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The Cost of Delay

Ezra Klein joins in with Kristen Sheeran and Mindy Lubber to remind Robert Samuelson and the Washington Post op-ed team that you can’t talk about how costly it will be to mitigate climate change without also talking about how costly it will be to let a climate crisis wash over us.

Another point I would make is that as costly as it is to act today to reduce carbon emissions, it’ll be much more costly to start doing it ten years from now.

Think back to 1990. Both the 1990 budget and the 1993 budget contained unpopular tax increases. Suppose that instead of those unpopular tax increases, those budgets had created and then raised a carbon tax. Well, that would have been unpopular. But what was actually done was unpopular too. And consider where we’d be today, climate-wise. Well, we’d probably still need to do a comprehensive overhaul of our energy policy. And we’d probably still need to change things around and have a cap-and-trade system since to really cope with the climate problem you need to cap the overall level of emissions. But in a whole bunch of ways we’d be in much better shape than we are today. For one thing, in this alternative reality our 2009 emissions would be lower, so lowering them to a sustainable level wouldn’t require such steep cuts. But for another thing, the total level of carbon in the atmosphere would be lower and the current average temperature would be lower, so for both of those reasons the sustainable level of ongoing emissions would be higher than it currently is.

In other words, we’d be looking at smaller cuts from a lower level.

Meanwhile, our past 18 years worth of investment in infrastructure would look somewhat different. The new houses constructed would, on average, be a little bit smaller a little bit closer together and there’d have been a little bit more attention to insulation. These slightly smaller houses would have been slightly cheaper, and people would have spent more money on something else. The result would not only be a dynamic in which current emissions were lower, but also a dynamic in which people found it easier to adjust to more drastic emissions curbs.

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All things considered, we’d be in much better shape. And much the same is true about the case for acting quickly versus getting scared by the costs and doing nothing. Just pretending that the climate crisis isn’t real doesn’t change the fact that it is real. And since it’s real, we’ll have to do something. But if we think the changes we need to make today are difficult, they’re nothing compared to what the needed changes will look like in 2020 if we keep on the business as usual path.