Open Forum: ‘No emergency rooms’
Posted: January 20, 2013
On the front page of the Jan. 9 Star, it appears our government does not understand the consequences of burning fossil fuels. One headline proclaimed, “McDonnell Pushes Replacing the Gas Tax” while the other declared, “Last Year Was the Hottest on Record in the U.S.,” smashing the previous record.
The world is warming. No one younger than 28 years has lived a month where the world has been cooler than average.
Global warming has costs. There were 11 climate events in the United States last year that each resulted in more than $1 billion damage. This is the second successive year that has had more than three times the yearly average of such costly events.
Sandy has already cost upwards of $80 billion. This is more than the expected annual revenue obtained from the recent congressional tax increase. Deutsche Bank estimates the ongoing U.S. drought, affecting 62 percent of the country, will reduce the GDP by between a half to one full point. Because of this drought, food prices are expected to rise by up to 5 percent.
The costly storm Sandy was not triggered by climate change, but would’ve been vastly different without it. Sea level from Norfolk to Boston is almost a foot higher than a century ago. The higher seas contributed to an unprecedented storm surge. Conservative estimates expect another meter of sea-level rise by the end of the century, which would have profound effects on coastal communities.
Secondly, ocean temperature was 5 degrees warmer than normal for late October. The higher temperature supplied more energy and water vapor to Sandy, swelling it to a 1,000-mile-diameter storm with incredible force.
Thirdly, the reduction in Arctic sea ice lessened the temperature difference between the mid-latitudes and the Arctic. This has slowed the cycle of the jet stream, allowinf Sandy to veer inland instead of being pushed away from the coast into the North Atlantic, as typically happened in the past.
The emission of CO2 has costs. We all pay these costs; whether in the form of clean-up after major storms, in higher food prices caused by droughts, or in the rebuilding and protecting coastal areas inundated by rising seas.
The direct cause of these hardships, CO2, gets a free ride; none of us pays directly for emitting CO2, but we all pay the price. Fossil-fuel companies privatize their profits, but socialize their costs. These companies have huge reserves of fossil fuels as assets, but according to the International Energy Agency’s December report, “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2° C goal.”
If the true cost of CO2 were factored into fossil-fuel prices, then the market place would determine how best to adjust our energy investments. This could be through alternative energy — nuclear, wind, and solar, and/or conservation and efficiency gains.
Gov. McDonnell’s elimination of the gas tax reduces the price of carbon, just as the costs of burning fossil fuels are becoming more apparent, burdensome, and urgent. Instead of cutting gas taxes, the United States can lead the world with a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
Revenues so obtained could be offset in a number of ways, like reducing taxes or as a per-capita rebate to remain revenue neutral. It would spur other countries to conform, as we remain the world’s most powerful economy.
There are certainly other schemes, but all must account for the damage CO2 causes. The sooner we incorporate the vast and increasing economic costs of CO2 into our solutions; the better will be our legacy to future generations.
As with health care, supporting the earth before it becomes irreversibly sick is cheaper than waiting. According to the journal Nature this week, waiting to address climate change by five years increases the costs of adaptation exponentially.
The author of that article, Professor Riahi, said, “With a 20-year delay, you can throw as much money as you have at this problem, and the best outcome you have is a 50-50 chance of keeping temperature rise below 2 degrees (centigrade),” the accepted safe limited. Our planet has no other insurance, and after all, there are no emergency rooms for planets.
Nick Snow is a resident of Millwood.