There is something I don’t quite understand about the current U.S. administration, and that is both its love of keeping money at the top and at the same time die hard denial of climate change. Because it doesn’t take more than a moment of thought to connect the dots between a shifting, unpredictable and destructive climate and economic loss. So the question is, is the denial of the energy sector’s grave consequence on our planet in order to keep hands in honey pots worth the long term costs?
A graph in the latest U.S. National Climate Assessment report released by a body of several federal agencies indicates that by 2090 (which granted is a little into the future but not a distant enough future that we shouldn’t be worried), economic damages from climate change will cost the U.S. economy alone $700 billion. You might be imagining hurricanes, tsunamis, wildfires and coastal habitation under water, but the report shows that the heaviest costs from climate change will be in areas much less expected.
The largest portion of the country’s projected spending will be on lost labour costs. As outlined in the report, “almost two billion labor hours are projected to be lost annually by 2090 from the impacts of temperature extremes, costing an estimated $160 billion in lost wages”. The second biggest cost is set to be a result of ‘extreme temperature mortality’. When temperatures rise to levels higher than 35 to 40 degrees Celsius, the risk of fatal heat exhaustion and heat strokes rises exponentially, affecting children and the elderly in particular. In other words, premature deaths as a result of sweltering heat are set to cost $141 billion per year in medical aid in just 50 years from now.
What’s truly interesting about the report is how it is calculated. When it comes to projected costs of future lives lost, the term used by government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and others like it is “value of a statistic life”. This is a future life, something that is both difficult to fathom and even harder to feel compassion for. And so, as Brian O’Neill, director of research at the University of Denver’s Pardee Center for International Futures, told the MIT Technology Review, “It’s a measure of how much we’re willing to spend to reduce the risk of a death.” In that case, this is less about the destruction of our planet and more about facing the decision today of how much a statistical future life is worth to us.
The thing is, investing in renewable energy today and divesting from the reliance on coal and oil is actually a lucrative step forward. In fact, the clean energy industry was already estimated to be worth $200 billion in the U.S. alone in 2016, with that figure only projected to spike as technology advances and as global powerhouses such as India are heavily investing in cleaning up their energy production. Following its heavy divestment from fossil fuels over the past few years, India is now expected to overtake China by 2020 (who has thus far been leading investment in renewable energy).
Evidently, the paradox of climate change keeps growing. If a realistic projection of a dying world was not enough to make the U.S. government take an actual change of directions in the ways it produces its energy, then we should at least hope that the economic loss of these monumental figures could influence short-sighted politicians to take the right choice. If anything, at least in the interest of their own pockets.
It is a warm, bright day in early February. I am indoors on a Skype call with Nadine Andrews, an eco-psychologist and psychosocial researcher, discussing climate change and food security while she makes pancakes for her family. The sizzle of batter on the pan is a comfort where the reality of our current CO2 emissions trajectory is not. Andrews used work for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and she is not afraid to tell me how it is. “Climate change is happening faster and on a greater scale than scientists were anticipating from the models and that’s partly because IPCC goes on the more conservative end. All of this stuff is already happening. We have to deal with it, this is reality. We might be able to delay some stuff but actually we’re not in control of it.”
Perhaps had I wanted this pancake flipping researcher to go easier on me? Andrews tells me we must either face our fear of climate change now, “design our way into it”, or wait until we no longer have the privilege of ignoring what has already begun. She recounts an analogy about a therapist with a sign on their door which says, “either way it’s going to hurt”.
For decades, climate scientists have worried that people did not know or understand enough about climate change and that this was the reason for sluggish public and political action. What social researchers are finally beginning to understand is that it is not a lack of knowledge, but in fact too much knowledge about climate change which is the problem. What has been assumed to be a moral failure to act fast enough is now being reframed as a deep-seated psychological trait. The sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard, who wrote a book called ‘Living in Denial’, thinks that people know too much about climate change. Norgaard wonders if the root of much climate inaction is not a lack but surplus of empathy, and calls climate apathy “the mask of suffering”.
It is true that when one is faced with a disturbing reality, which contradicts the business-as-usual discourse to be found everywhere else, it is easier to focus on current pancakes rather than future crop failure. It is not only that we know too much and feel too helpless, but that we also do not have the language to help us digest our profoundly modern disconnect from nature. Andrews herself is not sure which words are best to describe how we should relate to climate change.
Apparently, The Guardian uses the word “fight” a lot. To “fight” climate change is to cast nature as an enemy, when we should by now have learnt that nature is an entity to be protected, not overcome. Clearly, when we talk about fighting climate change, we mean to launch a battle cry against our own systems of excessive resource consumption. Nature does not care whether we win or lose a fight against ourselves.
If I accept the seriousness of the information about climate change with which I am presented, then I have to imagine a radically different future for myself. It makes me panic. Climate researchers I have spoken with tend to be glad that Greta Thunberg, the famous sixteen-year-old climate activist currently leading school strikes across Europe, has called for people to panic. Andrews and I both agree, though, that panic is not a universally useful term to employ, as it is not a sustainable state of emotion and is no good for building policies upon.
Andrews assures me that she, too, felt afraid before, but that now she feels profound grief about the ecological crisis. “I feel sadness now,” and she does indeed look very sad about it all. I, on the other hand, feel afraid. Seeing a climate scientist look upset is rather like seeing a parent or teacher cry when you are a child.
To write this article, I have had to face these unpleasant emotions. I have sat for hours and transcribed interviews with scientists whose courage to continue on with this emotional and political monster astounds me. My exercise has been challenging but therapeutic. It is impossible to write well in a state of panic. Instead, I have had to work through fear and helplessness in order to reach a state where I am able to articulate the emotional complexity of facing a future for which humankind is miserably maladapted. People with low incomes are especially vulnerable, although climate change does not discriminate, and the rich will not be able to buffer themselves so easily, either.
It is difficult to find the right words to describe how we are feeling about our future. Norgaard notices that people are normally unable to discuss climate change beyond a few lines of conversation. I have noticed this too. What else, beyond “it is warmer, we are fucked, fancy a pancake?”, is there to be said?
Perhaps there is a way for us to begin to move deeper into climate conversation and action once we acknowledge that fear is a powerful enabler of procrastination. Of course, it is not only fear of climate change we experience: it is a fear of economic transformation too. It is guaranteed that the more climate change activists push to halt our accelerating consumption, the more the powerful will push back and persuade us to keep on buying. It is true that when we finally do curb our consumerism, the economy will suffer and then, so will we. Either way, it hurts.
Because humans are creatures with a capacity for nuanced emotions, it seems fair to end on a positive note. We are able to hold two conflicting emotions at once. We live in fear and hope; we probably cannot live well without both. Here is how Nadine Andrews spoke to me about hope that warm day in early February. “The sorts of transformational changes that are needed offer opportunities to rethink how we want to live in the world and how we want to live with each other and how we want to live with nature. It offers the possibility for a better way of life which serves us and other beings better than the existing world.”
There is much to discuss, after all.
Thank you to Scott Bremer, Karen O’Brien, and Nadine Andrews for advising research for this article.