Cost of Inaction

Gazi, Melina. "France campaigns on behalf of the planet." Label France. No. 59. 2005. <>

Each report released from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms the cataclysmic impacts climate change will have on both humans and the environment- ocean acidification, droughts, and disease are only a few of a long list. With the upcoming December conference on Copenhagen, the international community is looking towards its political leaders to formulate a global solution. However, the complexity of global warming and the issue of which countries are responsible for what have become the major roadblocks that have resulted in political inaction.

Although each country is concerned with the disastrous social and environmental impact of climate change, reaching a consensus for which countries are responsible for leading political action is difficult. For years, the United States has been the leading emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2); yet the rise of developing countries such as China and India has allowed the United States to absolve responsibility for political action towards reducing emissions. As a result, international  negotiations to reach a coordinated effort in abating climate change have come to a standstill.

The need to mitigate climate change, though, becomes increasingly larger as the impacts of it become clearer. Indeed, the loss of biodiversity, the increase in disease, and the melting icecaps are undesirable, but many of these impacts are difficult to quantify. The international political system does not operate on qualitative losses as they are relative. Instead, what is needed is a quantifiable cost to climate change to answer the question, "What are the costs of inaction?"

According to the most recent World Energy Outlook report from the International Energy Agency, if no action is taken by 2030, a six degree Celsius increase of temperature will result. Each year of inaction will result an additional $500 billion to cut emissions worldwide. In terms of monetary value alone, doing nothing will cost more than doing something. Energy demand is increasing rapidly with no plan for sustainability. Although the increase in demand will come from developing countries such as China, the issues of energy sustainability is a global responsibility. Political action is necessary to facilitate this course of action.

Findings from the Stern Review on the economics of climate change further emphasize the need to act now. By 2050, even with stabilization of global emissions, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere would reach 550 ppm. In doing nothing and allowing emissions to continue to rise, the international community risks the displacement of one sixth of the world's population, decreased agricultural productivity, increased vector-borne diseases, more erratic weather, and flooding, increased acidity in oceans, among a long list of impacts. The loss of biodiversity would be stunning as increased average temperatures may result in 40% of the world's species facing extinction. However, although these impacts are horrendous, quantifying them remains nebulous, which hinders effective political action. Yet, the recent Stern Review elucidates the economic impacts of climate change through a means that is concrete to understand. According to the Review, inaction would result in a permanent loss of up to 10% of world GDP. Furthermore, business-as-usual scenarios project up to a 20% reduction of global consumption per capita due to various environmental and health impacts. Although mitigating climate may cost approximately 1% of GDP by 2050, the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs as it avoids both economic and social costs. Given that reaching 450 ppm is almost out of reach, the time for aggressive political action is now. Below are figures to illustrate only a part of the consequences from global inaction.

1.    Due to climate change, a one to five meter sea level rise is predicted in the next one hundred years.  This increase in sea level would cause severe flooding of the coastline where approximately 37% of the world’s population lives within sixty miles of the coastline.  The cost of displacing these people inland would cost approximately 31 trillion US dollars by 2100 or 310 billion US dollars each year, about 4.6% of the world’s GDP (Goudarzi, 2006).

2.     Due to climate change, the amount of natural disasters has approximately tripled since the 1960s. This would cause severe damage to property, infrastructure, and property caused by fires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters.  The loss of real estate caused by global warming will be about 2.5 billion US dollars in California alone, about 63% of their property, so imagine the catastrophic effects this can have on the rest of the world(NGWE, 2009).

3.    Increases in temperature will cause an easier way for diseases to spread. This will also cause an increase in disease-carrying insects that usually live in tropical areas, such as mosquitoes carrying malaria for instance, to previously colder areas such as Russia, the rest of Europe, and the United States. Diseases caused by warmer water will also increase as well (6). This means greater number of infections at possibly a greater severity.

4.    Due to redistribution of rain, a 15% to 25% decrease in agriculture is expected, plunging the world into famine (Tufts University, 2006).

All of the effects of climate change have more than a 90% chance of occurring. For a more technical perspective on the impacts of climate change, visit the problems of climate change.

As one of the world's leading emitters, the United States has a large responsibility to lead global action for climate change mitigation. In fact, several countries, such as China and India, are adamant about taking domestic action contingent only on United States initiative. Thus, U.S. action becomes increasingly important on the international stage. Furthermore, the U.S. has a significant interest in abating climate change. As seen in the figures below, the U.S., and international community, stands to lose substantially due to inaction. Below are illuminating facts to the future of energy consumption (based on the 2030 time line and 450 ppm scenario from World Energy Outlook)-