differences between these and fossil fuels. For one, the millions of tonnes of material going into clean technologies are orders of magnitude smaller than the billions of tonnes of fossil fuels being burned every year. And still better technologies with ever-lower costs are likely to emerge as we rapidly climb the learning curve on clean-energy solutions.

The trend lines support a cautiously optimistic outlook on the clean-energy future. But there are plenty of hurdles still to overcome, many of them erected and propped up by fossil-fuel incumbents trying to delay the inevitable. There is also plenty of climate-driven pain and destruction still in store. Things will get worse before they get better.

But even if we can no longer prevent climate change, we can still mitigate it by minimising the accompanying uncertainties. We must embrace these uncertainties for what they are: A wake-up call to prevent the worst. Climate risk is financial risk, and climate action is an insurance policy, for the world as much as for individual companies and for us as individuals.


Gernot Wagner is a climate economist at Columbia Business School. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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