Why do we talk money whenever we talk climate change?

climate

President Donald Trump announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Washington, 1 June 2017. (EPA/Molly Riley)

By Carolyn Woodruff

Science Magazine published an article last month by a team of scientists and public policy researchers examining the economic costs of climate change on each of the 50 U.S. states.

Their conclusion? States in the South will suffer more economic damage than states in the North if steps are not taken to rein in climate change, while some states like Maine and New Hampshire will reap economic benefits.

How did President Trump justify pulling the United States out the Paris Climate Accord last month? The agreement, he said, would impose “draconian financial and economic burdens” on the United States and punish his country in terms of “lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories and vastly diminished economic production.”

Arguments marshaled by both scientists and Trump underscore a trend in mainstream discussions around climate — the tendency to frame the impact on the environment in terms of dollars, jobs and the economy.

Both sides — those who advocate more action against climate change and those who do not — use economic terms to present their case.

Americans lack a framework for understanding nature.

Economic reasoning can be useful in understanding and advocating certain public policies. But isn’t it curious that a topic tied so inherently to nature is discussed mostly in terms of money — something man-made?

Environmental historian William Cronon argues that Americans lack a framework for understanding nature as something that is part of their everyday lives, not just something that is immutable and distant.

People who live in the suburbs or cities are less exposed to nature than their rural counterparts, who more regularly come into contact with forests, mountains and rivers.

Non-rural dwellers are apt to consider nature as something separate from them, not as something that affects them regularly and directly.

Keep in mind that most Americans live in cities. Although rural areas cover all but about three percent of the U.S. land mass, fewer than one in five citizens live in the countryside, according to the Census Bureau.

We may need to shift our perspective on nature.

Little wonder that many citizens living in urban areas conjure up images of far-away and mostly uninhabited spaces when discussing climate change and its impact on nature.

This could explain why the American debate over climate is so often couched in terms of the economy. Money is central to nearly everyone, and the ups and downs of the economy tend to affect large numbers of people, wherever they live and whatever they do.

But consider this quintessential effect on nature: climate change is contributing to a more rapid annihilation of animal species than previously thought, according to a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and summarized in the New York Times.

If an advocacy group, a newspaper or the president wants to make a point about climate change, they express it in terms that are understandable to people in the United States today. They frame the debate in terms of money — something everyone understands.

Economic statistics will surely continue to underpin arguments over climate change and the Paris Accord. But for a complete understanding of how climate will impact our lives, we may need to shift our perspective on that distant something called nature.


Carolyn Woodruff grew up in Charlotte, Vermont. She recently finished her studies at Haverford College in the United States, having focused on English and statistics. She spent a semester studying at the University of Edinburgh and is currently living in Philadelphia, where she is a Haverford House fellow working as a paralegal for a legal services organization.

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