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Climate change is death by a thousand cuts
Much of the concern about climate change is around the idea of “the big impact,” a single, colossal disaster that dramatically impacts everyone on the planet, much like the scenario depicted in the movie The Day After Tomorrow.
While such an event could happen, it’s not the most likely way we will be impacted by our changing climate. A more plausible scenario involves ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ with numerous smaller impacts occurring simultaneously or in close succession. Each impact on its own might be manageable, but collectively they could sum up to a significant problem.
One tiny impact
Let me give you an example of a tiny impact that I just heard about. My wife told me about a new group of members at her gym: active 70-ish-year-olds who used to go on walks around their neighborhood. Due to the unbearable heat in Texas, though, they joined a gym and now walk indoors on treadmills. This story embodies several aspects of climate impacts that everyone should understand.
First, this is an example of non-linear climate impacts. Although temperatures have been rising gradually over the last century, it was only recently that they crossed a critical threshold that made outdoor walks literally unbearable for these people.
The costs of adaptation
Second, this is what adaptation to climate change looks like. Contrary to how it is typically protrayed by climate dismissives, adaptation is not free. These people are paying $50 per month for the gym membership that is an inferior replacement for something they used to get for free: an environment cool enough to walk in.
So these people are worse off financially and not getting as good of an experience as they used to. And they’re the lucky ones — they have the opportunity and resources to do this.
There’s also the non-monetary costs of adaptation. When it’s too hot to go outside during the day, you are a prisoner of air conditioning instead of going outside and getting fresh air and exercise. We’ve lost something valuable but difficult to quantify.
Multiply by 1,000,000
This is admittedly a small example; to get the full cost, you have to multiply this by the millions of ways that climate change is costing people. They’re not just spending money on the gym, they’re also running their air conditioners more, watering the lawn more, spending more on insurance, and generally spending money on things they used to get for free from a livable climate. Economists have looked at this and the total of the impacts is significant.
In other words, climate change is imposing a tax on us. And this is not a productive tax. When you pay taxes to the government, it goes to things the voters want: national parks, the space program, the military, medical research, social security, etc. In other words, society benefits from taxes paid to the government. The climate tax we’re paying, on the other hand, delivers few benefits to society — it goes to pad corporate profits, so that some rich dude can put an imax theater on his yacht.
Not everyone can adapt
For some people, the tax is primarily financial (e.g., people pay to join a gym because of the heat). But not everyone. People who work outdoors (e.g., landscapers, construction) don’t have the opportunity to move their work into air conditioning. They pay by suffering.
Ditto for people who can’t afford air conditioning. Here’s Jeff Goodell talking to me about what it’s like to live in Phoenix and not be able to afford air conditioning:
Watch the full interview here.
Whenever someone says, “we’ll adapt to climate change,” 100% of the time it’s a rich person. Poor people never say “we’ll adapt” because they know they can’t afford it. For them, adaptation = suffering.
Climate impacts are here
Climate change is not a future problem; it's something that’s affecting us right now, and we’re all paying the price in some way. For some, the financial impact is minor. However, for the less fortunate, the effects of climate change are already devastating: e.g., they have to pick between food, rent, and air conditioning.
You might think it won’t happen to you, but, as temperatures continue to rise, more and more people will find themselves facing choices like this. With enough warming, it will be you or your kids. The only question is how much warming that is and whether we will avoid it.
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