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Is inflation impacting climate change? The answer’s not so simple, experts say

A nozzle filling up a vehicle with gas
Public Domain Pictures
High gas prices make the transition to electric vehicles more attractive to many consumers.

As the summer days trudge forward, rising temperatures come coupled with rising concerns of a possible economic recession later this year. While those fears grow, so might the anxieties of paying for that next trip to the grocery store, or the next costly tank of gas.

High inflation has been top-of-mind for many Americans over the past few months, and we’ve heard about it almost endlessly in that time. Now that consumer prices are up over 9%, the largest increase in over 40 years, the pain on your pocketbook has become all-too-familiar as many wonder when they can expect some relief.

But as costs continue climbing, high inflation is highlighting a different problem: climate change.

It may seem surprising, but recent studies show that high consumer prices, like what you pay for a gallon of gas, can benefit the environment, such as reducing the demand for fossil fuels.

Joseph VonNessen, a research economist at the University of South Carolina, seems to agree.

“High gas prices make the transition to electric vehicles and other alternatives more attractive because, all of a sudden, the relative costs are smaller,” says VonNessen.

VonNessen adds that the pressure felt at the pump may push people to pick different ways of getting around as depending on gas-guzzling cars continues to be expensive. But it’s not something he expected to happen in 2022.

“Previously, [electric cars have] not been especially competitive, particularly for the average American, as electric cars have been a premium product,” VonNessen says.

Those pricey, premium products are becoming a possibility as people continue feeling the short-term struggle of high gas prices. However, some recent research suggests that short periods of high inflation wouldn’t be enough to encourage a switch to more eco-friendly transportation.

Starting a shift away from fossil fuels certainly isn’t something that UofSC economics professor William Hauk thinks would happen in just a few months.

“In the short run, frankly, there’s not a lot people will do to change their driving habits or other behaviors,” Hauk says.

Even if prices stayed high over the course of a year or more, other local experts say that inflation can equally help and hurt a transition to cleaner energy.

“Does [high inflation] mean people stop putting as many solar panels on their houses?” says Greg Carbone, a climate and geography professor at UofSC, “Does it mean that the solar farm or wind turbine farm gets slowed down?”

Multiple research efforts have focused on these exact questions. Recently, the International Energy Agency reported that high inflation over a long period of time can increase the cost of clean energy transitions.

It can also, like Carbone asked, slow down the pace of renewable energy production, like solar and wind.

Basically, you can think of inflation as a double-edged sword for the environment. Local experts say that high prices can spur a shift to electric cars or other fossil fuel independent ways of getting around, but not everyone can afford to make that switch.

Those that rely on travel to make a living, like truckers, are especially hurt by higher fuel costs.

“A lot of them aren’t going to make it,” says Rick Todd, president and CEO of the SC Trucking Association, “We’re finding them dropping like flies, and many [truckers] are leaving the industry.”

Even though higher gas prices could prompt long-term reductions of carbon emissions that cause climate change, it doesn’t do much to help the people that are struggling right now.

Instead, more than money, experts believe that a shift in technology will be one of the most important ways to curb the effects of a changing climate.

“We need more efficient automobiles and automobiles that aren’t produced by fossil fuel sources,” Carbone says, “But major technology shifts need to happen in order to change the course of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.”

Finn Carlin was an 2022 ETV Endowment intern working with SC Public Radio to produce news content. He is now an occasional news contributor.