December 27, 2013

Astronomical Numbers and Climate Change

“There are 1011 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.” ― Richard P. Feynman

Photo Alan Fitzsimmons

One wonders what the Nobel-prize winning physicist may have said about today's US debt, which is counted in the 1013 dollars, or a hundred times more than there are stars in galaxy. One suspects that this "citizen scientist" would have some sharp remarks on the low acceptance in the US of climate science.

The argument against starting that fight sooner rather than later has always been that the amounts of money that need to be spent are daunting.

Lord Stern has revised his estimate of the cost to fight climate change to 2% of gGDP (up from 1%), or about $ 1.4 tn, specifically, to keep CO2 levels below 500ppm. Estimates of this cost depend strongly on the target CO2 level, and vary between close to zero and 5.5% of gGDP.

The fear is that global spending at that level would break "the economy".

But inaction also breaks the economy, and faster than you think.

Already, the reduction of global GDP (gGDP) due to climate change is estimated at $ 1.2 tn annually. That's 1.2 x 1012 dollars. Or about 1.6% of gGDP. And as the effects of global warming become more severe, the cost of climate change is only going to rise. About $ 44tn of the world's GDP are situated in countries at high risk of the effects of climate change.

It seems it's time to pull out the big guns on this worldwide problem. After all, it can be called a serious security issue in many ways. There are lots of places where enormous amounts of money is spent on things that are questionable in the light of the planetary emergency.

One example is media advertising: the global spending on advertising in all media has reached $ 0.56 tn in 2012 and is projected to rise further in the coming years. That's nearly a third of the required funds to fight global warming. But there are other places.

In 2012, the total global spending on defense is $ 1.76 tn. 'Nough said.

And the total global subsidies to the fossil fuel industry amount to $ 1.9 tn every year. Of that, $ 0.48 tn is in direct subsidies for people to buy energy, the rest is in the hidden cost of dealing with air pollution and climate damage: that is consistent with Lord Stern's $ 1.4 tn estimate. But it doesn not include costs like cleaning up after spills.

While we all know about the spill from BP's Deep Horizon disaster (total damages up to $ 90 bn), there are plenty of smaller spills from pipelines, and oil and fracking rigs that together must amount to another large number to be added to the constellation of astronomical numbers. If the fossil fuel industry were made responsible for any cleanup, to the last penny, enormous amounts of public money would be freed for fighting the really important battles.

One direct consequence of removing these subsidies is to expose the seemingly astronomical profits of fossil fuel companies for what they really are: not worth the investment.



You may also like:
1. Energy Transition: Moving Into a Better Future
2. We Need Good News on Climate Change


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