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Ask Sam: What's An Inexpensive Way To Fight Climate Change?

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Every other Friday on Morning Edition NHPR’s Sam Evans-Brown tracks down answers to questions about the environment and outdoors for our listeners in a segment we call “Ask Sam.”

Today’s Ask Sam is a collaboration with NHPR’s new climate change reporting project, By Degrees. It was submitted anonymously through our climate survey: “What can I do inexpensively to help the situation?"

This is a question that I believe reflects an out of date understanding of the state of technology that exists to combat climate change. So, let’s update it! 

The embedded assumption is that fighting climate change will be “expensive,” which is to say, it will entail exclusively costs. But in reality, it’s increasingly becoming clear that many climate change mitigation technologies are better understood as investments, and will deliver profits over their lifetime.

People park a lot of money every year in vehicles that they expect will deliver returns. 

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If you have a retirement account, into which you are plunking an indeterminate amount of money each paycheck, as 75 percent of Americans do, you're probably getting roughly what the market gives. That varies, but over the long-term it sits at about a 10 percent return. 

Now, installing solar panels on your house? That’s about a 13 percent return on investment here in New Hampshire, and closer to 16 percent on average nationwide. (If the up-front cost is what's scaring you away from solar, you can very easily access loans these days that let you do it for no money up front.)

Switching all the lightbulbs in your house from incandescent bulbs to LED? That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of a 31 percent ROI here in New Hampshire.

If you’re planning on being in your house for a long time, you can even completely remove all the fossil fuel burning stuff from your home. The upfront cost is quite a lot, but even that pays for itself in the long run. 

"I’ve never been more excited to see holes being made in my walls and stuff being ripped out,” explains Sue Reid, a finance advisor with an organization called Mission 2020.

In a previous job, she co-authored a report called The Clean Trillion, which laid out how a trillion dollars a year worth of capital could be invested, profitably, in climate mitigation strategies.

“So my house will run all of its energy systems - heating, cooling, hot water heating and cooking - on clean electricity.”

If you, dear listener, wanted to make your own home more efficient, the state even subsidizes work like that. It offers rebates for new efficient electric hot water heaters, fridges and modern heat pumps that can heat and air condition your home. 

What’s more, you can have a professional come to your home, evaluate its performance and recommend as much as $8000 of insulation work that the state will pay for half of. Some of these improvements can pay off in as little as two or three years of lowered heating bills. 

“These are the kinds of win-win-win solutions that I’m excited about as an individual, and really want to look for more ways to make it easier for everybody to do these things,” says Reid, “Getting the right policies in place to make all of this accessible, and where there are any upfront costs before you reap those savings, to figure out a way how to capture those longer-term savings and make it cheap or no-cost to invest in them in the first place.” 

If you think of this as simply re-directing spending that is already happening towards more climate friendly versions of the same spending, you start to see flight climate change as an investment opportunity. This has led one prominent climate financier, Jigar Shah, to call climate change the “Largest Wealth Creation Opportunity on the Planet.”

The deeper question is why is it so hard to find and navigate these solutions? One answer is something called “path dependency.” The quintessential example of this phenomenon is the QWERTY keyboard, which was designed to avoid jams in type-writers, and yet we all just… keep… using… it.

Similarly, we invest money the ways we do, and build houses the way we do, not because it's the most economically rational choice, but because that’s how we’ve always done it. It’s the easiest way, and so everyone just keeps going on that track.

The fact that it’s harder to create a new path, perceived barriers, like cost, start to seem insurmountable. Meanwhile, lots of expensive decisions that actually have a negative return on investment, like most home remodeling projects, are seen as just a normal thing that people do.

(Also, an acknowledgment: if it seems like a lot of the examples in here are things that only middle-class home owners have access to, you're right. They have disproportionate power to reduce emissions, and therefore you might argue they have responsibility as well.)

Sam Evans-Brown, is host of NHPR’s Outside/In which you can subscribe to where-ever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to submit a question you can record it as a voice memo on your smartphone and send it to oustidein@nhpr.org, OR call the hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER, OR submit it here. 

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