The Great Dying – the business case for addressing climate change now (review of The Uninhabitable Earth)
This review first ran in the June 1 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
Tim Duggan Books
If we’re slapping carbon tax stickers on gas pumps, let’s also put posters up in daycare centres and kindergarten classrooms.
We can use the posters to start apologizing in advance for saddling our kids and grandkids with the unholy mess of an increasingly uninhabitable home.
Sure, some of our kids may become the Henry Ford, John Rockefeller, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg of the green economy. They’ll make a fortune scrubbing carbon from the skies, geoengineering oceans and moving whole coastal cities to higher and drier ground.
But whatever money they make, it won’t be nearly enough.
It’s estimated that 3.7 degrees of global warming will trigger more than $550 trillion in environmental damages. To put that repair and relocation bill in perspective, we currently have $280 trillion in worldwide wealth.
During the Great Recession, global gross domestic product fell two per cent. During the Great Depression, GDP dropped 15 per cent. By the close of the 21st century, economists warn that climate change could cut GDP anywhere from 20 to 50 per cent.
“We have gotten used to setbacks on our erratic march along the arc of economic history but we know them as setbacks and expect elastic recoveries,” says David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, national fellow at the New America foundation and columnist with New York magazine. “What climate change has in store is not that kind of thing – not a Great Recession or a Great Depression, but in economic terms, a Great Dying.
“The global halving of economic resources would be permanent. We would soon not even know it as deprivation, only as a brutally cruel normal against which we might measure tiny burps of decimal-point growth as the breath of a new prosperity.”
Maybe you think we’ll ride out the storm because we’re far from a coast and nowhere near the equator. Our part of the world will be wetter but not underwater, scorching hot or uninhabitable. Yet the United Nations is conservatively projecting 200 million climate refugees by 2050. The actual number could be considerably higher, at over a billion vulnerable poor people with only two choices – fight or flee. Will we open our borders or build higher and thicker walls?
Future generations need today’s business leaders to lean hard on politicians and start doing it now. Wallace-Wells says we can stall disaster by introducing carbon and gas taxes, aggressively phasing out dirty energy and ending subsidies for fossil fuels, revolutionizing agricultural practices, shifting away from beef and dairy and making major public investments in green energy and carbon capture.
“Now we all share the responsibility to write the next act. We found a way to engineer devastation, and we can find a way to engineer our way out of it – or, rather, engineer our way toward a degraded muddle, but one that nevertheless extends forward the promise of new generations finding their own way forward, perhaps toward some brighter environmental future.”
Wallace-Wells opens his book by telling us “it is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all.”
He makes a convincing argument that we’re grossly underestimating the cascade of compounding ecological catastrophes headed our way and wildly overestimating our capacity to come up with innovative solutions that’ll sustain business as usual in a hothouse Earth.
While we talk about saving the planet, Earth will continue spinning around the sun. Whether we’re along for the ride is an open question.
“If we allow global warming to proceed, and to punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will because we have chosen that punishment – collectively walking down a path of suicide. If we avert it, it will be because we have chosen to walk a different path, and endure.”
And it’s worth remembering we’re choosing that path on behalf of our kids, their children and grandchildren.
Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.