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Leslie Kramer walks her dogs as some 90 wildfires burn throughout Alberta, in Calgary, on May 16.LEAH HENNEL/Reuters

The scale of damage caused by extreme weather across Canada signals that paying personally to fight climate change is no longer just a political gesture – or even optional.

The questions are how much we will pay – some now, or more later? And which generations will incur the largest burdens?

Many Canadians this spring have had to pay for damage caused by wildfires that increase with climate change. Repair costs to homes and businesses, relocation expenses, and replacing food spoiled during evacuations are prime examples. Such expenses are part of the reason why the Canadian Climate Institute estimates that extreme weather costs the national economy about $25-billion annually – a figure they project could increase to $865-billion by the end of the century if we don’t change course now.

The harm caused by the extreme weather we are experiencing extends beyond the immediate financial costs. Communities far from fires have found it difficult to escape smoke-filled skies that make it dangerous to breathe. This has incited new levels of eco-anxiety, and inclined many to rely on smoke forecasting to plan their activities.

Dystopic skylines underscore why the World Health Organization identifies climate change as the greatest risk to human health in the 21st century. Preventable disease and death caused by air pollution are growing problems.

The remedy rests in large part with citizens signalling that politicians can win elections if they are honest about the need to pay more now to reduce and adapt to extreme weather. Even amid this era of higher inflation, we can’t solve our wallet problems by neglecting our climate problems.

For the past several years, the Trudeau government found it politically appealing to maintain that most households receive more in government dividends from pollution pricing than what they pay. However, a report by the Parliamentary Budget Office last year disputed the claim.

Conservative leaders, federally and in Alberta, have since politicized this information, critiquing the national plan to increase the price we pay for our pollution. “Technology, not taxes” is the option they prefer.

Such either/or thinking is distracting. We need both to reduce damage caused by climate change.

People and companies pollute more when pollution is free, or inexpensive. That’s why a rising price on pollution matters. So does technological innovation to scale up green energy, reduce and capture emissions, lower energy consumption, shift to regenerative agriculture and upgrade transportation, buildings and other infrastructure.

The Canadian Climate Institute’s Damage Control report finds that one dollar of spending now to reduce carbon emissions and prepare for extreme weather translates into $15 in future savings. Five bucks of that future savings is from lower costs for repair or replacement of damaged infrastructure. The remaining $10 in savings are the benefits from avoided disruptions to supply chains, along with avoided losses in productivity and income.

The 1:15 ratio invites a critical intergenerational decision.

We can delay paying now for the full price of our pollution and for the investments required to climate-proof our infrastructure and food systems. We may decide to do so because the prospect of spending more now is hard on our wallets, and we worry about those who are economically insecure.

But any financial pain experienced now – especially for those of us who are not struggling to pay for groceries, heat or housing – to fight climate change will be but a fraction of the pain that our kids and grandchildren will experience in the decades ahead.

Reducing emissions now will benefit our lives in many ways. Renewable electricity, clean-energy sources, clean transportation and low-emissions-buildings can be good for our wallets and health. But I worry that climate campaigners have felt pressure to emphasize the pocketbook benefits of fighting climate change so much that we’ve risked implying it’s not reasonable to expect economically secure people to adapt now even if it involves some sacrifice.

Sacrifice can be a point of pride. Parental sacrifice on behalf of kids is common and valued (thanks mom!). And we honour the sacrifices made by those who battled in past wars.

Perhaps it’s time to embrace the theme of sacrifice once again, because, as Seth Klein writes, we are in the midst of a “good war” against extreme weather, and cannot ignore the cost of climate effects and adaptation policies in our economic decision making. If these costs require some sacrifice now, we can be proud knowing that they will protect younger residents and future generations from sacrificing 15 times more in the decades ahead. Tolerating a rising price on carbon and contributing tax dollars to climate-proof infrastructure are imperative, as is reducing our pollution by flying less, adapting our diets, shifting from fossil fuels and protecting green spaces.

Alternately, if we evade the sacrifices and benefits involved in fighting climate change, we will compromise our legacy. Because evasion now amplifies exponentially the financial and environmental harms for those who follow.

Dr. Paul Kershaw is a policy professor at UBC and founder of Generation Squeeze, Canada’s leading voice for generational fairness. You can follow Gen Squeeze on Twitter and Facebook and subscribe to Paul’s Hard Truths podcast.

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