OPINION: Don’t let the global warming black swans get you down

Graphic by Meghan Joyce

Suppose I offer you a bet: “$50 says all swans are white.” All you would have to do is find one black swan, even if the overwhelming majority are white.

Now suppose my bet is: “$50 says the world would benefit from policies to transition off fossil fuels, even if it requires an unprecedented restructuring of the global economy.”

Would you take that bet?

The odds definitely don’t look good for you. A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report found that the world has until 2030 to significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, of which burning fossil fuels is a main source.

Otherwise, it would be too late to prevent global warming in excess of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and with it potentially irreparable socioeconomic harms from climate change. Then, there are countless models before it that similarly foretell climate disaster with unchecked emissions (which are more accurate than some would have you believe).

Perhaps you find that one black swan in a flock of white; the one model that proves, under peer-review, that greenhouse gas emissions won’t cause severe enough impacts to warrant a restructuring of the economy. Such a model, as of now, doesn’t exist; but there’s always the possibility someone will discover it (and many have tried).

I’d still win.

Suppose all the models are wrong, and global warming doesn’t exist. Suppose there is no social cost of carbon, which William Nordhaus (co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Economics) calculated at $40 to $50 per ton of carbon dioxide.

In that case, I can feel safer spending those $50 now. But it will be me spending it and not you, because it would still make sense to transition off fossil fuels.

Since 2015, the number of U.S. jobs in solar has been higher than those in oil, gas, and coal extraction. In 2017, Solar Foundation reported that solar employed twice as many people as coal. Overall, only oil had more jobs than solar in 2017, and that may soon change.

Solar, wind, biopower, and geothermal added more U.S. jobs per gigawatt-hour of energy generated than coal, natural gas, nuclear, and oil combined in 2016. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects “solar photovoltaic installers” and “wind turbine service technicians” to have the highest growth rates of all jobs 2016-26.

Meanwhile, the domestic coal and oil industries are not only dying out, but are highly automated, so not that many jobs would be created in those industries even if they did make a comeback. Another benefit of jobs in renewable energy (at least in the United States) is that they are often inherently local jobs in installation and maintenance, meaning they cannot be outsourced.

Energy transition also can save money for producers by reducing the operating cost, which translates to lower prices for consumers. Forbes reports that renewables are predicted to be “consistently” cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020.

Comparing the costs of installing a power source and running it over the course of its lifetime (called levelized cost of electricity), U.S. wind and solar are already cheaper than coal and nuclear, and are rapidly closing in on natural gas (oil is rarely used for power generation). The amazing thing is that renewables have such a low LCOE without subsidies.

There are other environmental benefits to transitioning off fossil fuels, even if the greenhouse gases they emit are found to be harmless. 45.3 percent of water collected in the United States is used to cool nuclear reactors and plants that burn fossil fuels, the biggest source of domestic water demand.

This doesn’t even include water used to get the fuel source, through methods such as fracking. Contaminated water is frequently released into the environment, harming local ecosystems.

“The water needed by solar panels and wind turbines is orders of magnitude lower,” according to the article about renewable energy in Scientific American.

Apart from greenhouse gases, burning fossil fuels releases additional air pollutants that, while not warming the planet, cause significant harm to human health. Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and heavy metals like lead and mercury are all emitted by coal plants alone. Think of the Great Smog of London — or, for that matter, contemporary Beijing or New Delhi.

According to Clean Air Task Force, airborne coal pollution was killing 13,000 Americans a year in 2010, a time when coal produced about half the U.S. power supply. In 2017, with coal’s share about one-third, that number was 7,500.

Note that all of these are strictly U.S. benefits. Worldwide, Reuters reports that transitioning off fossil fuels would grow the world economy by $26 trillion by 2030. Greener investment could create 65 million new jobs in 2030 and avoid 700,000 premature deaths from air pollution in that year.

Transitioning off fossil fuels is like Pascal’s Wager: If you believe in God and he exists, you win; if you believe in God and he doesn’t exist, you lose nothing. Except, if you transition off fossil fuels and global warming doesn’t exist, you still see meaningful wins. The only outcomes are winning and winning a lot more.

Ben Reicher PO ’22 is a contributing writer from Agoura Hills, CA. He is also a member of Sierra Club.

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