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Climate Action Is Expensive, But Inaction Costs Much More, Economists Say

A coal plant and wind farm near Glenrock, Wyo.
Taylor Berge
A coal plant and wind farm near Glenrock, Wyo.

Many oil, gas and coal-dependent communities around the Mountain West are concerned about the Biden administration's aggressive stance on climate change. But a recent survey of hundreds of economists around the world suggests that reducing emissions now will save us financially in the long run.

The survey, conducted by the Institute of Policy Integrity at New York University, found consensus has increased dramatically among economists who study climate change. Now, the vast majority say that the crisis will shrink the global GDP if we don't take action now. 

The 738 climate economists surveyed widely agree that "the costs of inaction on climate change are higher than the costs of action, and that immediate, aggressive emissions reductions are economically desirable," according to a report on the survey's findings published Tuesday.

Sharp emissions reductions have uneven effects. In the Mountain West, coal's rapid decline has devastated towns like Colstrip, Mont., and Rawlins, Wyo. The energy transition will disproportionately hurt such fossil fuel-dependent communities, according to the study's co-author, Derek Sylvan.

But at the same time, Sylvan said, "The expectation is that it also protects some of those same communities from really severe damages that are expected to happen very soon. These are not damages that are expected 50 or 100 years from now. They are expected this decade."

They include severe wildfires, floods and prolonged drought. The survey found that unabated climate change will also exacerbate financial inequality, which could hammer poor, rural towns in the West. 

"Climate change will increase inequality and widen the gap between the poorest households and the richest households," Sylvan said. "I think that's the kind of thing that's likely to play out in a lot of rural communities that might not be able to adapt quite as easily to things like severe weather events." 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Nate Hegyi
Nate Hegyi is a reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau based at Yellowstone Public Radio. He earned an M.A. in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism in 2016 and interned at NPR’s Morning Edition in 2014. In a prior life, he toured around the country in a band, lived in Texas for a spell, and once tried unsuccessfully to fly fish. You can reach Nate at nate@ypradio.org.
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