The social cost of climate change
Hannah Hess, Associate Director of the Denver, Colorado-based Climate Impact Lab, noted that the financial cost of lowering emissions entails a social cost, “requiring policymakers to divert resources from other goals that we care a lot about, like expanding affordable housing, or investing in our education systems.”
The task at large, she said, is to “estimate the benefit to society of new limits on policies like vehicle tailpipe emissions, and weigh those against, for example, the cost to the auto industry and the cost of enforcing that new rule.”
The social cost of unlowered emissions, however, loom greater in the long-term, and Climate Impact Lab projections of climate-related mortality as related to GDP worldwide through 2099 show that the most serious costs are those upon health.
While mortality costs are expected to comprise 1% of California’s GDP through 2039, for example, this number is expected to reach at least 5% in some parts of the state if high emissions continue through 2099.
As another example, Hess discussed heat projections of Orlando, Florida: “From 1986 to 2005, the city experienced roughly three weeks of days with temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit,” Hess said. “By mid-century, that looks like 55 days, so nearly two months of extreme heat. These temperatures exacerbate respiratory conditions, cardiovascular conditions, and can interact with medications.”
Consequently, she continued, increasing temperatures in Orlando have led to an increase in the death rate of 19 per 100,000 people “compared to a future world with no climate change. For context, that’s more lethal than car crashes, which today have a mortality rate of 14 per 100,000 in the U.S.”
Understanding climate change spiritually
Jon Christensen, Adjunct Assistant Professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said that as climate change is altering our environment, so too are we altering the way we regard this change and understand ourselves in relation to it.
“The way that people think about natural disasters can change over time,” he said, giving as example the Black Death: “When the bubonic plague killed 25 million people in Europe in the 14th century, it was seen by many as a righteous punishment from an angry God. Climate change and its effects are also increasingly seen not as natural disasters, but as righteous punishment for our sins by nature.”
Christensen said that the concept of climate change “is not just about the physical processes that the phrase labels but is also determined, like other concepts, by our own narratives and values, the stories we tell about the world and ourselves which constitute our identities.”
He cited the former governor of California, Jerry Brown, who “pointed to the persistent drought as things that people could see and feel in their communities and lives. From those stories he asked people to take action, to conserve urban water by 20%, and they did. I like to call this the California way: Sunny with a chance of apocalypse.”
Noting the uniquely American centrality of one’s position on climate policy to one’s political identity overall, he said that much polarization between those who believe in climate change and those who don’t owes to a doubt which has been deliberately created by public relations campaigns on the part of fossil fuel companies taking after the methods of the tobacco industry.
Elaborating on this polarization, Megan Mullin — Faculty Director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation — said “Division is the most important characteristic of climate change politics in the United States. In a nation that is deeply polarized across partisan lines, there is no other issue that divides Democrats from Republicans more than climate change, and as the effects on climate grow, so does this gap.”
Nevertheless, she said, the implications of this gap are changing: No longer does partisan division translate to political gridlock, as it has for decades, when the possibility of a majority coalition was largely moot and “actions by Democratic presidents when they were in office would then be reversed by their Republican successors.”
One reason for this change owes to more cohesive support for climate action among Democrats themselves, which leads to bolder policies on the part of blue states.
Current examples at the federal level include the Inflation Reduction Act and “historic levels of investment in climate mitigation … of effects in terms of extreme heat, sea level rises, drought, and floods,” Mullin said.
The future of clean energy expansion may be in Republican states, she added, as 38% of U.S. operational clean power capacity is in Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Meanwhile, Republicans themselves are more at risk than Democrats from projected climate change impacts. Thus, even Republican leaders who vocally deny climate change, for example Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, are making historic investments in wetlands and clean water in order to prevent flooding.
Furthermore, partisanship between support and disapproval for stronger climate policies — both across parties and within the Republican party itself — is increasingly more a matter of generational rather than political differences, Mullin said, with younger Americans across the political spectrum being more likely than older generations to express an interest in addressing climate change.
Talking about climate change
Anais Reyes, Senior Exhibitions Associate at the Climate Museum in New York City, shared a ground-level view of American support of climate policy across social lines.
Citing a 2020 study from Yale and George Mason University, she said 66% of Americans are worried about climate change, but only one in five hear it regularly talked about, thus creating “what researchers call a ‘spiral of silence.’ And this creates a feedback loop which breeds inaction. Two-thirds of Americans say the government is doing too little about climate change, but we think there’s no supermajority.”
“This false social reality when it comes to climate change prevents us from talking about solutions on every scale,” said Reyes. “We use art as an entry point to spur on that talk, connect people to that action, to turn away from hopelessness and towards motivation and agency.”
She cited an interactive sticker wall at “Someday, all this” — an exhibition of the visual artist David Opdyke which ran from October 2022 to April 2023 — as a recent example of how the Museum is refuting the spiral of silence: “Each sticker was labeled with a different action, like voting or talking about climate action with friends, and people wrote on ones that resonated the most and stuck them on a wall. By the end, we had thousands of stickers overflowing the wall into other parts of the museum, and you could see how everyone’s individual commitment to climate action had a collective, multiplying impact.”