Risk Assessment Reigns in Budgeting, Except When it Comes to Climate

On September 23, 2014, the world gathered to watch history being made: the tail end of the largest climate march ever and a UN Climate Summit where leaders reaffirmed their commitment to stringent mitigation measures.

Meanwhile, some things never change. At the Summit, Barack Obama gave what was called by a New Republic reporter as a “toothless speech.” Just a day before, the Pentagon announced that they commenced air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria. These two moves seem unrelated, but are they? In fact, both of these decisions are based on risk assessments of possible threats. So then why are we so unwilling to take on climate change, compared with other things where we assess risk and act accordingly?

First, it should be said that climate change and defense spending are not mutually exclusive. The National Intelligence Strategy released in the same month unabashedly called climate change a “threat multiplier.” Indeed, the military seems to be ahead of the curve when it comes to embracing future scenario planning.

The hesitation seems to lie cognitively with policymakers.

In March of this year, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said, “Every day, we are reminded that the world remains as dangerous as ever and that we need a modern military to protect the American people and US interests abroad.” A few months later, he offered his opinion on climate change: “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.”

Certainly, these views aren’t surprising given their origin. You’ll be hard pressed to find a traditional Republican that doesn’t qualify as a war hawk—and whose districts don’t benefit from defense spending.

Similarly, climate change acceptance falls along partisan lines, with Gov. Jerry Brown claiming that virtually no Republican in Congress accepts climate science.

Republicans would argue that defense spending is for the purpose of self-protection. Full stop. A robust military can fight for democracy and peace; and deter acts of aggression through an exhibition of national strength. Indeed, looking deeper, we can see that a strong military is in essence a policy against risk. We spend trillions of dollars to ensure that something doesn’tharm us.

So then why can’t same argument be made for climate change mitigation?

Scientists have stated almost unequivocally, or up to a 97% level of confidence, that climate change is real and is being caused by man-made emissions of greenhouse gases. This could mean entire nations being subsumed by rising seas, increasing food insecurity for millions, and mass extinctions at a rate and level we’ve never before experienced. This doomsday scenario isn’t enough of a catalyst for policymakers. But it should be.

Even if we accepted the Republican line that climate change is possible but not certain, in what other circumstance would we refuse to think about possible risks and act on them? Let’s put this into perspective:

The answer, then, is that we tend to take even small risks very seriously, and spend accordingly. But not when it comes to climate change.

In 2012, we spent about $21 billion to effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This might seem like a significant investment, but not when taking into account the size and nature of the risk. In fact, a recent report found that the cost of a low carbon future would be in the tens of trillions of dollars—but benefits could be even higher.

Climate change mitigation is not only an insurance policy against risk, it’s also an economic game changer. It’s time to stop the toothless speeches and take a bite out of climate change.