Climate change is among the most polarizing issues of modern American politics. Discussions about it frequently take on religious rhetoric of beliefs, punishments and moral imperatives. Despite the apparently unbridgeable gap of the left and the right, the 2020s will likely bring forth the convergence of their viewpoints and hopefully a united front against climate change.
Many issues in American politics are divisive because they do not affect all Americans equally: police brutality or female reproductive health are critical issues to some voters and background noise for others. Climate change is not one such issue: it affects everyone. Texas and California both suffer from droughts. Democrat-run Western states are prone to forest fires; the Republican-run Southern ones bear the brunt of hurricanes and flooding. True, adaptation to the effects of climate change is easier for wealthier white communities than for those of color, but no one is exempt from these effects.
For all their chest-thumping, Republicans and Democrats already have considerable similarities in their attitudes to climate. Both the left- and the right-leaning media generally relegate it to “other news,” ensuring that it does not become a political priority. On an individual level, white Democrats are almost as likely as Republicans to buy carbon dioxide-spewing SUVs or live in large houses — and governments of Democrat-run states are very sheepish when it comes to taxing such climate-hostile behaviors. And both sides are blissfully uninterested in the parts of the world where people are already dying because of climate change: think Yemen, Maldives, or Bangladesh.
On some issues, Republicans should be more interested in climate change than Democrats. Save for the urban elites, Republicans are more likely to live in a rural setting and thus be more affected by natural calamities. Republicans are also more likely to live in Southern states, both hotter and more prone to flooding.
The Republican argument against investing in climate change prevention is largely an economic one, anchored in the present. Replacing current technologies with less polluting variants will be expensive. It will put the U.S. economy at a disadvantage relative to the European countries with more forgiving climates, or China, which does not equally care about the environment. Republicans treat the climate like a car that “runs just fine” and therefore needs no investments in worn-out parts. The Democrats’ counterargument often takes on a moral tone of responsibility toward our children or the planet but is, in essence, also an economic one. In their view, our “climate car” needs preventive maintenance: whatever costs we pay for now will help us avoid much larger future spending, as well as other problems.
Climate arguments are close to two decades old. Deferred maintenance of our climate car shows its effects — the climate-associated costs and inconveniences of running our society are greater every year, as insuring and repairing homes, businesses and infrastructure damaged by forest fires and other natural calamities add up in price. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is tracking the largest of these disasters. Since 1980, the U.S. has sustained close to 300 major weather-related events with a total cost close to $2 trillion. In 2020, 22 such events occurred, and the cost of dealing with them was $95 billion. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey alone caused more than $120 billion in damage. This is the cost of deferred maintenance, and it is clearly rising very quickly. What would be the cost of prevention? A 2020 report by International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projected that a global investment of $110 trillion in decarbonization by 2050 would set the world on a sustainable growth path (and allow the recouping of many of these initial costs). The U.S. share of this total would probably come out to about $30 trillion. A daunting but no longer incomprehensibly large figure: 1 trillion dollars annually. If current trends hold, it will not be long before the annual costs of Californian wildfires and Gulf Coast floods start approaching this number. At that point, the Republican and Democratic arguments will become the same: future costs will become present costs.
Unfortunately, as negligent car owners know, once deferred maintenance can no longer be deferred, its expenses greatly exceed those of prevention. Similarly, our choice between climate change avoidance and adaptation is disappearing, and we will soon have to invest in both. If we don’t, our climate car may very well become — driverless.
Ognjen Miljanić is a professor of chemistry at the University of Houston, where he teaches energy and sustainability. Follow him on Twitter @MiljanicGroup.