Andreas Späth

We can’t spend our way out of climate change

2016-09-02 13:57

Andreas Wilson-Späth

How should we respond to the multiple threats presented by global warming? There are two supposed solutions to the problem that many people point to when asked this question: science and the economy.

The first response goes something like this: “Scientists are working on this and eventually they’ll come up with answer that will fix things”. The second group of people pin their hope on the power of the economy, which will simply outgrow any damage caused by the consequences of climate change.

For the moment, the first suggestion amounts to little more than wishful thinking, but what about the second one?

A paper recently published by folks associated with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany sheds some light on the matter. It takes a look at the economic damage done by tropical cyclones, especially by hurricanes in the USA, and projects this analysis into a future in which these types of storms are forecast to increase in both frequency and intensity as atmospheric temperatures rise.

Globally, tropical cyclones are already the most fiscally destructive weather-related phenomena, accounting for over half of all economic losses caused in this way. In the USA alone, they have inflicted an estimated 400bn’s worth of mayhem between 1980 and 2014. Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012 stand out as particularly damaging culprits in that period.

Using US data to model future developments in that country, the authors of the paper predict that if nothing is done to mitigate the effects of climate change, financial losses may triple for each hurricane that makes landfall on the American East Coast by the end of this century. On average, projected annual losses are estimated to rise by a factor of eight.

According to Tobias Geiger, one of the co-authors, “our analysis for the United States shows that high income does not protect against hurricane losses”.

His colleague Anders Levermann notes that "some people hope that a growing economy will be able to compensate for the damages caused by climate change – that we can outgrow climate change economically instead of mitigating it. But what if damages grow faster than our economy, what if climate impacts hit faster than we are able to adapt?"

Answering his own question, he says: "We find that this is the case with hurricane damages in the United States. The hope in economic growth as an answer to climate change is ill-founded”.

While the brunt of the detrimental impacts will disproportionately hit poorer countries and individuals, all of us will suffer the consequences in the long run. Hoping that economic growth will get us out of trouble is futile. The real solution to the problem is clear: we need to drastically throttle back our greenhouse gas emissions across the board.

One of the ironies of the situation is that while the vast majority of the planet’s inhabitants will experience the negative impacts of climate change, the small minority who holds the greatest responsibility for creating the problem in the first place has made incredible profits from doing so.

According to California-based geographer Richard Heede, 63% of all human carbon dioxide emissions since the start of the Industrial Revolution can be attributed to just 90 private companies, state-owned enterprises and governments involved in the fossil fuel and cement industries.

His historical analysis suggests that they are directly or indirectly to blame for the emission of the equivalent of 914 billion tons of carbon dioxide between 1751 and 2010.

The top eight offenders alone account for about 20% of cumulative global emissions. Among them are companies that we’re all very familiar with, because they also happen to be among the most profitable firms ever. They include Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell. Our own Sasol sits in 18th position on the list of companies, with total emissions of 3515 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Among the dirtiest state-owned enterprises are Russia’s Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company, while the Soviet Union and China head the charts of current and former top emitting states.

While we clearly can’t spend our way out of climate change, some people have gotten immensely rich in the process of precipitating the crisis. You’d think they owe the rest of something – even if it’s just a sincere apology.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


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