TORONTO—Margaret Wente writes an intelligent and often provocative column in The Globe and Mail and I enjoy reading it, even when I don’t agree, as sometimes happens, with her premises or conclusions. But I got irked the other day, though I don’t mean to single out Wente because many others depict climate action as saving the planet.
After complaining about coming increases in oil and natural gas prices from carbon pricing and high electricity prices as a result of Ontario’s well-meaning, but grossly mismanaged greening of the electricity system, “don’t feel blue,” Wente wrote. “You are helping to save the planet.”
Wrong. Acting on climate change is not about saving the planet. It is to save us, human beings, from an ugly and difficult future. By 2050, the world is projected to have some nine billion mouths to feed in a potentially much warmer world, with prolonged heat waves, drought, grave water shortages, rising sea levels threatening many of the world’s major cities, the risk of new diseases and much reduced biodiversity and damaged ecosystems.
By acting now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and moving to a low-carbon world, we are trying to lower the great risks our children, grandchildren and generations beyond could face. This is what the climate change challenge is all about. Do we leave the next generation a truly disastrous world, or do we try to leave as our legacy a world that won’t be easy, but easier than it would be if we failed to act now?
By depicting action on the climate as saving the planet, we are trivializing the real threats we face as humans. The planet has been around for about 4.6 billion years and could be around for another five billion, when a much enlarged and extremely hot sun finally engulfs our planet and destroys it. There is nothing we can do to save the planet.
Our species, Homo sapiens, has been around for somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 years. But we won’t be around that much longer, as measured in eons unless, as Stephen Hawking warns, we can move to another planet—presumably one in another universe. There is a good chance there will be no animal or plant life of any form on our planet in less than a billion years. By then, the heat from the sun would also have evaporated all of the water in all of our oceans. For several billion more years, our planet would be an empty rock circulating around the sun. Our concern is about human existence so long as the planet is habitable.
If we accept the science of climate change as essentially correct despite some uncertainties, as most informed people do—Donald Trump doesn’t, but this only diminishes him—then we have to act.
But there is a cost—as well as an opportunity—in moving to a more sustainable way of life. There is no free lunch. William Nordhaus, the prominent Yale University economist, cites the social cost of carbon—the economic cost caused by an additional tonne of carbon dioxide emission or equivalent—as currently about US$31 a tonne. When greenhouse gas emitters do not have to pay a carbon price, they are in effect being subsidized.
The International Monetary Fund estimates this “subsidy” at about $34-billion a year for Canada, though it also includes other economic costs such as traffic accidents and the value of tax incentives. Through carbon pricing we are loading the social cost onto the emitters and users, where it belongs.
As TD Economics points out, “carbon pricing is the most efficient way of reducing emissions, and offers potential opportunities for the Canadian economy.” Carbon pricing means higher gasoline prices, but it also means government revenues that can be used to support innovation and deliver cleaner and more efficient forms of energy. Paradoxically, the Conservatives oppose what is a market-based approach to climate change, and propose instead a socialistic array of regulations, deluding themselves that regulations don’t affect prices.
In its 2017 climate outlook, the global bank HSBC recognizes that a Trump administration will be loaded with appointees strongly committed to the coal and oil industries and hostile to climate action—this is part of the America First program. However, the bank’s economists expect “market forces, such as the break-even economies of different energy sources and speed of low-carbon technology innovation, to be a more significant driver.” There is also a risk for the U.S. if it goes slow—other countries such as China, members of the European Union, Japan, and even Canada will gain an edge in innovation and new technologies. If Americans decide to be stupid, the rest of the world can still move on.
Perhaps, more importantly, more people are starting to see the connection between climate change and other global challenges.
“We expect analysis of the natural and human consequences of climate change to become more interconnected through the course of 2017,” the HSBC analysis says. “We believe the social consequences of climate change, e.g. food and water system change and health issues, play out at the global level through trade flows and population disruption.”
We should be less worried than Wente is that gasoline may go up 4.3 cents a litre from carbon pricing, and more worried about the future world we will be creating if we fail to act. More expensive gasoline is a small price to pay—and with higher prices we will have more and better alternatives. This is not about saving the planet—it is about the conditions of life for ourselves, the human species, and the kind of legacy we will leave for our children and grandchildren. That’s the big challenge.
David Crane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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