To many people the most prominent debate of the day is seemingly between the economy and the environment, and in today's economic climate the health of the economy is often deemed more important.
Environmentalism, in some circles, is still thought to be only about protecting trees and cuddly animals instead of trying to protect the environmental conditions necessary to ensure the health of people all over the world. While environmentalists and environmental NGOs actually spend a great deal of time studying and reporting on how climate change will impact human and economic health, many people consider environmentalists to be critical and dismissive of any type of resource extraction or energy production and as never giving a thought to job creation or the impact environmental regulations would have on the profitability of certain industries.
In similar fashion, any action taken to protect the environment is seen by many as detrimental to the health of the economy. In the short term this perception is often correct: stricter pollution regulations hurt the profitability of companies and decrease the speed at which they are able to expand their operations while renewable energy is, at the moment, more costly to produce and will need continued government support to become as viable as its more polluting alternatives.
The problem with this perception is that the economy and environment are not in opposition with one another. In fact, environmental issues are not separate from any issue we face but actually a component of them all. You cannot combat poverty, disease, or suffering without a stable climate and a healthy environment for which people to live in and you cannot improve a struggling economy either.
A healthy environment is a prerequisite for a healthy economy. The economy relies on the planet's ability to provide resources and the necessities of life, if the pollution we produce is reducing its ability to do that it becomes catastrophic for the economy. In fact, climate change has the potential to (and most likely will) send us into one of the biggest global recessions ever.
"Climate change presents a growing, long-term economic burden for Canada," said the National Round Table of the Environment and Economy (NRTEE) in September of last year. The NRTEE is an independent agency created by the federal government in 1988 with the mandate to show "leadership in the new way we must think of the relationship between the environment and the economy and the new way we must act." According to their report last fall, climate change will start costing Canada in the billions by 2020 but that number could balloon up to as much as $43 billion a year by 2050. The economic burdens climate change creates come from a disruption to Canada's timber industry arising from changing environmental conditions, a drain on our health care system from warmer weathers and increased premature deaths, flooding in coastal areas and many other factors.
The report did not go into the impacts felt from global affects such as a rise in the cost of food, and an increase in the need for humanitarian funds to help those affected by the drastic increase projected for extreme weather patterns. Take that into consideration as well and the future looks grim for Canada's economy if runaway climate change is allowed to continue.
Last year a report showed that climate change is to blame for the rise in the cost of food. Food prices, as with energy, have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the economy, when people have to pay more for food it causes inflation and means everyone spends less on everything else. The more climate change creates harsher conditions that are detrimental to global food production the more the global economy suffers.
The increase in extreme weather patterns that we have seen in the last few years are projected to increase in quantity and size as climate change progresses, and in addition to causing massive amounts of human suffering they are also quite costly. In 2011 the United States experienced 14 extreme weather events, all of them costing more than a billion dollars each.
The impacts of climate change have far greater consequences than sheer economics, however. While it may be possible to put a dollar figure on the costs involved in relocating people, providing humanitarian aid to countries experiencing drought, and the cleanup of areas that have experienced extreme weather or flooding, calculating the cost of human suffering involved in those occurrences and putting a dollar figure on it is of course impossible.
There is nothing more threatening to the health of our economy than climate change, yet frequently there are those defending environmentally destructive activities by claiming they are doing so for the sake of the economy. The truth is actually that the action they are defending would most likely be good for the economy in the short term but in the long term would also contribute to future economic hardship and the risk of massive global recession, not to mention the incalculable costs of human suffering. Perhaps it's time for Canada, and much of the rest of the world, to start looking at the long term implications of a damaged environment when mapping out their current economic strategies.