“What if I’m wrong?”
It’s a thought that should occupy any sensible mind at one point or another. What if the cause (or religion, or ideology, or dreamy rock star) to which I’ve devoted so much of my time and energy turns out to be nothing more than a sham? In our case, what if the climate change deniers really are the Galileos they fancy themselves to be, and we the misguided, obstinate institution that refuses to acknowledge the truth in the matter?
Spoiler alert: the best part of acknowledging the realities of climate change is that there is little to lose but a bit of pride if we are wrong. On the contrary, there is a whole lot to gain. Here are some characteristics of the world we will bring about through transitioning to a cleaner, low-emissions society, even if climate change turns out to be nothing more than mass scientific melodrama:
1. Better Health
Whether human-fed emissions contribute to a catastrophic greenhouse effect or not, there’s no debating that letting fossil fuels go the way of their namesakes (or at the very least limiting our usage of them) will be much easier on the lungs. According to the EPA, burning fossil fuels contributes a host of airborne pollutants that play no part in the greenhouse effect, but which can take a devastating toll on our health.
Among these harmful substances are Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), Sulfur Oxides (SOx), Mercury compounds, and particulate matter such as soot, in addition to the more infamous Carbon Dioxide and Methane. Both Nitrogen and Sulfur Oxides can be deadly in high concentrations, but so too in low concentrations over long periods of exposure. If you live near a coal plant, you may not have the burning eyes, itchy skin, or persistent cough that higher exposures will bring, but over time, you may develop respiratory disease. If you already have a respiratory condition such as Asthma or Emphysema, these will be exacerbated with chronic or acute exposure to these harmful oxides. The push for clean, emission-free energy sources such as solar or wind (that comes with climate change targets) will reduce our usage of these dirty fuels and make life easier for our lungs.
2. Wild fish still around (and on the menu)
Another thing that Carbon Dioxide does besides warm the atmosphere (“allegedly“) is make the oceans more acidic. Now, you figure “I like my water with lemon, I can handle acidic seawater”. Maybe you can, but marine life can’t. From microscopic zooplankton to shrimp, crabs, clams and scallops, a vast number of marine species depend on having strong shells for survival. When Carbon Dioxide is released into the atmosphere, nearly half of it bonds with water molecules in the oceans. These bonds release excess Hydrogen atoms, which in turn form Carbonic Acid with Carbonate ions in the water, making the Carbonate unusable by organisms. Just like how we use calcium to strengthen our bones, marine organisms use Carbonate to strengthen their shells. Less available Carbonate means weaker-shelled organisms. Weaker-shelled organisms mean lower survival rates, and possibly extinction. When the base of the marine food web is extinct, the rest of the web starves too, in a phenomenon called “trophic cascade“. Below is a video from the Alliance for Climate Education, explaining the process in a less science-y way:
As the video notes, even apart from the game of Carbonate keep-away, dramatic increases in acidity can be trouble for even the healthiest of shells. Like a tooth dissolving in acidic soda, marine shells can be worn away quickly when they’re sitting in highly acidic water 24 hours a day. So, even if reducing carbon emissions may not be necessary to save the world, it’s still necessary to save your dinner.
3. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
One common argument we always hear from people who don’t want to take action on climate change is that doing so will cost jobs. However, while fossil fuel industry growth is stagnating (comes with the territory of basing your business on a finite, non-renewable resource), the renewable energy sector is doing quite well, with the best numbers being in solar energy. Renewable energy jobs pay better too: Renewable energy engineers make on average $3,000 more per year than do traditional fossil fuel engineers. Plus, think of how much happier you’d be if you didn’t have to work in a place that constantly billows out toxic pollutants!
Have you always dreamed of chucking it all away and going to live in the woods, if only you could live without checking Facebook every five minutes? Don’t worry, I’m in the same boat. Another advantage of pushing for more renewable energy and less fossil fuels is an increase in the individual’s ability to live self-sustainably or “off the grid”. If you want to “Thoreau” the ills of society away, but still enjoy the comfort and convenience afforded by electricity, you’d better be prepared to oil up a gas generator. But…if renewable energy starts getting the subsidies that now go to fossil fuels, it might not be so impractical to have your very own mini solar farm out in your corner of secluded nature. If you’re one of those “taxation is theft” types, this is a great way to stick it to the man and his overpriced, dirty electricity.
The benefits don’t stop with the existentialists. If you live in the city, your electricity rates are not just calculated by your household usage, but also by the demand of your entire area on the local grid. If you’re using very little electricity, but your neighbors keep their 50-foot neon cowboy on their roof lit at all times, your rates are increased just by your proximity to energy hogs. If you’re outfitted with a personal energy source such as solar panels, it’s possible to produce all of your electricity for free. You’re rewarded for conserving electricity by being able to sell power back to the local grid. If you conserve electricity in your current system, you pay less, but you’re certainly not making any money from your efforts.
All in all, there isn’t much to lose if it turns out climate change isn’t real. Our air will be cleaner, increasing human health and wellness around the world. Our oceans will continue to teem with life, for our recreational and culinary enjoyment. Where fossil fuel jobs go out, renewable energy jobs will take their place, at a higher rate of pay and under cleaner working conditions. Homeowners will have increased freedom to relocate outside of a traditional grid energy system, and electricity conservation will yield greater dividends for frugal consumers. When the benefits are this great, all I can ask is what are we waiting for!?