This changes everything: Fixing climate change might save more money than it costs


President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

By WHRC President Dr. Philip Duffy

Here’s a startling finding buried in California’s 4th Climate Assessment, which I recently reviewed for Governor Jerry Brown’s office: the financial cost of meeting California’s ambitious climate mitigation goal is expected to be entirely offset by reduced health care costs associated with improved air quality. The state aims to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 — substituting clean energy sources for fossil fuels accomplishes this and also results in much cleaner air.

This finding suggests that even without taking into account the substantial direct costs of climate change (impacts on extreme weather, wildfire, reduced crop yields, and so on), addressing climate change could pay for itself while improving peoples’ lives through improved health outcomes.

The California example is a projection of the future, and therefore perhaps questionable, but experience close to home shows the same thing. Studies of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)—a cap and trade system on electric power generation in nine northeastern states—have consistently shown positive economic effects throughout the decade that the Initiative has been in place. These benefits include billions of dollars in health care savings resulting from better air quality following reduced burning of fossil fuels.

If this applies generally, its significance would be difficult to overstate. Most obviously, if climate policies truly can have immediate economic benefits, that would transform the political calculus around climate action. Why not take steps to improve the climate if those same steps also help the economy? This idea probably terrifies climate change deniers, who tirelessly promote the narrative that “we can’t afford” to take on climate change (or other environmental challenges).

It is critically important that the economic benefits mentioned above are expected to occur even in the absence of climate action by other jurisdictions. If true generally, this means that regional actors like California have an economic incentive to tackle climate change even if no one else does. This would overturn the key assumption that has framed international climate policy (including the United Nations climate process) for more than 25 years – that we need to all act together, because individual nations would put themselves at an economic disadvantage by acting unilaterally. International climate policy, in other words, is based on the assumption that climate change is a “tragedy of the commons,” a situation where individual users of a common resource (in this case, the atmosphere) are motivated to take actions that harm that resource. It may turn out that this isn’t true after all, because fossil fuel burning is so bad for human health.

China in particular has already realized this, and is acting upon it. An important motivation for their very strong climate policies has been the desire to lessen air pollution, which is estimated to kill 4,000 people per day.

Obviously it’s important to understand how widely these findings apply, and to bring them to the attention of policymakers. These are some of the goals of WHRC’s new collaboration with the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University, which is one reason why I am so excited about the potential of the partnership. Besides helping countries to design and implement climate policies, we’ll also study how well those policies work in the real world—both their effects on greenhouse gas emissions and their economic consequences. This approach will be essential if we are to take on climate change as cost-effectively as possible.

These days it may seem like the news is all bad, but it isn’t. There are huge opportunities for progress, and here at WHRC we’re doing everything we can to move forward. Thanks, as always, for your interest and support.

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