In 2007 a MIT survey revealed that nearly 60% of Americans feel that "until we are sure that global warming is really a problem, we should not take any steps that would have economic costs" or "its effects will be gradual, so we can deal with the problem gradually" (Sherman, 2007).
Fast forward to 2019 and surveys indicate we are increasingly worried about climate change. “According to a nationally representative survey from Yale University and George Mason University, 69 percent of Americans are “somewhat worried” about climate change and 29 percent are “very worried.” These are the highest values since the surveys began in 2008, and the “very worried” category shows an 8 percent jump compared to the previous survey published in April 2018.” (Irfan, 2019)
An important reason for the growing concern is the billions of dollars in damages and thousands of deaths due to extreme weather events, reaching a record total of $ 310 billion in 2017, including three hurricanes, several huge wildfires, and floods. (NOAA, 2019) You cannot feel the global temperatures going up, but you can experience a hurricane, a flood, or a wildfire.
An Associated Press/University of Chicago poll asked people how much respondents were willing to pay monthly to fight climate change: "Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said they would be willing to pay at least $1 per month, 23 percent said they'd pay at least $40 per month, and 16 percent were willing to pay at least $100 per month. It shows that a minority of the population is willing to pay the majority of the cost of fighting greenhouse gas emissions and coping with rising temperatures. But that also means that 43 percent of respondents wouldn’t be willing to pay anything to deal with climate change, a sign of a sharp divide.” (Irfan, 2019)
Of course, this divide is also political, which illustrates the difficulty we have in having an independent scientific outlook on a subject after it has been classified politically. That is the reason why recently emerging climate change movements such as Greta Thunberg's Fridays For Future takes an apolitical stance.
In any case, many Americans are still not aware of the explosive dynamics of climate change and the corresponding steep increase in costs if the problem is approached gradually.
The dynamics of climate change are non-linear due to three different mechanisms. First carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, due to our increasing fossil fuel emissions, much faster than it is naturally reabsorbed, causing an abnormal rise in temperatures with the greenhouse effect. This increase in temperatures melts the sea ice and glaciers that are replaced by water and land, reflecting less light out of the atmosphere and thus further heating the Earth. Moreover, higher temperatures cause more evaporation, which puts more water vapor into the air that is a potent heat-trapping greenhouse gas. These three feedback loops exponentially reinforce each other, and thus, we are accelerating towards possible disaster.
“Already we are experiencing global temperatures that are increasing 50 times faster than it did during preindustrial times; oceans are becoming more acidic today, due to dissolving CO2, at ten times faster than the rate 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred; and from 1979 to 2012 late summer Arctic ice volume has dropped by 80%. Climate warming is causing extreme weather events to become more frequent, creating a new normal. Storms that were previously 100-year storms are becoming 10-year storms. Because climate change is expected to make dry or semiarid regions hotter and drier, we would expect longer and more intense droughts in such regions, such as the Mediterranean and U.S. Southwest. Eventually, the climate is projected to change so much that the region's normal climate becomes a drought." (Romm, 2018)
"Total anthropogenic GHG emissions have continued to increase from 1970 to 2010, with the highest in human history from 2000 to 2010. CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes contributed to about 78% of the total GHG emission increase from 1970 to 2010.” (IPCC, 2018)
Furthermore, "humans are transforming Earth's natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, posing a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival, a sweeping new United Nations assessment has concluded. With the human population passing 7 billion, activities like farming, logging, poaching, fishing, and mining are altering the natural world at a rate 'unprecedented' in human history. At the same time, a new threat has emerged: Global warming has become a major driver of wildlife decline, the assessment found, by shifting or shrinking the local climates that many mammals, birds, insects, fish and plants evolved to survive in." (Plumer, 2019)
"Climate-change impacts on food and water systems, declining crop yields and rising food prices driven by drought, wildfire and harvest failures have already become catalysts for social breakdown and conflict across the Middle East, the Maghreb and the Sahel, contributing to the European migration crisis." (Spratt, 2019)
The world's leading climate scientists have warned there are only a dozen years (2018 to 2030) for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5 degrees °C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. (Watts, 2018)
The good news is that the cost of keeping the climate at a sustainable level of about 450 ppm CO2 equivalent by 2100 is not prohibitive if we act now. The latest IPPC report indicates that losses in global consumption, due to increases in investments, are on the average 1.7% in 2030, 3.4% in 2050 and 4.8% in 2100.
