A report says the cost of addressing global warming shrinks considerably when you consider the trillions the world is spending on power generation, transportation and infrastructure generally. 
A report says the cost of addressing global warming shrinks considerably when you consider the trillions the world is spending on power generation, transportation and infrastructure generally.  - 
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Fighting climate change need not be costly, and could bring significant benefits.

That's the message of the "New Climate Economy Report" — released in the run-up to next week's U.N. Climate Summit by a group with an impressive pedigree. For example, the chairman of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate is former Mexican president Felipe Calderon.  

Some outlets have interpreted the report as saying that addressing climate change could be freeHowever, there’s lots of fine print. The math only works on the global-economy level— balancing costs and benefits— without reference to who pays the costs and who gets the benefits. And only if you assign dollar values to benefits like saving lives and averting illness.  

Here's the gist:  The Commission projects that, one way or the other, the world will spend around $90 trillion on infrastructure in the next 15 years.

"Our argument is that it would be smart to invest the $90 trillion in a good way," says Jeremy Oppenheim, director of the New Climate Economy Project, "rather than investing roughly the same number and ending up with cities that are sprawling and with energy systems that are continuing to spew out pollution."

Suggestions include things like building transit for well-planned cities instead of highways to sprawling suburbs.

Oppenheim says the real message isn’t that fighting climate change is free, but that it doesn’t get in the way of economic growth.  "Those people who claim that these two goals are in conflict just don’t have the evidence on their side," he says.

That argument addresses a pointed question that developing countries often ask about climate change efforts, says Trevor Houser of the Rhodium Group. The question: What about us? Are we supposed stay poor? 

"The West got rich following a very specific economic pathway," says Houser, referring to things like cheap but carbon-intensive coal power.  "In a carbon-constrained world, that pathway will not be available to developing countries. And what this report is saying is: 'There are actually other pathways.'"

However, there will be losers. As the report notes, countries now spend about $600 billion a year subsidizing fossil fuels. Somebody will miss that if it goes away, as the commission recommends.  

Expect to hear the voices of prospective losers loud and clear, says David Victor, an international relations professor at the University of California at San Diego and author of "Global Warming Gridlock."  

"The people who are going to lose from costly climate policy know who they are— and are therefore raising concerns about that," he says. "And the winners— many of them don’t exist."  

For instance, wind and solar barely existed not so long ago. Industries like energy storage, essential to fully exploiting sun and wind power, are in similar positions now.

Meanwhile, no single body has the authority to implement a plan like the Commission's. "It's a highly decentralized system that steers the global economy," Victor says. A tangle of development banks— global, regional, and national— works with national governments, NGOs, and the private sector. 

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Follow Dan Weissmann at @danweissmann