One of the more enduring arguments against doing anything about climate change is cost. Opponents of green technology and initiatives often point out our reliance of electronics and fossil fuels is so great, to replace that massive source of energy would be prohibitively expensive.
It was the argument in the 1990s and each decade thereafter. It’s had so much staying power we could be within our rights to ask where we would be if we had started the energy transition then and not waited half a century.
This week, we got an update on the cost of mitigating the coastline around Tuktoyaktuk, which is crumbling into the sea at an alarming rate as the sea pounds away at it, averaging a metre a year. Tuk Island, which protects the coastline from even stronger waves further out, is disappearing by two metres each year. Estimates suggest the entire island will be gone by 2050 if something isn’t done to slow the pace of erosion.
And the cost of doing something? Right now it’s estimated at $42 million and counting, and that’s only for the temporary fix to give the community time to figure out a long-term solution.
Yes, you read that right. Climate change is going to cost taxpayers at least $42 million — in reality, much more than that — to protect a community of approximately 900 people for roughly 30 years from something completely not their fault.
For those unconcerned about the effects climate change will wreck on the economy and infrastructure, this should be the canary in the coal mine.
Tuktoyaktuk is just one of numerous communities dotting the Arctic Coast, both on the mainland and throughout the Northwest Passage. While coastal communities south of the Arctic circle are often protected by vegetation which holds on to the soil — the ones that didn’t chop down the vegetation to put in houses, anyway — the Arctic coast instead relied on landfast ice to keep the ground in place. With longer periods of ice free summers, there is nothing to protect the coastline from the relentless waves of the sea.
Which is to say, what it costs to keep Tuktoyaktuk from going the way of Atlantis is demonstrative of what it will cost to save Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour and Ulukhaktok, as well as much of Nunavut, from the same fate. For simplicity, let’s limit our math to the NWT. Four communities at $42 million equals a minimum cost of $168 million, for less than 3,000 people. Living with climate change is going to be very expensive.
I’m bringing this up because inevitably these estimates are eventually going to make their way to the bean-counters down south, who will undoubtedly be floored by the sheer costs. This will result in some very unpleasant debates as governments weigh the costs of preserving the North with the costs of other mounting climate-change costs elsewhere in Canada.
As it turns out, fighting climate change was the cheaper option all along. But just like it’s cheaper to fix a problem with your car, house or health when it comes up instead of waiting until it can’t be ignored, we can’t undo our collective neglect on climate change. The climate debt passed to us by earlier generations will be repaid in full — with interest.