A "long holiday from responsibility"

The above quote comes from Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse, in reference to the fact that large fossil fuel energy companies have never been made to accept the full cost of the distribution and use of their products.

Whitehouse, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety, made this observation in an article about what he expects to happen in response to the administration's newly announced carbon reduction policies. He's gearing up for an anticipated rash of complaints and false arguments coming from what he calls the "Big polluters," including the now-familiar whining about loss of energy-sector jobs (without considering new green energy jobs, or jobs lost as a result of carbon pollution), rising energy prices (without considering that legislation such as the Clean Air Act has paid for itself many times over) and charges of playing politics (many Democrats are less than thrilled to see this legislation in an election year).

These are all important issues. But the key objective here, at least as far as I'm concerned (and it's one Whitehouse also focuses on), is the reorientation of our policies toward a true recognition of the cost of fossil fuel products. I'm not even talking about the subsidies the industry receives (though that is another important part of this calculus). I'm talking about the degradative effect their products have on people and the environment, and that any accurate cost analysis of carbon products moving through our economy must include those adverse effects as well as the energy they produce.

Beyond the obvious, and scientifically inarguable, aspects of climate change that fossil fuels generate, there are quantifiable costs to the health of Americans, our neighborhoods, and the ecosystems within which we live.  

• "A recent study estimated that approximately 64,000 people in the United States die prematurely from heart and lung disease every year due to particulate air pollution -- more people than die each year in car accidents. Among children, air pollutants are associated with increased acute respiratory illness, increased incidence of respiratory symptoms and infections, episodes of longer duration, and lowered lung function." - Our Children at Risk

• "Climate change will have a substantial impact on future fire regimes in many global regions. Current research suggests a general increase in area burned and fire occurrence but there is a lot of global variability." - Climate Change and Wildfires

• "...the data show that people in coal mining communities have a 70 percent increased risk for developing kidney disease, have a 64 percent increased risk for developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) such as emphysema, and are 30 percent more likely to report high blood pressure (hypertension)." - Chronic Illness Linked To Coal-mining Pollution, Study Shows 

• "The last decade in Glacier National Park saw exactly double the temperature increase for the planet as a whole. The effects of this warming threaten Glacier National Park’s resources, from glaciers and snow-capped mountains to wildlife and forests, as well as the Montana jobs and tourism revenue the park generates, according to a new report from the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (RMCO) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)." - New Study: Climate Change Threatening Glacier National Park Could Harm Montana's Future Tourism and Economy 

Health care is quantifiable, fire suppression is quantifiable, and losses of revenue to national, state, county and many other types of parks and outdoor businesses are quantifiable. These calculations can be considered and factored in when determining the value of a product such as coal, especially in comparison with something like solar or wind power, and it is beyond any reasonable motivation not to do so.

Certainly the politics of this are, and will be, difficult. It's not just that elected representatives are predictably impotent (or as often as not: bought) when it comes to substantive policy. The more thorny problem is that we are all used to subsidies that have kept energy prices artificially low, and consequently cannot conceive of a world in which, say, gasoline - the actual cost of which some have estimated to be up to $15 or more per gallon - is not cheap and plentiful.

From an NPR interview with Wall Street Journal economics editor David Wessel,  

"WERTHEIMER: So let me get this straight. Gasoline is selling for around $3.65 a gallon in the U.S. and the IMF thinks that's too low?

WESSEL: That's right. The IMF says that the price of gasoline in the U.S. covers the cost of producing and distributing it, but doesn't reflect all the costs that using gasoline imposes on society: traffic, pollution, global warming. But in other countries, particularly in the developing world, governments set gasoline prices artificially low - lower than the cost of producing it. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, gas goes for only 45 cents a gallon.

The result is that people here and abroad use more energy than they would otherwise. So the IMF says that subsidizing energy or mispricing it aggravates budget deficits, crowds out spending on health and education, discourages investment in energy, encourages excessive energy use, artificially promotes capital-intensive industries, accelerates the depletion of natural resources...

(LAUGHTER)

WESSEL: ...and exacerbate climate change. But other than that it's a great idea."

Let me reiterate that the guy making these points is a Wall Street Journal editor. It is not (or shouldn't be) the science or economics of this argument that generate controversy, it's the willingness to reconsider how we live. Changing our ways will be a shock to the system, but it's a punch we have to take if we want to win the bout.

There was an opportunity to begin to reconnect our policies and perspectives with actual human and environmental costs back in the seventies. We had price hikes, we had gas shortages. We had skyrocketing demand and thoughts turned to alternatives. Then, through a combination of societal negligence and political malfeasance we let the chance to make the U.S. a world leader in clean energy solutions slip through our fingers.

That opportunity is facing us once again - although the forced nature of this moment makes it less like an opportunity and more like self-defense. This time we have to engage the moment realistically, and one of the tools we can use to accomplish that is to fold a critical, but heretofore barely recognized externality (a euphemism economists use) into our valuation of fossil fuel products: without clean air and water and healthy ecosystems we will be a sickened species living in a diseased world.

And guess what? Living that way costs us all a lot of money.