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Fighting climate change won’t destroy the economy

Trump and other Republicans are using the economy as an excuse to stall on climate change.

Donald Trump is wrong that fighting climate change will cost millions of jobs and hurt the economy.
Trump is wrong that fighting climate change will cost millions of jobs and hurt the economy.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

During an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday, President Trump was asked about climate change. He responded with a digression about the intensity of hurricanes but fell back on a familiar talking point about the economy, saying that “what I’m not willing to do is sacrifice the economic well-being of our country for something that nobody really knows.”

It echoed comments he made Sunday on 60 Minutes about climate change. “I don’t want to give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don’t want to lose millions and millions of jobs. I don’t want to be put at a disadvantage,” he said.

The remarks came shortly after Hurricane Michael tore through Florida and as an international panel of scientists warned that the world may have as little as 12 years to act to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

When pressed on climate change, Trump and other elected Republicans routinely use the economy as a shield to avoid committing to any policies to slow or adapt to climate change.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) told CNN that he believes humans contribute to climate change, “but I’m also not going to destroy our economy.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) made a similar point during a debate with challenger Beto O’Rourke, saying O’Rourke’s concern about climate change is about “the power to control the economy.”

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) said he hadn’t read the new climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but also agreed that the economy comes before fighting climate change.

“We ought to be talking about the things that we can do and still maintain a strong economy, because we’re not going to be able to address it unless we keep a strong economy,” he told the Hill.

All these comments are based on the false premise that fighting climate change will come at the expense of jobs, businesses, and growth. As the latest IPCC report showed, the changing climate will be punishing for the global economy, while working to keep warming in check will yield immense financial benefits in the long term.

Climate change is already hurting the economy

The planet has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, and we’re seeing the consequences now in the form of more frequent and severe heat waves, 8 inches of sea level rise, and more intense rainfall, all of which have cost the United States dearly.

In particular, rising average temperatures have boosted the raw ingredients of extreme weather events, leading them to cause more destruction than they would have otherwise. Hurricane Florence, for example, caused $22 billion in damages. Scientists found the storm dumped 50 percent more rain due to climate change and flooded 11,000 additional homes due to sea level rise. Hurricane Michael is estimated to have led to $10 billion in destruction.

These storms came after 2017, the costliest year on record for natural disasters. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and tropical storms, all exacerbated by climate change, cost the US economy at least $306 billion.

And as temperatures rise, so will the tolls. In its latest report, the IPCC estimated that the global economy would take a $54 trillion hit if the world warms by 1.5°C by 2100. That price tag rises $69 trillion if temperatures reach 2°C.

In other words, there’s a huge price tag to doing nothing on climate change.

Future economic growth lies in fighting climate change

On the other hand, increasing sustainability by using more renewable energy, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and becoming more energy-efficient would save the global economy $26 trillion by 2030.

Dirtier sources of energy like coal are already struggling with job losses and bankruptcies. There are about 52,000 workers left in the coal industry. Meanwhile, the renewable energy sector employs more than 800,000 people in the United States.

And those numbers are poised to grow further in the United States: Solar power has surpassed natural gas and wind as the largest source of new energy generation.

We’ve also heard rhetoric similar to Trump’s before about previous efforts to protect the environment. The policies of the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, have long been criticized as a drain on the economy.

Environmental regulations do hurt some sectors while boosting others. However, on balance, they’ve been a huge net benefit to the economy. The EPA’s Clean Air Act, for instance, has saved $22 trillion in health care costs and created a $782 billion market for environmental goods and services.

Some Republicans do recognize that fighting climate change could benefit the economy. Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) has proposed a carbon tax to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. “Those who choose to ignore it will pay a price. We all will ultimately,” Curbelo told the Washington Examiner.

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