Naturally, these substantial reductions in emissions will require a profound change in investment patterns. In the sustainable development scenario of the 2018 World Energy Outlook of the International Energy Agency, the average annual investment over the 2018 – 2040 period in fuel supply (oil, gas, and coal) declines 19% respect to the investment in fuel supply in 2017. Instead, the average annual investment, for the period, in power supply should increase 45% with respect that of 2017, with the largest part going to renewables. Even more dramatically, average annual investments in energy efficiency for the period need to triple the size of these annual investments in 2017. (International Energy Agency, 2018) The imperative is that we must act now, specifically during the 2019-2030 period, to bring down CO2 yearly emissions to between 30 to 50 Gt CO2 equivalent in 2030. The above estimates are based on this alert action response. If the world does not achieve this, we will be emitting more, and it will cost more to clean up. If by 2030 we have annual emissions exceeding 55 Gt CO2 eq., the average additional costs are 44% in 2030-2050 and 32% in 2050-2100 to maintain a 2100 concentration level of 450 to 550 ppm CO2 eq. (IPPC, 2018)
It pays to act as fast as possible to counter the accelerating dynamics of climate change. Keeping in mind that economists can more easily estimate abatement costs because we have begun these types of investment, there are no estimates of the multiple benefits of avoiding climate damage in the IPCC calculations. They have preferred to be prudent and non-controversial. If we examine one of the higher emission scenarios, for example, 720 to 1000 ppm CO2 eq. in 2100, the cumulative emissions (2011- 2100) are estimated as 3620 to 4990 Gt CO2 eq., roughly five times the cumulative emissions of the fast start scenario. What is the benefit of avoiding all the costs of the damage at these levels?
We may have underestimated the combined effects of the climate feedback loops. “Analysis of climate-related security threats depends significantly on understanding the strengths and limitations of climate science projections. Much scientific knowledge produced for climate policy-making is conservative and reticent. Climate change now represents a near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization. A new approach to climate-related security risk-management is thus required, giving particular attention to the high-end and difficult-to-quantify “fat-tail” possibilities. (Spratt, 2019) This scenario terminates in 2050.
What can we do now? The prime responsibility for climate warming comes from the continued and growing emissions of the fossil fuel industry that have to be severely limited. This can be realized by massive investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, along with reduced investments in the oil, gas, and coal industries. The priority should be to convince the government to overcome political polarization and put into action all the necessary measures, as indicated by the IPCC.
As individuals we may install solar panels in our homes and schools; apply energy efficiency in our houses and buildings with a good return on investment, learn to eat much less meat, be efficient in travel using public transport, railways, bicycles, own or share an energy efficient or electric car. We can invest in companies involved in climate restoration and disinvest in those that are not. We should follow Greta Thunberg's examples.
Most importantly, we must vote for politicians whose programs adequately address the problem of climate change, reducing the carbon dioxide emissions from the fossil fuel industry as rapidly as possible.
The challenge is daunting, and since it is in our best interest to move fast, there is no single magic bullet - we have to use all of our tools (also different combinations in different states and regions): carbon taxes (revenue neutral), regulations for energy standards, cap and trade, incentives for electric cars, solar energy production, energy savings and more.
The silver lining is that this creates multiple opportunities for business and jobs: with energy efficiency investments in buildings, transport and industry; solar energy production facilities in all its forms and local distribution systems; the reinvention of goods that are natural and recyclable; and sustainable agriculture. Why would the U.S. want to ignore the times they are a changin’?
International Energy Agency, 2018, World Energy Outlook 2018, page 94.
Irfan, U. and Resnick, B. 2019, Three key lessons from the disasters that hammered the U.S. in 2018, VOX, February 6, 2019.
IPCC 2018, Global Warming of 1.5 C Degree, Summary for Policy Makers, October 6, 2018, pages 12-15 and 25-27.
Langer, G. 2018, Public Backs Action on Global Warming – but with Cost Concerns and Muted Urgency, (ABC News, Stanford University, Resources for the Future Poll: Public Attitudes on Global Warming), ABC News July 16, 2018.
NOAA, National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2019).
Plumer, B. 2019, Humans Are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an unprecedented Pace, New York Times, May 6, 2019.
Romm, J. 2018, Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, Second Edition 2018.
Sherman, J. D. and Sweeney, L. B. 2007, Climate Change (2007) 80: 213-238.
Spratt, D. and Dunlop, I. 2019, Existential climate-related security risk: A scenario approach, Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration.
Watts, J. 2018, The Guardian, October 8, 2018.