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The Climate Crisis: Your Job or Your Planet?

Research says action on climate change won’t stifle economy

In this weeklong series, BU researchers explore the science behind Earth’s environmental changes, and what they mean for our future.

For a glimpse of a ferocious front in our war over climate change, poke your head in the University’s next Career Expo. Every semester, scores of students flock to meet employers visiting campus to discuss jobs or internships. What do these jobs fairs have to do with climate change? Everything, some environmentalists say.

Jobs put money in people’s pockets. People will spend that money, and in turn feed a demand for goods that deplete resources and whose production results in pollutants. The economy thrives, but the planet roasts, as we demand more stuff and services.

Ian Sue Wing, professor of earth and environment, Boston University, environmental economics, climate change, economic growth

CAS Professor Ian Sue Wing researches the economic cost of easing and failing to ease climate change. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Growth, argues an advocate of measuring “Gross National Happiness” in a recent New York Times forum, “is a misleading indicator of well-being. The real goal is happiness and well-being and all those things that they represent, like vitality and health, social empathetic relations, pure and vibrant nature, and meaning and freedom.” Elsewhere, author and climate change crusader Bill McKibben says we must stop focusing on growth and instead encourage locally based agriculture and economics, adding that rich nations have an obligation to help poor ones develop such systems.

Job-seeking students could be forgiven for asking if the next generation should be expected to sacrifice in order to save the planet, enduring an even dicier hunt for work than they do now.

Ian Sue Wing, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment, has one piece of advice: relax. “Human beings will continue to aspire to higher standards of well-being, and government will continue to put in place policies to stimulate growth,” says Sue Wing, who researches the economic costs and consequences of both climate change and efforts to halt it. “If we were able to switch to non–fossil fuel sources of energy,” replacing oil and coal with wind, solar, biomass, and/or nuclear power, “we could pursue economic growth without altering the atmosphere and the climate at anywhere near the rate we are doing now.”

One BU economist agrees. “Most estimates for the economic impact of strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions have relatively moderate impacts” on growth, says Johannes Schmieder, a CAS assistant professor of economics. Schmieder, who teaches environmental economics, says that by addressing climate change, “we might reach the level of gross domestic product that we would have reached in 2050…in 2051 or 2052 instead.”

Impact of CO2 stabilization policy on emissions and economy, Ian Sue Wing, climate change, global warming, economic growth, end of growth, carbon dioxide CO2 emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, human induced climate change, climate change research, Boston University

This chart shows that curbing emission levels (the horizontal axis) by 2050 and 2070 will have a negligible effect on economic growth (the vertical axis). Courtesy Ian Sue Wing

Sue Wing bases his views on his computer modeling of economic growth to 2070, with and without a policy to ease climate change by imposing a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. The model shows that even with companies and households paying the tax, “the economy will continue to expand, but at a slightly slower pace than in the no-policy scenario,” Sue Wing writes in a summation of unpublished, ongoing research. “Equally important, taxes aren’t a net loss to the economy, as tax revenue finances the government’s provision of services that are economically and socially valuable.

“The upshot is that from the perspective of the entire society, the real cost of abatement isn’t firms’ and households’ tax payments on the CO2 they emit—rather, it is their opportunity cost of diverting resources toward cutting emissions below their no-policy levels, which results in a smaller quantity of goods and services being produced and consumed.”

Sue Wing’s earlier research confines itself to the economic cost of easing climate change. He is currently researching the economic cost of failing to ease global warming and its effects on such industries as farming.

The good news is that a world with cooler temperatures can still churn out jobs comes with two reality checks, however. One is that while fighting climate change would shave only a few percentage points off growth in the next few decades, Schmieder notes that we’d have to bear those costs now, while the benefits would come in the murky future. We humans aren’t great at deferring satisfaction, yet Schmieder thinks it’s doable. “We have seen large efforts for future payoffs in the past,” he says, citing the race to the moon. “I don’t see why politicians couldn’t create an atmosphere like that again, where it becomes a matter of national pride to solve our global climate problems.”

The second reality check is that some climate change is already baked in to our future. “If we were to stop emitting all CO2 on a global basis tomorrow, then it would still take on the order of 100 years for the current warming trends to essentially cease,” according to Richard Murray, a CAS earth and environment professor, who researches climate cycles over multiple time spans. Sue Wing says that the environmentally benign energy production he dreams of is still decades away, for technological and economic reasons.

Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, do it yourself micro-dwelling, reduce footprint

Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. makes micro homes, like this 130-square-footer, that consume fewer resources and space than conventional dwellings. Courtesy of WBUR

In short, we must adapt to some climate change, and rather than stop it, we must mitigate it. One immediate and necessary strategy will create jobs, Murray says: switching to environmentally benign ways of doing everyday things like home construction, where you can already see baby steps toward the future. Some Massachusetts towns demand tighter reviews of proposed resource-gobbling McMansions. And a California firm is offering low-mortgage micro-dwellings, some comically tiny.

Longer term, our experts say we need new energy sources and technologies that capture carbon dioxide from industrial processes before it gets into the atmosphere. None of these changes will make it harder for BU grads to find work, they say. “But they have to be going after the right jobs” in what will be a greener economy, says Murray. And he says that’s something students have always done as industries die and new ones appear: “I wouldn’t encourage BU engineers to develop a better technique to cut ice blocks from frozen ponds for us to use in our iceboxes.”

Bottom line: if you were planning to hit that next Career Expo, go.

9 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

9 Comments on The Climate Crisis: Your Job or Your Planet?

  • cletus van damme on 03.29.2013 at 11:20 am

    what job?

    • klem on 04.02.2013 at 12:21 pm

      What planet?

  • Robert Hargraves on 03.29.2013 at 2:54 pm

    While models can show the benefits of carbon taxes, the reality is that nations will not act against their economic self interest by raising the cost of energy through taxes. Not even the wealthy US has been able to pass a carbon tax. The carbon taxes in the EU have been so laced with special exemptions and rules that they are ineffective — EU CO2 emissions are rising, especially in anti-nuclear Germany. The developing nations know that the West achieved prosperity through cheap energy, from burning coal. They desperately need affordable energy to increase their standards of living; they must choose the cheapest source of energy. THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal is a book that describes the potential for several energy sources to compete with coal. It’s described at http://www.thoriumenergycheaperthancoal.com .

  • gtb on 03.29.2013 at 9:31 pm

    One thing’s for sure: Things aren’t going to get any easier. In fact, a report (PDF) from the National Research Council suggests that for every degree of global warming, the world could see a 3-10% increase in the amount of rain falling in extreme storms, a 5-15% reduction in crop yields, and a 200-400% increase in the area burned by wildfire in the American West. https://realitydrop.org/#myths/70

    • klem on 04.02.2013 at 12:20 pm

      I choose not believe their biased rubbish. You?

  • simon on 04.01.2013 at 2:26 pm

    Humanity is at the treshold of a existential bottleneck (i.e. resource depletion, rampant pollution of the ecos, and decreasing net energy).

    Do not despair, we have been here before.
    Unfortunately, the way humanity has dealt with previous bottlenecks, as evidenced in archeological records of 13 previous complex societies, is by slamming into Limits to Growth and letting Nature decimate them and recycle the detritus.

    As smarter ones than most have stated previously, “only 1 in 7 is likely to survive this one and will know how wrong everyone was just a few decades before.”
    some, like Guy McPherson, say this is only the beginning and as early as 2030 it could start looking very grim.

    • klem on 04.02.2013 at 12:23 pm

      “..this is only the beginning and as early as 2030 it could start looking very grim.”

      We can only hope right?

  • The nonsensical ravings of a lunatic mind on 07.12.2013 at 7:41 am

    I have been hearing this nonsense for years. In fact much of what they are predicting herein they were predicting would have happened by now over twenty years ago if nothing was done back then and nothing has happened yet. I do not doubt we are impacting the earth and depleting our natural resources but all this fear mongering and saying we should live in towable micro houses based on the forecasts of wizards who claim to be able to predict the future borders on insanity……is Al Gore going to live in one of those micro houses? Because I promise I will buy into this nonsense when I see that happen! I am a mariner and my life depends on predicting the weather and I can tell you all a weather forecaster longer than 4 hours out is subject to change.

  • Eduardo Fracassi on 12.02.2015 at 9:07 am

    Thank you for showing climate change in positive light. I think that change and adaptation are great learning opportunities as well as business. I am in my fifties and the town where I live has turned so hot in summer that I just can’t stand it anymore. So I want to contribute working generating awareness and helping people start working to make the necessary changes to migrate into a sustainable economy with a Hapiness metric in place!!!! Just remember what might have happened to Howard Hughes…. for example!

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