Reducing the risk posed by climate change is economically and technically achievable, according to the Risky Business Project.
The project is led by American business leaders such as Henry Paulson, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs CEO; Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire founder of the securities data-news firm; and Greg Page, the retired CEO of global agribusiness giant Cargill. Their findings, based on scientific and economic research, is that climate change poses tremendous risk to American agriculture, business and citizens. The solution is to rapidly adapt and transition to a low-carbon, clean-energy economy that also would boost jobs and the economy.
“Transforming the U.S. economy to rely on low-carbon, clean energy would be a massive undertaking, but this report shows we can achieve this vision with existing technologies,” the inaugural report said in 2014.
The United States has started to make progress. It concluded that an average of $320 billion a year in private-sector investment is needed through 2050 to build a clean-energy economy and achieve the emissions reductions necessary to avoid the worst economic impacts of climate change.
These investments would be similar in scale to other major investments made by business, including in technology at $350 billion per year over the past decade. They could eventually yield on average up to $366 billion in savings per year from reductions in spending on fossil fuels. The country would gain more than 1 million “new jobs” by 2030. About 270,000 jobs would be lost in the coal and oil industries.
There also will be health benefits from less pollution. Page said the evidence indicates climate scientists are right and there is challenge and opportunity ahead.
Q: Why is transitioning to a low-carbon economy important?
A: We should start immediately to make prudent investments that substitute capital for carbon dioxide. It’s sensible. The benefits of these investments compound over time. For agriculture, we must work on adaptation, research in higher-temperature pollination, drought resistance and increasing soil health and its water-holding capacity. This is critical to global food security.
Q: The farm and food industry, however, are not entirely on board, right?
A: In agricultural circles, there’s an aversion to [accepting] man-caused climate change. My experience is they fear overreach by the government. For us in the food system to be deniers is as arrogant as it is for the true believers who say they know exactly what will happen … that the sea will rise by this much by 2080. I get criticized for talking too much about adaptation. But we can’t presume mitigation will be enough to save the food system.
We don’t know for sure that enough carbon-free electricity can be produced [to achieve an 80 percent reduction in the U.S. carbon footprint by 2050].
It’s engineering and technically feasible by electrifying our economy. It’s very rational. Cost-benefit analysis. Risk-reward. I’m just trying to get people to think about it.
Q: Does Risky Business advocate a carbon tax?
A: Risky Business did not take a position. However, several members of the advisory group did. They advocated for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Collected on a graduating scale over time. It would motivate more capital through higher returns [to decrease emissions]. In exchange, myriad mandates would be dropped and the market would allocate capital more wisely. The tax would be collected … and returned to citizens on a per capita basis.
Q: Business and the public seem to be moving in your direction. Your report and others say there is tremendous economic opportunity in clean energy, such as wind and solar, and conservation. Employment growth in those areas is growing much faster than overall employment growth.
A: Due to innovations that lower the capital cost and increase the efficacy of carbon-sparing technologies, the economics are improving and many investments are being made at positive returns over the cost of capital. A modest tax would accelerate investment by improving the returns. For example an overwhelming majority of new buildings feature LED lighting.
Q: You seem to be trying to find pragmatic common ground here.
A: All of this boils down to probability. You can find studies that will tell you that you can get a pretty stark outcome based on how much carbon there is in the atmosphere. Even if the world collectively held the amount of the carbon in the atmosphere where it is now, the half-life of this carbon dioxide is virtually perpetual. It’s a cumulative problem.
One group says about a fourth of the carbon we put up stays up. The rest gets absorbed in the trees, the soil ... oceans. That’s still about 7.5 billion tons per year that stays up. It’s not exactly settled science. It is broadly accepted as more likely than not.
Q: Are you concerned about opposition from the Trump administration?
A: I believe that the private economy in America, and I don’t just mean companies, will make more progress on reducing our carbon footprint while sustaining a growing economy and rising standard of living. More than any other country on earth.
Q: Are you optimistic that the country will get where it needs to fast enough to mitigate dire effects?
A: I think it’s going to be a very close call.
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144