David Wallace-Wells, editor-at-large at New York Magazine, testified before a Senate panel on the staggering costs of continued delay on climate action on Thursday.
Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, was one of several witnesses called by Senator Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Budget Committee, for a hearing on “The Cost of Climate Inaction,” including Bob Litterman, founding partner of Kepos Capital, and Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University.
Experts estimate a business-as-usual approach toward curbing greenhouse-gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide, would put the world on track for an increase of the planet’s average temperature of about three degrees Celsius by the end of the century. But thanks to a global political awakening, growing cultural pressure, and rapid improvements in the cost of renewables, those worst-case scenarios are considerably less likely, Wallace-Wells said.
“But even that new measured optimism is shrouded in uncertainty,” said Wallace-Wells, who recently wrote “After Alarmism” about positive developments in the fight against climate change. “And as any investor or economist would tell you, uncertainty itself is a cost, not an excuse for inaction.”
Sanders invited top oil and gas executives from BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil to testify at the hearing, but all three declined. “This debate was not driven by science but by a campaign of lies, distortion, and deceit funded by the fossil-fuel industry,” Sanders said at the top of the hearing, pointing to past examples of the fossil-fuel industry’s withholding and distorting information to the public in order to make their use appear less dangerous.
Already, Wallace-Wells noted, more than 350,000 people prematurely die in the U.S. each year from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, according to recent research, and more than 9 million die worldwide — “death at the scale of the Holocaust,” he said. “We know, and must know, the clearest picture we have of the uncertain future that awaits us.”
That future isn’t written in stone, though. Wallace-Wells pointed to strides the U.S. has taken toward “enviable air quality,” such as the Clean Air Act, which led to fewer hospitalizations and economic benefits of up to $3.8 trillion, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. When asked by Senator Sherrod Brown how the country could pay for a green transition, Wallace-Wells said that the money saved from the Clean Air Act “alone would be enough to pay for the CARES Act of last year, the Biden Jobs Plan this year, and similarly sized investments every single year going forward.” Moreover, the annual benefits of the Clean Air Act are up to 32 times greater than the cost of regulations curbing greenhouse-gas emissions, he said. “We have to stop thinking personally about the cost of action on climate as being enormous and start thinking about the cost of inaction as being considerably higher,” Wallace-Wells added.
“Unfortunately, many of these gains could be undone by pollution produced by wildfire in 2020,” he said. “American fires accounted for more than half of all air pollution in the Western U.S., meaning that more particulate matter from the burning of forest infiltrated the lungs of Americans living in those states than from all other industrial and human activity combined.”
Wallace-Wells added that further delay and inaction on the climate crisis comes with far too high a price tag: In 2020, the U.S. suffered an unprecedented 22 natural disasters that cost the country over a billion dollars. When Sanders asked Wallace-Wells what would happen if we did not move aggressively, he said, “The number of billion-dollar disasters that would be accumulating in places like the United States would be quite intense.”
“Those impacts are all going to hit parts of the world,” he added. It would strain “our ability to promise a future of prosperity, justice, and equity to future generations.”