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Is Growth Passé?

Some suggest that the Paris climate agreement’s target for limiting global warming can be achieved only by stopping economic expansion. But there is ample room to change the quality of growth and significantly reduce its environmental impact without condemning billions of people to lives of deprivation.

NEW YORK – It’s clear: we are living beyond our planet’s limits. Unless we change something, the consequences will be dire. Should that something be our focus on economic growth?

Climate change represents the most salient risk we face, and we are already getting a glimpse of the costs. And in “we,” I include Americans. The United States, where a major political party is dominated by climate-change deniers, is the highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases and the only country refusing to adhere to the 2015 Paris climate agreement. So there is a certain irony in the fact that the US has also become one of the countries with the highest levels of property damage associated with extreme weather events such as floods, fires, hurricanes, droughts, and bitter cold.

At one time, some Americans even hoped that climate change might benefit them. Maine’s coastal waters, for example, would become swimmable. Even today, a few economists still believe that there is not much to worry about, so long as we limit the increase in average global temperature to 3-4º Celsius, compared to the 2ºC limit set by the Paris agreement. This is a foolish gamble. Greenhouse-gas concentrations are projected to be at their highest level in millions of years, and we have nowhere else to go if we lose.

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