A report this year in the journal Global Environmental Change, partly addresses this question. It estimates the total value of our global ecosystems, currently threatened by climate change and other forms of ecological damage, at between $125 and $140 trillion. To put this figure in perspective, our gross global product stood at $74.31 trillion in 2013.
According to the study, an update to an earlier report published in 1997, these ecosystems provide us with valuable goods and services. Marshlands, oyster bays and mangrove trees, for example, shield us from costal storms; forests absorb CO2 and fortify soil — to say nothing of the basic food and mineral resources their ecosystems provide, sustaining life on Earth for humans and thousands of other species.
Some critics were troubled by the study’s monetization of nature. It reads “like an annual financial report for Planet Earth,” Douglas McCauley of the Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology Department at UC Santa Barbara told the New York Times. And if we start viewing the planet as ecosystems as an asset, well, assets can depreciate in value. As the Times noted, “If coral reefs and other ecosystems were still as healthy as they were in 1997, the value of their services today would have been considerably higher: $165.8 trillion.”
Taking a different approach to examining the costs of global warming, the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) examined the price of adaptation.
Climate change is “unequivocally” the result of human activity — principally the burning of fossil fuel— the IPCC stated last year in the first installment of its fifth climate assessment since its 1988 formation. Accordingly, the second installment, published earlier this year, calls for a rapid transition towards renewable sources of fuel. Drawing on models focused on the energy sector, the IPCC projected that adaption could either increase the globe’s gross domestic product by 0.7 percent by 2050 or reduce it by 0.6 percent.
Such a potential loss to the global economy, however, does not seem like all that much if we consider that we are protecting an investment worth nearly twice as much as our global gross domestic product — in addition to warding off food insecurity, resource wars and mass migration driven by increasingly volatile weather patterns.
In fact, the quest to put a price tag on climate change and responses to it only serves to highlight that there are some things that are priceless. Water, fresh air and a stable climate have allowed for civilizations to develop and for millions of species to live and thrive on our planet. How do you quantify life? The future?
“You have to take into account whatever the appropriate metric is,” Gary Yohe told Planet Experts. Yohe is an environmental economist at Wesleyan University who received a share of the 2007 Nobel Prize as a member of the IPCC. “If it’s human lives and human welfare, calibrate in human lives and human welfare. Don’t try to attach a number value to human life. For ecosystems, its the same thing. There are thresholds we should worry about crossing.”
But even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, we will still be grappling with the effects of human-caused climate change in the decades and even centuries to come. The latest IPCC report, which Yohe helped draft, uses risk as the primary mitigating factor.
“We aren’t going to be able to guarantee that bad things aren’t going to happen,” he said. “But we can reduce their likelihood or at least push them further into the future. And we should begin those policy discussions now.”
Yohe said he is kept awake at night by the number of people in powerful places who don’t take the threat of climate change seriously. “They are unnecessarily putting the lives of human beings and the lives of various ecosystems around the country in mortal risk That’s just awful. It’s unconscionable to me.”
Under capitalism, the dollar ultimately counts most when weighing the practicality of responses to global warming and following a spate of extreme weather events including the ongoing drought in California and 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, some people in high places have begun to pay attention. They are approaching the cost of climate change by examining the price of inaction from a business and investment perspective.
“If we continue on our current path,” a report examining the effects of global warming on American infrastructure overseen by former-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg concluded, “by 2050 between $66 billion and $106 billion worth of existing coastal property will likely be below sea level nationwide, with $238 billion to $507 billion worth of property below sea level by 2100.”
The study, entitled Risky Business; the Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States has drawn a great deal of attention as much for its content as for those who participated in its development. Bloomberg has long portrayed himself as a climate hawk, but other dignitaries affiliated with the study were a surprise to many.
Henry Cisneros who heads the board of directors at Cargill, Inc served on the study’s “Risk Committee” as did George Shultz and Robert Rubin, Secretaries of Treasury under the Nixon and Clinton Administrations respectively. Former-Bush Administration Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson co-chaired the report.
If the names Paulson and Rubin sound familiar it is probably because both played an intricate role in the 2008 financial collapse. In 1999, Rubin helped overturn the Glass-Steagall Act, allowing for commercial banks to invest in the stock market for the first time since 1933. He then went on to serve as chair of Citigroup which received bailout funds to cover losses from its subprime loan gambles. Then-Treasury Secretary Paulson oversaw the bailout. Strikingly, both men are now raising their voices to prevent the collapse of the climate.
“I know a lot about financial risks,” Paulson explains in the study. “In fact, I spent nearly my whole career managing risks and dealing with financial crisis. Today I see another type of crisis looming: A climate crisis. And while not financial in nature, it threatens our economy just the same.”
What all these reports have in common is the notion that the longer we dally, the more costly climate change becomes, whether in terms of dollars and cents or human lives. A growing body of research, however, argues that the same economic driving factors that led to the Great Recession are what has spawned the climate crisis we are in now.
This Changes Everything; Climate vs Capitalism, a new book from journalist Naomi Klein, argues that the basic drive for profit, embedded within our economic system makes it impossible for us to respond to the severity of the crisis we are facing without developing alternative economic models.
“The system itself,” Klein told the UK Guardian last month, “doesn’t think as an entity — it thinks as a collection of self-interested profit-seeking units.”
To a certain extent, economist Gary Yole shares Klein’s concerns.
“Capitalism is driven by personal interests, not social interests,” he said. “But it is the system we are stuck with and it’s not going to collapse before we have a climate emergency.” In the meantime, Yohe advocates taxing carbon at its source. “If you get people thinking that carbon isn’t going to be free forever, capitalism provides the incentive for people to go out and try to solve that problem.”
Adding to that incentive, Mark Z. Jacobson with Stanford University and the Solutions Project, estimates that the United State’s could be powered seven times over with wind power and 30 times over by harnessing the sun’s energy — with the added economic benefit of creating over 7 million longterm jobs and an annual energy savings of $4,500 per person.
It might be these potential economic benefits that generates a proactive response to climate change, if not from markets themselves, then on the part of the general populace. But as it stands now, with each molecule of CO2 we put in the atmosphere, we are risking everything.