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Why we can’t afford NOT to take action on climate change

Should we take action to prevent dangerous climate change? A common argument is that it may be good to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but this action will be too costly – and damage economic growth. However, I think the issue should be seen another way – if we don’t act soon, climate change will become so severe that economic growth will be unsustainable.

Most experts agree that if we don’t act to prevent climate change, the costs will be complex and serious. Climate change impacts can be thought of as “shocks” to the economic system, that will become more severe over time. We will see temperature increases, which will lead to droughts and floods. There will be direct costs to the economy, including from declining crop yields, reduced fish stocks and flooding of coastal zones. There will be further “hidden” costs to the economy, such as health costs from increased malnutrition and heat stress. And there could be further impacts from increased conflict and migration, where climate change could become a ‘threat multiplier’.

For example - we may see high food and commodity prices due to a reduced supply of food and minerals. And storms and rising sea levels could destroy large amounts of infrastructure - it is estimated that $35 trillion of assets are at risk of flooding in port cities, even with a moderate sea level rise of 50cm.

Most experts agree that the global costs of climate change are likely to be large. The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change estimated this at 5-20% of GDP every year. And a number of other studies have reached similar conclusions.

There is a clear conclusion to be drawn - current growth will not be sustainable if it accelerates climate change and produces these huge costs. As Stern said in an article in the Guardian in November 2008: ‘Put simply, high-carbon growth will choke off growth’.

So the next time anybody suggests it is too expensive to take action on climate change, I think the answer should be obvious – on the contrary, the world can’t afford NOT to take action.

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