The following opinion editorial by UL Solutions Global Microgrid Lead and the creator of HOMER® software, Peter Lilienthal, examines the attitudes on climate change prevalent in our society today and their impact on taking the critical actions needed. Lilienthal holds a doctorate of management science and engineering from Stanford University.
Even among people who are paying attention and acknowledge that human activities are changing the climate in unprecedented ways, their response differs. I have categorized attitudes about climate change into four buckets. Each one has at least a grain of truth, but I will show that one makes a lot more sense than the others.
- Magic bullet
- Throw everything at the wall
- Our grandchildren will be much more prosperous and will have the resources to deal with it
- Let’s do the easy stuff first
The magic bullet line of thinking reflects the remarkably fast pace of technological innovation, which seems to be accelerating. This attitude allows some comfort that we can be complacent now because it will be much easier when carbon capture, fusion energy, small nuclear reactors or some other miracle technology is available. The problem with this approach is that there is no guarantee that these miracle technologies will pan out.
This editorial isn’t the place for me to go into all the challenges with individual technologies. There may even be other contenders for a magic bullet, like solar space satellites. Research for these new approaches should continue, but clearly none of these future magic bullets will impact outcomes for many years. Meanwhile, our actions — or inactions — continue to bake in ongoing climate change and make the eventual impacts and challenges even greater.
Throw everything at the wall
This line of thinking is sort of the opposite of the magic bullet approach. For this group, the problem is so dire that cost is no object — we must do everything we can. While I agree that the situation is critical and getting more so, our resources to deal with the problem are limited. This approach requires serious effort to limit the likely backlash for diverting too many resources from other priorities or impacting the quality, convenience, comfort and cost of people’s lives too dramatically.
Our grandchildren will be much more prosperous and will have the resources to deal with it
This attitude might be the most insidious because it is never stated explicitly. However, the ‘leave it to the future’ approach stands deeply embedded in every economic and financial analysis. Generally, economic and financial analyses use a discount rate to compare present and future costs. Discount rates make future costs smaller compared to present costs. Inflation explains only one aspect of this discounting. The other factor is the reality that money spent now could instead be invested and grow, resulting in an opportunity cost to every expenditure today.
Two assumptions must be true for this to be a valid way to think about climate change. The first is that, as a whole, our grandchildren will be more prosperous than we are, just like we have greater wealth than our grandparents. The second is that the climate crisis is strictly a financial problem. The pervasive effects of the climate emergency make the first assumption questionable and the second assumption not true.
Climate change will likely result in massive upheaval and disruption as people leave vulnerable areas. Existing infrastructure will be abandoned prematurely and replaced as a cost of adaptation. The cost of adaptation depends on the rate of change, so slowing climate change will reduce the cost of adaptation. But disrupting people’s lives has enormous impacts beyond strictly monetary cost. Ecological and biodiversity impacts cannot be compensated with money. Lastly, the most significant missing piece of purely financial analysis is that disruption can easily lead to conflict that could cause inconceivable damage to our world.
Let’s do the easy stuff first
The fourth attitude sounds like a cop-out, and it is, because it is not a final solution. On the other hand, we could immediately adopt many currently unused and very low-cost measures that would create accelerating momentum for future efforts. One example is reducing the cost of energy by developing new renewable projects, which often costs less than simply operating existing fossil plants. Although deployments of renewable energy are increasing at a rapid rate, existing regulatory barriers and subsidies for fossil energy continue to slow decarbonization. Removing these barriers would have negative costs, which would be beneficial on its own, even without considering the benefits of carbon reduction.
In summary, I recognize that this analysis has primarily taken a narrowly economic approach to the question. Economic analysis is what I know best, and there seems to be a lot of fuzzy thinking about the financial aspects of our challenge. I invite others to provide insights on the climate emergency’s cultural, psychological and spiritual dimensions.
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