Americans Fear Climate Change and the Cost of Fighting It


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- More people are coming around to the idea that climate change is really bad news. A recent Washington Post poll found that 38% of Americans now consider climate change a crisis, with another 38% calling it a major problem. And denialism is in retreat -- an overwhelming majority, and even 60% of Republicans, admit that the problem is manmade.  

The question is what Americans would be willing to do to tackle the problem. The same poll found that only 37% believed that major sacrifices would be necessary, with 48% saying they would be minor. As for what sort of sacrifices people are willing to make, the poll found majorities opposing even minor financial burdens on the middle class:

Americans Fear Climate Change and the Cost of Fighting It

If Americans are unwilling to pay even $2 more per month for electricity, or see gasoline prices rise by even 10 cents a gallon, the prospect for really dramatic action on climate change seems low. Although the wealthy can and should be expected to make larger sacrifices than the middle class, it’s vanishingly unlikely that any plan serious enough to slow global warming will leave the bulk of Americans financially untouched.

But if Americans are going to be asked to engage in a war on climate change, they should understand the material and economic sacrifices that will be required of them. The best way to do this is to look at an ambitious, well-crafted climate plan like the one put forward by Washington Governor Jay Inslee.    

Inslee’s plan calls for carbon-free power production by 2035. That means that coal and natural gas will be phased out, and replaced with sources like solar, wind, and nuclear. This will require extensive construction of new power plants, energy-storage facilities and electrical grids to dispatch power from where it’s produced to where it’s needed. Buildings will also have to be retrofitted to use electricity rather than gas for heating and cooking. And a switch from gasoline-powered cars to electric vehicles will require the construction of a nationwide network of charging stations.

Much of this could be financed with taxes on the rich, but it will take a huge amount of labor and other resources to carry out. Those resources will have to be diverted from producing other goods and services, which means prices for consumer items throughout the economy probably will rise. Those higher prices mean that most Americans will become poorer in the short term, though government redistribution can cushion the blow.

The rise in prices will be temporary; after the transition is complete, workers will be able to go back to doing other things, and energy will be cheaper than before. But for one or two decades, the economy will have to shift its focus from satisfying current desires to building for the future. That’s the kind of sacrifice that people make in developing countries, during periods of rapid growth. When a country like South Korea or Taiwan undergoes rapid industrialization, everyone works hard and tightens their belt so that their children can enjoy a higher standard of living; the transition to a low-emission economy will be similar.

Eliminating fossil-fuels will also mean labor reallocation. Switching to green energy will create more jobs than it destroys. But many of the people employed in the oil and gas sector will need to find new jobs, and the skills they’ve spent their careers building up will suddenly be less valuable. The U.S. will have to help these people transition to the new economy, and it will have to do a better job than it did when American manufacturing workers were displaced by Chinese competition in the 2000s.

Switching to green energy will also probably require changes in land use and living patterns. A new electrical grid can help dispatch power from sunny and windy places to people’s houses and offices. But often it makes more sense for people to move near to where the power is. Additionally, urban sprawl makes it harder and more expensive to decarbonize, so a comprehensive climate plan will probably involve measures to promote density and public transit. Some Americans will have to get used to living closer to each other. And unless cheap next-generation biofuels allow aviation to become carbon-neutral, Americans are going to have to get used to flying less.

Then there’s the problem of steel and cement. Producing these common building materials generates a lot of carbon dioxide. A good climate plan will pour money into researching new technologies to make carbon-free steel and cement cheap. But in the meantime the economy will have to use less of these materials. That will make houses, office buildings and cars more expensive.

These changes will require that the average American sacrifice more material comfort than a 10 cent gas tax or a $2 monthly electricity fee would entail. Even if the rich pay their fair share, a great many middle-class Americans own houses, drive cars, cook with gas, work in the fossil-fuel industry or related sectors and live in sprawling metro areas. Ultimately, a post-carbon economy will replace most of what gets sacrificed during the transition, but it will require decades of hard work and many small inconveniences. The struggle against climate change is effectively a war, and wars require sacrifice, determination, and patience in order to win.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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