Pay Now, Pay Later, or Really Pay Much More Later

There’s good news, some not so great news, and some really bad news when it comes to the climate crisis. The good news is that people are doing things to address climate change. If you don’t mind, let’s start with the good news, which is that we—some parts of the developed nations, anyway—are taking action on climate change. In the substack publication THE GIGATON, on April 16, 2024, Juan Pablo Quintero and Stella Liu offer a nice summary of some major climate actions in “The Trillion Dollar Policy Push by the US and Europe.”

They start this way: “This week, we decode the $1.2 trillion (yes, with a “T”) Infrastructure Investments and Job Act passed by Congress in 2021 and another $1+ trillion policy push led by the EU in the Green Deal.” They report that the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) offers the largest US infrastructure investment in generations, and that the bill provides “funding for modernizing and building out infrastructure from roads and bridges to broadband and drinking water.” The climate change parts of this bill break out this way (although they only briefly note other policies within that include investments in public transit and passenger rail and port modernization):

  • $65 billion for electric grid and transmission upgrades and modernization
  • $50 billion for climate resiliency projects including protection against “droughts, extreme heat, flooding, and wildfires”
  • $21 billion to clean pollution in Superfund and brownfield sites
  • $12 billion to carbon management solutions, including Direct Air Capture
  • $9.5 billion to build hydrogen hubs and clean hydrogen manufacturing
  • $7.5 billion to build a nationwide network of 500,000 EV charging stations

They don’t break out the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) climate budget but point out that “IRA policies are designed to encourage investment and expand access to sustainable technologies for consumers and companies.” While a good chunk of IRA is for health care programs, an open-ended amount available across the next decade has some estimates at $800 billion, although official estimates are lower. The IRA is aimed at climate change amelioration, mainly in the form of tax credits and grant programs for homes, small businesses, and electric vehicles, as well as domestic supply chain buildout.

Here’s an excellent graphic that captures in a snapshot what the Gigaton article references from the 2021 Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act

The authors are even less specific on the EU Green Deal, but clear on outlay budgets, writing, “The EU Green Deal, launched in December 2019, is a package of policies that aim for the EU to reach climate neutrality by 2050. Total spending through 2030 is expected to reach €1 trillion and catalyze innovation across all climate technologies,” and then they include a nice chart showing how the different programs with the EU Green Deal break out:

Not So Great News

The not so great news is that the world should have gotten started earlier addressing the climate crisis, which is why “crisis” is used appropriately. Even if we all mange to keep on the schedule of the Paris Climate Accord target for carbon emission reduction, we’re going to see climate warm by 1.5⁰C, or 2.7⁰F, and, well, it is very likely that we are going to miss this mark, and that’s too bad because even at 1.5 C, climate change consequences are significant. 2023, for example, has become something of a poster year for climate change consequences and even tipped out at 1.5⁰C briefly. Add to the foretaste of our climate future the fact is that carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for centuries. Just ask NASA:

Changes to our atmosphere associated with reactive gases (gases that undergo chemical reactions) like ozone and ozone-forming chemicals like nitrous oxides, are relatively short-lived. Carbon dioxide is a different animal, however. Once it’s added to the atmosphere, it hangs around, for a long time: between 300 to 1,000 years. Thus, as humans change the atmosphere by emitting carbon dioxide, those changes will endure on the timescale of many human lives.

Fortunately, some other greenhouse gases (GHG) disappear more quickly. Methane, for example, while being a worse gas in terms of atmospheric warming, counts its greenhouse causing lifetime in years. Again, NASA:

Methane (CH4) is a powerful greenhouse gas and is the second-largest contributor to climate warming after carbon dioxide (CO2). A molecule of methane traps more heat than a molecule of CO2, but methane has a relatively short lifespan of 7 to 12 years in the atmosphere…

The bottom line is that global warming can’t be stopped, not anytime soon, anyway. Here’s a chart from, which describes its service as follows:

[The] website aims to enhance public understanding of environmental issues by making basic data on environmental topics more accessible. Interactive charts make data on environmental issues easy to understand. Topics covered include climate change, ecology, resource-use, and economics. Data is obtained from reliable sources, and clearly presented and explained. Sources are fully referenced, with links to original datasets provided wherever possible.

A Hot Time in the Old Town Tomorrow

Pessimism is rampant regarding the world’s chances of keeping to 1.5⁰C, but the hope is that we’ll manage to keep global rising average temperature closer to the 1.5⁰C than not, although many have placed their bets on the world coming in at 2⁰C or even a bit higher. Keeping the global temperature rise as low as possible will help keep the climate from worsening even more, and that is a good goal since the world in which humans, fauna, and flora flourish could well become, without our sufficient action, an ecology sufficiently changed beyond many species’ healthy tolerance, including our species, and that ain’t good. This is why keeping global warming from the more extreme results is described as an existential demand. The worst case scenario is where the world continues to not act adequately on climate change and otherwise keeps burning more and more fossil fuels. Under these “worser” case scenarios there is a real possibility that our society collapses, with food production dropping precipitously and hundreds of millions of people die, or billions, even. I, for one, would like to avoid this.

Even today, if we keep up and even expand our GHG reduction efforts, we’re locked into plenty of pain. According to a new study from scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), the world already faces big economic problems from climate change. The study, published in Nature on April 17, 2024, is titled “38 Trillion Dollars In Damages Each Year: World Economy Already Committed to Income Reduction of 19 % Due To Climate Change.” Here’s a taste of the content:

Even if CO2 emissions were to be drastically cut down starting today, the world economy is already committed to an income reduction of 19 % until 2050 due to climate change, a new study published in “Nature” finds. These damages are six times larger than the mitigation costs needed to limit global warming to two degrees. Based on empirical data from more than 1,600 regions worldwide over the past 40 years, [PIK] scientists… assessed future impacts of changing climatic conditions on economic growth and their persistence.

