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OPED: A solution to a stalled hurricane of stupid

Jon Clark
Citizens' Climate Lobby
Shredded trees, derailed train cars and a sunken trailer are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Fla., Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Tom Toles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for The Washington Post. He has an amazing talent for explaining government and social policy and has a particular interest in climate change. 

He also writes the Tom Toles blog. In his October blog post “Fighting climate change is too expensive because destroying the planet is cost-free,” he explained the problem with climate change spot on. 

Toles wrote: “Among the many, many ways the United States has failed in its discussion of climate change is the idea that all the costs are on one side of the equation. Putting a higher price on carbon is somehow understood as all cost and no benefit.

"On the other hand, ruining Earth’s climate is somehow understood as all benefit and no cost. The science is no longer in dispute, but the economics are certainly a stalled hurricane of stupid here.

"Aside from destroyed ecosystems and their species, there are huge concrete economic costs to climate change. Right now. And continuously rising. There are many ways to calculate these costs, but to put some kind of number on them, let’s start with $250 billion. Every year. In just the United States.

"Oh. You might not have known that. If Congress were considering a $250 billion tax hike on you, you can be sure you would hear about it. But climate you don’t hear about. It is just there, ticking away like a speeding utility meter, or a time bomb. You end up paying one way or another. Bigly.”

There are many ways to calculate the hidden costs of burning fossil fuels and the numbers vary from economist to economist. Toles cites $250 billion a year. The dollar amount is likely coming from a study from U.C. San Diego which found “while damages accrue primarily to the developing world, the top three counties with the most to lose from climate change are the United States, India and Saudi Arabia — three major world powers.” 

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Arguments can vary as to how much climate change is costing U.S. taxpayers, but one thing we can all agree on — the cost is not zero.  Zero is how much the industry currently pays for those hidden costs.

The hidden costs of our addiction to fossil fuels aren’t limited to the damages resulting from by climate change. There are also hidden subsidies for the fossil fuels industry. 

A new paper from Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), a clean-energy advocacy group composed of retired military and business leaders, put a dollar amount on the cost of protecting oil supplies. 

SAFE found the costs to the U.S. military of defending oil supplies, everything from guarding shipping lanes to maintaining troop commitments in key oil-producing nations, costs taxpayers up to $81 billion a year. 

In contrast, SAFE points out, “According to the calculations of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the cost to the United States of defending the global oil supply is zero. This zero-cost estimate comes from the methodology used by the U.S. government budgets for national defense.” 

Again, the dollar amount can be calculated in different ways, but we can all agree that the dollar amount for protecting global oil supplies is not zero. This is taxpayer money going towards an industry that needs military protection and thrives because of it. I have yet to see a wind farm or a solar array that needed military protection. 

Climate change continues to be the biggest market distortion the world has ever faced. Economists overwhelmingly agree putting a price on carbon pollution will get us out of this “stalled hurricane of stupid.”

On Monday, two American economists won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science for their work highlighting the importance of government policy in fostering sustainable economic growth. William D. Nordhaus was honored for pioneering the assessment of the economic impact of climate change, including his advocacy for governments to tax carbon emissions. Paul M. Romer was honored for his work on the role of policy in encouraging technological innovation.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby has a solution that involves the work of both economists.

Fee and dividend is a solution that puts a price on carbon emissions as a way to encourage technological innovation, reduce the costs of clean, carbon-free sources of energy, and deploy them on a mass scale.  A national carbon fee-and-dividend system would place a predictable, steadily-rising price on carbon and other greenhouse gases, with all fees collected minus administrative costs being returned to households as a monthly energy dividend.

In just 20 years, studies show, such a system could reduce carbon emissions to 50 percent of 1990 levels while adding 2.1 million jobs to the American economy.

George Scott, who is running for Pennsylvania’s 10th House District, supports fee and dividend legislation. He says on his website, “many elected officials have claimed that we must choose between our economy and our environment. This is a false choice.” 

I know of two Nobel Prize economists who would agree.

— Jon Clark is mid-Atlantic regional co-coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby and lives in Lancaster.