"Who is going to pay for this?" The most important question in the climate debate
Updated: Feb 12
When people decide on their position in the climate debate, the cost of climate action is often decisive. People are worried that an effective climate policy will result in higher costs for them, a lower standard of living and more government interference. This reasoning is often reversed (however irrational this may be): since they do not like the proposed solution, many people tend to deny or minimise the climate crisis.
"Who is going to pay for this?" is thus a question mostly asked by climate change deniers, while climate activists often remain quiet about it. For once, however, I agree with the climate change deniers. "Who will pay?" is the most important question in the climate debate.
Shouldn't we first concentrate on choosing the best solution and then decide who will pay the bill? My point is: the reason why we cannot find a solution to global warming is precisely because this question is not answered.
A slippery slope towards ever more impossible and risky "solutions"
The position of climate scientists on climate policy has slowly shifted. First they only considered mitigation: what measures can we take to stop climate change?
As the years passed without any significant climate action, it became acceptable to think about adaptation - which is already tantamount to admitting defeat - we cannot stop global warming, how can we adapt to a warmer climate?
Adaptation advocates often underestimate how complex it is to anticipate all the consequences of climate change, and the "costs" are also extremely difficult or impossible to calculate. For example, how do you calculate the cost of accommodating 100 million climate refugees?
Recently, the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) decided to add a third pillar: loss and damage. We will not always be able to adapt - climate change will cause both unrepairable damage (e.g. loss of lives) and repairable damage (e.g. damage to houses caused by floods), and funds will have to be provided for these as well.
The latest solution proposed is geo-engineering, the deliberate and large-scale intervention in the earth's climate system, which a decade ago was considered totally unthinkable by scientists because of the high risks involved, is now being considered as a serious possibility. Geo-engineering is not the most appropriate term anyway - it wrongly implies that we are dealing with an exact discipline with well known consequences. Climate intervention is a better term: a desperate measure, for example injecting sunlight-reflecting aerosols into the atmosphere, hoping it will have no unknown harmful side effects. In fact, it is playing Russian roulette with the planet at stake.
Large-scale carbon removal from the atmosphere is also considered a geo-engineering option. Although not as risky as some other techniques, the real challenge is to scale it up to such an extent that it makes a noticeable difference to the atmospheric CO2 levels. Prices range from negative to hundreds of dollars per tonne.
Why do we invent one solution after another, each more grotesque than the next? Because the fundamental question: "Who is going to pay for this?" is not answered. Climate mitigation is by far the cheapest and least risky solution. So why don't we go all out for this solution? Because the bill will not always be paid by the same party.
Where does the bill end up?
Let us consider where the bill for the different solutions will end up.
Climate mitigation would mainly be paid by the polluters. Whether it is a carbon tax, an emissions trading scheme or a hard cap on CO2 emissions imposed by the government, it would be the polluters who would have to invest in new low-carbon technologies - or pay a high fine.
Climate adaptation (e.g. building water reservoirs, raising sea dykes etc.) would mainly be paid for by the taxpayer.
"Loss and damage" would be paid for mainly by the countries that suffer most from climate change - the developing countries. Either in the form of money, or in the form of lives and property lost.
Finally, geoengineering? That would result in a gigantic and permanently rising bill that our generation leaves behind as an "inheritance" for future generations.
So the big polluters, like the fossil fuel companies, the aviation sector etc., have every interest to avoid climate mitigation. They will do everything in their power not to have the bill passed to them. And in such cases, the bill falls to the powerless, i.e. the developing countries and future generations.
Escaping from the deadlock
The only way out of this deadlock is to hold on to the principle: whatever happens, whatever "solution" is chosen, even if our "solution" is not to act at all, the bill shall be paid by the polluters. It is the only logical decision, and the only fair one. Mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage and geo-engineering bills: send them to the big polluters.
Fossil fuel companies are trying to block an effective climate policy like carbon pricing, precisely because they are not held responsible for the disastrous consequences if this effective climate policy is not implemented. Every year that they can postpone climate action brings them extra profit - and ordinary people pay for the damage. They are rewarded for their sabotage.
However, once they realise that the bill will land in their mailboxes in any case, they will quickly choose the cheapest solution (i.e. mitigation). And then we can start tackling the climate crisis in earnest, like we should have done decades ago.