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The True Cost of Climate Change

One of the fundamental reasons why many people fight so hard against the concept of climate change is economic. There is a general understanding that to fight climate change will cost a lot of money. Many act as if there is a choice between proactively dealing with the climate change, and ignoring it.

In reality, that particular choice does not exist. The real choice is somewhat more unpleasant. We can either 1) make reasonably small sacrifices now to minimize the effects of climate change in the long term, or 2) ignore the issues now and continue to worsen the problem for a few years, then suffer through decades of horrific economic and social collapse after the problem reaches the point of no return.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair summed these facts up much more eloquently than I ever could when he introduced a report and new campaign to fight the problem of climate change. The report states that climate change may eventually cost the world 5 to 20% of its economy, and have as much impact as the Great Depression or the two World Wars.

This disaster is not set to happen in some science-fiction future many years ahead, but in our lifetime… Unless we act now… these consequences, disastrous as they are, will be irreversible.

Blair is something of a rarity in that he’s a major international political leader who has openly spoken about the issue of climate change in real language, not in the reluctant hesitating manner of most. He spoke positively about Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers and gave that book a great high profile boost. Unfortunately, Blair is now a lame duck Prime Minister on the way out, so whether his words will translate to real action remains to be seen.

Blair’s comments today on the new report reminded me of something that Al Gore wrote 15 years ago in his book Earth in the Balance.

The future whispers while the present shouts. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that we care far less about what happens to our children than about the inconvenience and discomfort of paying our own bills. So instead of accepting responsibility for our choices, we simply dump huge mountains of both debt and pollution on future generations.

To continue denying climate change in the face of mountains of evidence, to continue making excuses to drag our feet, is the ultimate in selfishness and cowardice. Many of us today live in a state of incredible luxury that could not be imagined only a few generations ago: two cars, three televisions, four washrooms, computers, iPods, closets full of trendy shoes, annual vacations at tropical resorts. These things are now the norm, easily accessible even to most average middle class citizens in the western world. Yet, few of us are willing to give up even a fraction of that bloated wealth to save society from disaster.

Just as many individuals are living beyond their means on credit card debt and double mortgages, our society is furiously destroying the world’s resources with little regard to the impact this will have on our collective future.

A few weeks ago I wrote that investment in alternatives energies was on the rise. I based this statement on anecdotal evidence and headlines. Apparently, I was dead wrong. In the US, investment in alternative energy research and development has fallen over 50% since 1979 to $3 billion dollars per year. At the same time, investment in military research has increased 260% to $75 billion dollars per year.

The words of politicians (and regular folks) often reveal the best of their intentions, and how they wish to be perceived. How we spend our money, on the other hand, reveals the truth about where our priorities really are. As a society, it is clear that we have a long way to go.

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