Realizing the Promise of Climate Action

People often ask me: Why do you care about climate change?

The typical answer I’ve heard to that question is something like: to protect the environment, fight for future generations, or save the planet.

While those reasons are great, those of us who are trying to motivate others to act on climate change and broaden our movement are doing ourselves a bit of a disservice by framing climate action in these ways.

As this comic deftly illustrates, the co-benefits of climate action are large enough to make climate action worth it even if climate change wasn’t happening.

What many of those answers hold in common is that they focus on distant benefits. The benefits of climate action are painted as far removed both in time and space, and as a result the motivation to take action seems intangible, whereas much of the benefits of the status quo are here and now. In reality though, the benefits of acting on climate change are much more widespread, immediate, and local.

So, when I’m asked why I fight for climate change, I like to focus on the more immediate benefits. That way I can better motivate those who aren’t already convinced by the need to fight for the climate. After all, it’s a much easier sell than convincing someone of the urgency of climate change, which is an argument premised on a nuanced understanding of a complex scientific analysis of how the earth’s climate system works, and one which has admittedly taken me many years of studying to really grasp.

So what are some of the reasons I fight for climate action which aren’t about climate change itself? In other words, what are some of the co-benefits of climate action?

Clean Air

Perhaps, first and foremost, action on climate change will give us cleaner air and thus improve our health. Even in the United States where the air is cleaner than places like China and India, the clean air benefits from acting on climate change are significant.

The clean air benefits of climate action are immense and would by themselves offset the costs of greenhouse gas reduction policies.

For instance, an MIT study assessed the effects of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and what that would do for air pollution and human health benefits. They found that the benefits to human health were so significant that just the health benefits of reduced air pollution would likely provide greater economic benefits than the costs of implementing the carbon reduction policies in the US.

Given that the World Health Organization estimated that outdoor air pollution caused 3.7m premature deaths worldwide in 2012 the potential benefits of cleaner air are huge.

Clean Water

The next major benefit comes from water usage. Burning fossil fuels to create energy both uses and pollutes a great amount of water compared to clean energy alternatives.

For instance, as Tony Seba points out, it takes two to four million gallons of water to drill and fracture a single natural gas well using hydraulic fracturing methods. On the other hand, if we used solar PV (or wind) to generate the daily energy needs in the U.S., that would need only about 2.9 million gallons of water — that’s less than it takes to drill a single fracking well!

The water benefits of climate action are deeply important. As the CNA’s Energy, Water and Climate division has pointed out, the world will face “insurmountable” water crises in less than three decades, particularly if we do not move away from water-intensive fossil fuel power production

Clean Jobs

To put another nail in the coffin of climate inaction, significant amounts of evidence show there is a great net gain in job creation through the switch to a clean economy, and the jobs gained are healthier and more environmentally benign.

As Prof Robert Pollin has shown, “spending on green investments creates approximately three times as many jobs as spending on maintaining our existing fossil fuel infrastructure”. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that globally jobs in solar energy now outnumber jobs in coal mining and the oil and gas industry added together, according to a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency. That’s despite the fact that solar only provided 1% of global energy last year, compared to more than 75% provided by fossil fuels.

War and Extractive Costs

Another important and major cost associated with fossil fuels are the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples whose land is often desecrated in order to attain fossil fuels. Similarly another major co-benefit is the reduction of environmental impacts associated with fossil fuel extraction which are often devastating and fall disproportionately on low income communities, indigenous people, and communities of colour (see, for instance, Ogoniland).

The cost of extracting oil is often paid in human life, whether through wars over oil, or harmful extraction at home which disproportionately impacts communities of color and indigenous people.

The costs are also felt in the funding of wars and military to secure access to Middle East oil. Estimates suggest that deploying U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, patrolling its water and supplying military assistance to Middle East countries costs the U.S. $50 billion per year. That estimate, of course, excludes the immense cost in human life and suffering implicated in such interventions.

Cheap Clean Energy

While some might say that the costs of pollution, extraction, and military interventions are necessary costs to provide cheap energy to the economy, fortunately the rapidly falling costs of clean energy have undercut even that argument, and another co-benefit of climate action has now become that is provides cheap clean energy

Clean energy costs have fallen at such an incredible rate that they are now providing some of the world’s most competitive energy rates.

The National Bank of Abu Dhabi, situated in the heart of the oil-rich Gulf, reports that renewables are the future for the Middle East as they are already cheaper & more reliable than oil. That same report shows that even at $10 per barrel for oil, and $5 per a million British thermal units for gas, solar is still their cheapest option.

What’s more, such a trend is not only limited to the sunny Middle East, as it has been calculated that China would see increased economic growth if it were to make a large scale transition to renewable energy. Similar results have been shown in not-so-sunny Germany where modeling has shown that with “no decrease in the standard of living, in comfort levels or in mobility” it is economically to Germany’s advantage “to move as quickly as possible to a system of 80% renewable energy” for their entire energy system, not just electricity.

Globally, as the International Energy Agency (IEA) points out, if the world transitions to clean energy in line with the internationally agreed upon target of two degrees above industrial levels that would result in net savings on fuel and energy costs of $71 trillion by 2050. And the IEA is renowned for underestimating clean energy, so it’s likely the cost saving will be much greater thanks to the remarkable progress of clean energy.

Those benefits are not only distant benefits to be had by 2050, but rather many of the benefits are near-term and in the present. For instance, in my home country South Africa, studies by the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research showed that in 2015 wind was already providing energy 40% cheaper than coal, such that wind energy had produced a net saving for the country of R1.8 billion in the first half of 2015. Collectively wind and solar saved R4 billion from just January to June in 2015.

Co-Benefits First, Climate Costs Later

These are just some of the benefits of climate action, and they are widespread, in the present, and point overwhelmingly for the need to act on climate change now. So when I am asked about why I fight climate change, I lead with the co-benefits of climate action. Only after doing so do I mention that as someone who spends his life doing climate change research and advocacy I have developed a haunting familiarity with the consequences of inaction…

Back on the island of Mauritius, the homes of my grandparents, my family, and my friends, could be inundated by rising oceans well before the end of the century if we do not act. In South Africa, where I grew up, we will face even more extreme droughts than the one that is currently crippling our food production. And here in Washington where I am studying, we will face greater water security problems, more intense wildfires, devastating ocean acidification, sea level rise, and more.

But it is only after selling the promise and hope of a clean energy future, that I then hit home the urgency of the climate issue and warn that if we do not take advantage of the small window of opportunity left open to us, that we could push billions into poverty, displace 100s of millions of people, spur on widespread conflict and species loss, and potentially undermine the very conditions that have allowed global civilization to develop.

What’s clear is that if we act swiftly to take action on climate change and push for a clean energy future, we have the possibility of creating a much more prosperous clean energy future. And while we should not lose sight of the moral urgency of climate change, if we are to grow a movement needed to fight the entrenched interests holding back progress it is important that we don’t just focus on the complex, hard to understand effects of climate change, but also highlight the remarkable co-benefits of climate action. Through realizing the broad promise of climate action now, hopefully we can build the sort of movement needed to tackle the greatest crisis of our time in the little time left to be able to do so.

Alex Lenferna is a proudly South African Mandela Rhodes and Fulbright Scholar. He is getting his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Washington with a focus on climate justice. He is a leader of Divest University of Washington, and a fellow with Carbon Washington, a non-profit advocating for a progressive carbon tax in Washington State.

Alex Lenferna is secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition & campaigner with 350Africa.org. He has a PhD on climate justice from the University of Washington.