What’s the cost of ignoring climate change? We’ve heard it all. Arctic melt. Sea rise and storm surges. Ocean warming and acidification. Loss of coastal and intertidal property and infrastructure—trillions of dollars lost. Millions dislocated. Prolonged drought in some areas, frequent flooding in others. Loss of sea life. Loss of many species. And on and on.
It wouldn’t be pretty. That’s why nearly 200 countries signed onto the Paris agreement at COP21 last December. There’s fear, but there’s also something like a plan, albeit an inadequate and incomplete one. An agreement with no teeth, with nothing binding, and no enforcement mechanism.
That’s why President-elect Trump during the election campaign could talk defiantly about quitting the Paris agreement, calling it a hoax perpetrated by China—even though the US had been instrumental in drafting and forging the consensus behind the agreement.
At the COP22 session in Marrakech last month, Chinese officials strongly denied any such hoax, coyly inviting the US to withdraw. It would be delighted, it said, to have a larger opportunity to supply the world the clean energy technology it will need.
What would happen if the US withdrew? China, India and Europe say they would push on, and most of the rest would likely follow, with plans for expanded, aggressive energy efficiency and clean energy, with nuclear, natural gas, and even some coal. With energy efficiency know-how and solar and wind cheap and getting cheaper there would be no penalty for doing so.
And the US? We are already well on the way to achieving or exceeding our carbon emission goals—ahead of the rest of the developed world, in fact. American businesses and investors would no doubt seek to participate in the global energy transformation.
My brother, a big fan of Ian McEwan’s fiction, has steered me in that direction and I happened to stumble on McEwan’s novel “Solar,” whose protagonist, Michael Beard, a rotund, self-centered, philandering physicist who happened to have won a Nobel, is addressing a business audience in a paid engagement. Unsentimental and perceptive, like McEwan himself, Beard invites his audience to imagine.
“Imagine if I were standing in front of you 250 years ago,” he says, “predicting the coming of the first industrial revolution and telling you to invest in coal and iron, steam engines, cotton mills, and, later, railways. Or a century or so later, with the invention of the internal combustion engine, I foresaw the growing importance of oil and urged you to invest in that. Or 100 years on, in microprocessors, in personal computers and the Internet and the opportunities they offered. [Here] is another such moment. Do not be tempted by the illusion that the world economy and its stock exchanges can exist apart from the world's natural environment. Our planet, Earth, is a finite entity. You have the data in front of you, you have the choice – the human project must be safely and cleanly fueled or it fails, it sinks. You, the market, either rise to this and get rich along the way, or you sink with all the rest. We are on this rock together, you have nowhere else to go.”
Sobering words. I imagine we will heed them, in one way or another.