According to The World Bank, the 2022 gross national expenditure for all countries, in US dollars, is $100.33 trillion, and $38 trillion of climate change-related costs would be about 39% of the gross spending by countries per year, or more than a one-third more. If one assumes that the costs are spread proportionally across all countries’ budgets (which no doubt is not the case in the real world), you’d still be talking immense additional costs.

Prognosticating economic futures is, of course, a “best guess” practice, even though rigorous scientific practice is followed, so maybe $38 trillion is steep and maybe some part of that estimate is already covered in some countries’ climate change mitigation budgets. Basically, though, what the PIK scientists are saying is that climate change is a significant budget-buster, with costs that will continue to add up over decades. Doing nothing or too little about climate change will only make the size of budget-busting worse.

According to UN Climate Summit’s website and an information page titled “Comparing climate impacts at 1.5⁰C, 2⁰C, 3⁰C, and 4⁰C,” dated April 25, 2023, letting the average global climate temperature go up more isn’t pretty, but the more the temperature rises the uglier things get. I’ve kept in the internal links in the section quoted below about what happens if the global average temperature rises by 4⁰C, in case you enjoy going down the rabbit hole:

…4°C warming this century remains possible, if policies are not delivered or if temperature rise is greater than scientists expect, possibly because certain climate ‘tipping points’ could lead to faster heating…

Lethal heat and humidity: At around 4.5°C, 4.7 billion people would experience potentially lethal heat. A million people live in places that could experience heat-humidity conditions lethal within hours for at least once a year. There would be 750 million-person days of heat-humidity conditions considered too dangerous to work.

Changes to rainfall and water shortages: Low latitude glaciers such as those in the Tropical Andes will lose 93-100% of their volume, with the average glacier mass globally declining by 37-57%. The timing of India’s monsoon is already becoming harder to predict; for every degree Celsius of warming, monsoon rainfalls will increase by about 5%, so 4°C would cause a 20% increase. The whole European continent, with the exception of Iceland, will be affected by more frequent and severe extreme droughts. At the same time, heavy winter precipitation could increase 15-25% over most of Europe, and 25-35% in much of Eastern Europe.

Food disaster: A temperature rise of 4°C or above means significant parts of the world could experience medium to high levels of food insecurity by the 2080s, reversing the whole development path of those regions. The probability that the four major maize-exporting countries have simultaneous production losses of more than tenth of their output in any given year, which is currently virtually zero, will be 86% after 4ºC warming.

Hundreds of millions at risk from sea level rise: A 4°C temperature rise is projected to lead to eventual sea level rise of between 6-19 metres over several hundred years as it triggers melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. This level of sea level rise would inundate all the world’s coastal city locations. 470 to 760 million people currently live in at-risk areas, including 145 million people in China. India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, the US, Philippines, Egypt, Brazil, Thailand, Myanmar and the Netherlands all have more than 10 million people living in areas at risk. Some scientists argue the melt could happen much quicker than projected, adding several metres to sea level over the next 50-150 years, but this argument is controversial amongst the scientific community.

Struggling oceans: The most recent time when global warming, ocean acidification, and oxygen depletion converged in a way similar to values projected for 4-4.5°C heating was 56 million years ago, during a global warming event known as the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. This caused the extinction of  35-50% of some groups of deep sea species. Oxygen could decline 13% in the subsurface ocean, while pH would plummet to 7.7—a 216% increase in acidity.

Half of all plant animal species in valuable areas at risk: Half of plant and animal species in the world’s most naturally rich areas could face local extinction. 25-35% of vertebrate species would be at risk of extinction due to climate change and land use change. In the Amazon 4°C of heating, combined with high deforestation, could double the area of high fire probability, increase burned area by 5 to 29 times the current levels, and increase fire intensity 90%. Up to half of the Amazon could shift to savanna through drought and fire and a further 25-33% through reduced evapotranspiration, vastly reducing rainfall across most of South America, as the Amazon rainforest creates its own weather systems. 

Economic damage: It’s hard to predict economic impacts from this level of warming with accuracy due to the potential triggering of tipping points and conflicts. Just the heat impacts of unmitigated global warming could reduce global average incomes by 23% by 2100, compared to what they would have been.

Adaptation to 4°C may not be possible: A 4°C world is likely to create a set of interacting pressures, making it hard to project what will happen as a result. Models, for example, often don’t take into account what might happen if reduced water availability, new diseases, and heat extremes happen at the same time. In its 2012 report on the impacts of a 4°C temperature rise, the World Bank concluded, “there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible… the projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur.”

Let’s Make a Deal

The key question to ask is would you rather pay more now to deal with climate change, or ignore the climate change crisis and end up paying a far greater price?

Of course, if you are already old, you could be lucky and die before the climate crisis significantly affects you, although if you have any kids or any love for mankind, you should know that those who remain won’t be “lucky.”

There’s been some significant work accomplished, but as the old Jesuits liked to say, that work is “necessary, but not sufficient.” We have a long way to go, and the work means that living costs are bound to rise, even if just from dealing with the climate change consequences we hope we are going to succeed in limiting. We certainly aren’t hoping for climate of yet higher temperatures and those yet higher costs more extreme climate changes will extort.

If you want a great deal—the best deal, that is, you have any chance of realistically getting—start working harder on climate change amelioration now.

The ROI is impressive.

Plus, you might not die.

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