There’s no denying that a lot of the news about the climate crisis is bad. While the threat of water shortages looms in parts of South Africa, a brutal heat wave in China has turned deadly and Europe is suffering through its own blistering heat wave. For a lot of people, this is stressful. According to a 2019 survey by the American Psychological Association, two-thirds of participants reported suffering from climate anxiety.
But Alexander Gard-Murray derives some optimism from the fact that so many people are worrying about the crisis. A postdoctoral research associate at Brown University’s Climate Solutions Lab, he says all the added angst actually means 'a lot more people are really aware and really working hard on this.”
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Gard-Murray recently launched the Climate Opportunity Map. This interactive tool lets users see examples of immediate benefits where they live—in the form of new jobs or health benefits—that could come from ditching fossil fuels. The advantages are all estimated, and are based on projections and data largely sourced from academic and government research.
Gard-Murray spoke with Bloomberg Green about the map, clean energy jobs, and how acting on climate change isn’t just about protecting glaciers or helping future generations. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
There are a lot of reasons to be depressed about climate change. So what’s your pitch for optimism? I am more optimistic today than when I started working on climate. When I started working on climate change 10 years ago, we obviously had more time to act than we do today and the warnings, in some cases, were less dire than they are today. But I think politicians were taking it way less seriously a decade ago and I also think that the immediate benefits that society could see [from climate action] were less clear a decade ago. And that last part is what this map is trying to capture.
What is the Climate Opportunity Map and how does it work? The idea behind the map is there’s a lot of climate information out there. And a lot of the great information, both from scientists and from journalists, has focused on the damages and risks that climate change creates. But I think something that's important not to lose sight of is that there are also immediate benefits—what economists and climate scientists call co-benefits. Basically, positive economic side effects of acting on climate change. The climate opportunity map is meant to take those big headline numbers for countries and try to estimate how many of those will accrue to particular areas to bring it home to where people live.
Can you talk through some of those immediate co-benefits? What are people seeing if they enter their zip code into the map? First and foremost, jobs. I think the clearest benefit of acting ambitiously on climate change is that there are going to be more jobs in almost every part of America. There are going to be jobs building renewable energy sources, building wind turbines, building solar panels, installing solar panels on roofs, building hydroelectric [plants]. That’s just going to take a lot of work and that's going to employ a lot of people. And then once they’re built, they’re going to need to be maintained and run. There’s also going to be a lot of jobs, making energy efficiency improvements. The easiest way to replace fossil fuels for energy is just to use less energy and there are so many ways we can make our buildings, our lives more efficient, and those are also going to employ a lot of people.
At the same time, we’re also potentially going to lose jobs, right? So do you take those into account? What’s your response to people that point out oil and gas jobs could be gone. This map does not try to model every sector of the economy. There are other efforts to take a comprehensive picture and those show net job gains. So there will be more jobs in America if we act ambitiously on climate change than if we go on our current path. This map just focuses on a few key sectors where the job gains are going to be immediate.
But it’s true that in some sectors there are going to need to be transitions away and I think it’s important when we make green investments that they're paired with [social] programs to help people in oil and gas and coal communities transition. I think people don't necessarily know how much solar potential is in their area, or how much wind potential.
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The map also gets into the health benefits of climate action. Can you talk a little bit more about those opportunities?We focus mostly on lives saved from reduced air pollution. The EPA has done a lot of research on how reducing fossil fuel emissions will also reduce air pollution because when you cut dirty engines, you also cut the number of particulates in the air. So we take those EPA estimates, which are for the county level, and then aggregate those up. But there are other health benefits that haven't even been included here and we're hoping to expand the map in future. Like if you switch away from a gas stove, for example, the air quality in your house is going to be higher.
What are you hoping people take away from this map? I’m hoping that someone who looks at this map will see that the benefits of climate action are not just something that happens in foreign countries. It's not just about saving low-lying island nations, though they very much deserve to be helped. It's not just about saving polar ice caps and glaciers, though they very much ought to be saved. It’s not just about saving, or helping our great-great grandchildren. It’s about creating immediate benefits that are in the next few decades in the communities where people live. To put it more briefly, I hope the user of this map sees that their area is probably going to get something out of this transition.