This could be remembered as the summer when the climate crisis got real. There’s the heatwave that killed nearly 800 people in the Pacific Northwest; floods in Germany, China, and elsewhere; and metastasizing wildfires in Oregon and California.
Increasingly, climate change is driving public health disasters, economic losses, ecosystem destruction, and worsening inequality. Under these circumstances, strong reactions are to be expected. We should be alarmed.
But add a dose of alarm to minds and hearts already exhausted and grieving the impacts of the pandemic, and there’s the potential for something we absolutely cannot afford: paralysis.
Fortunately, there’s an approach called “multisolving” that can move us from paralysis to action. Here’s the gist: because climate change is connected to so many other crises, climate action can have benefits for health, prosperity, and equity. Understanding this, we can build new alliances for positive action.
This work is urgent. We need investments in flood prevention, fire-fighting, and water conservation. We need to prepare for rising seas and deadly heat. We need bigger budgets for public health systems and emergency management. We need to accelerate the move away from fossil fuels and the heat-trapping pollution they create. All of those steps require new policies, new funding streams, and a lot of hard work.
But preventing the worst of climate change is within our means. In fact, many of the actions we need to take actually pay for themselves.
A 2020 study in the journal Science found it would take about $1.4 trillion per year to get on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. That annual bill is less than 10 percent of the $17 trillion governments are spending on economic recovery from COVID-19.
Climate action would save lives—and money. That’s because fossil fuel pollution takes an enormous toll on health and the economy. In the U.S. alone, the health costs of air pollution and climate change already far exceed $800 billion per year. According to the World Health Organization, the value of the health benefits of meeting the Paris Agreement goals outweighs the costs.
That’s the global picture. In our communities, the actions needed to prevent and prepare for climate change can give us more of things we already want and less of things that are hurting us.
Greening our cities — with tree-lined streets, parks, green roofs, rain gardens, and restored wetlands – tackles many problems at once. Shade trees help keep homes cool in heat waves while lowering energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions. Green space and wetlands prevent flooding by soaking up and slowing down water. Caring for those trees and wetlands provide good jobs that can’t be outsourced.
Cities can also multisolve by creating low-carbon ways for people to get around, like protected cycle lanes that are safe for children and clean buses that don’t produce air pollution. Building and driving those buses creates more jobs.
So too for clean energy, like wind and solar. More jobs, and less air pollution. If that clean energy flows to homes that are highly energy efficient, the people who live in them have lower energy bills and more of their paychecks left for food, medicine, and education. If the power goes out in a heat wave or a storm, those well-insulated houses will stay comfortable for longer.
Done right, multisolving can address injustices, so that the same communities that have borne the burdens of fossil fuel extraction and combustion play a leading role in the new clean energy economy.
How do we turn the potential into reality? We put the pieces together so that the costs and benefits are all in the same accounting. We involve health experts in crafting climate legislation. We make sure that jobs and workforce development are a key part of energy policy.
Some initial seeds of such thinking are apparent. There’s the Biden Administration’s vision of a ‘whole of government’ approach to climate change and the European Union’s new climate proposals that include a Social Climate Fund. There are countries like Costa Rica, Colombia, Laos, and Senegal, which are incorporating health in their climate action plans.
But, as the floods and fires relentlessly remind us, time is short. The seeds need to grow quickly to their full potential.
Each of us has a role to play. Voters must insist on climate policy that multisolves. Journalists must help people see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Activists must demand climate action that is tied to jobs, health, and equity.
We don’t need to feel paralyzed or powerless. Today, it is clearer than ever that the costs of climate change are more than we can bear. But, with a multisolving approach to the crisis, a healthier, more prosperous and fairer world is within our grasp.