It might not be obvious that eighteenth-century poetry could act as a guide for our modern climate policy, but such is the case. All too often, when I review the climate debate, I am reminded of a 1770 poem by the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith called “The Deserted Village.” Therein, he wrote the insightful line “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates and men decay.” Now, 247 years later, we ought to heed Goldsmith’s warning. To be more specific, we need a political paradigm shift; rich countries must not let the accumulation of wealth stand in the way of us avoiding a climate catastrophe
Unfortunately, exactly the opposite is a mainstream position in the United States. That is, the idea, popular among Republicans and even some moderate Democrats, that the climate change that faces us is not that bad, and that we should not take any action to mitigate the effects of climate change if it might have any negative effect on the economy. For instance, when he was more relevant, Marco Rubio explained that he opposed President Obama’s Clean Power Plan because it “would have devastating effects on our economy.” Three years ago, 41 GOP Senators condemned cap and trade as a financial bane in an open letter to the president, that just three years after they killed another cap and trade bill with anti-tax rhetoric. The environmental section of the 2016 GOP platform states “Over the last eight years, the Administration has triggered an avalanche of regulation that wreaks havoc across our economy.” If recent years are any guide, any proposal to minimize negative climate externalities will inevitably be labeled as big government trying to shove its hands into our wallets.
And that’s not entirely wrong. Getting out of the problem we have put ourselves in will be very expensive. To be clear, many beneficial climate policies would not be economically burdensome, like a revenue neutral carbon tax. But still others would be. We should get used to this – because if we don’t bight the bullet that is before us now, the one careening our way in the future will be much worse.
First, environmentalists and progressives should not lie and say that avoiding the worst effects of climate change will be cheap. We need heavy investment in research and infrastructure. We need to financially incentivize people to move away from fossil fuels. We might best be served by what Naomi Klein calls in her 2016 book This Changes Everything a “Marshall Plan for the Earth,” whereby the governments of industrialized countries spend vast amounts of money to make it economically viable for emerging economies to leapfrog the most carbon intensive stage of development.
If we don't bight the bullet that is before us now, the one careening our way in the future will be much worse.
But still, the price tag for all of this pales in comparison to what we would face if we continue business as usual. Should we actually pass the much feared 2°C increase in average global temperatures, which we stand a very solid chance of doing, there are a myriad of negative impacts that we may face. Let’s review.
Melting ice caps will raise sea levels, as they already are. With so much of the world’s population living near water, this has major negative potential. Miami beach floods on sunny days, and some national governments are already preparing for the physical disappearance of their countries. All in all, rising sea levels may displace half a billion people.
The increase in average temperatures will also have damaging effects on the weather, which will in turn hurt ecosystems as well. Worsening weather patterns may subject one in six people worldwide to a lack of fresh drinking water. The World Bank estimates that a 2°C average increase would cause crop losses of up to 80% in sub-Saharan Africa and fish losses of 50% in Southeast Asia. In total, 40% of existing species are predicted to go extinct.
And, most importantly for countering the economically minded opponents of climate action, all of this will be very expensive. Sea level rises reduce productivity. Extreme weather causes monetary damage. Displaced people cost money to relocate. Overall, research estimates that a 2°C increase will cause global incomes to decrease by 23% by 2100 and Gross World Product to be reduced by 5-20% every year.
Simply put, no proposal to fight climate change could possibly cost us so much as business as usual. It would be supremely irrational for policy makers to take the short term gain for the long term disaster. Doing so would be to prove Goldsmith right in his prediction that “trade’s unfeeling train [will] usurp the land and dispossess the swain.”
With all of this said, an important observation needs to be made. I do not advocate that we spend vast amounts of money purely to spend them. Rather, we must spend so much to maximize our comfort. For that reason, the same logic cannot be applied to governments in developing countries, where the kinds of suffering I hope to prevent by fighting climate change are already reality. It would be inconsistent to raise the goal of avoiding poverty on one hand while condemning the developing world to poverty on the other.
For this reason, the responsibility to bite the aforementioned proverbial bullet should rest overwhelmingly with the industrialized countries that caused the problem to begin with. Developing countries should be able to expand their economies without having to worry about damaging the environment. This is a major reason to support nuclear energy investment, as explained by Environmental Progress president Michael Shellenberger.
All signs point to a horrendous 22nd century. We still have the power to largely avoid this fate, but we won’t do it for free. As hard as it is, policy makers need to think about the long term before we no longer have such luxury. Goldsmith’s dichotomy is accurate; policy makers face a choice between wealth and humanity. I hope they choose wisely.
Photo credit Richard Moore, Creative Commons
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.
A time there was, ere England's griefs began,
When every rood of ground maintained its man;
For him light labour spread her wholesome store,
Just gave what life required, but gave no more:
His best companions, innocence and health;
And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.
But times are altered; trade's unfeeling train
Usurp the land and dispossess the swain;
Along the lawn, where scattered hamlets rose,
Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose;
And every want to oppulence allied,
And every pang that folly pays to pride.
— Oliver Goldsmith (1770)