At the G20 conference this week in China, the United States and China both ratified the Paris climate treaty negotiated last December. The two countries are the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the world. Getting them to ratify the agreement now means there is a chance the Paris agreement could take effect by 2017 — three years ahead of schedule.
Paris Climate Change Conference
Don’t call it a carbon tax. Everybody hates the idea of taxes. But unless society addresses the damage done by burning fossil fuels, the world is on a collision course with reality. Cataclysmic changes are in the offing and those changes will impose enormous costs on our global society. Who will pay them?
The bottom line is that the carbon dioxide created when fossil fuels are consumed is accelerating the rise in global average temperatures. Higher temperatures are melting glaciers and polar ice caps, which leads to rising sea levels. Those higher waters threaten most of the world’s major cities. What will be the cost of protecting them from the ravages of sea water? No one knows the answer precisely, but the opening estimates are in the trillions and go up sharply from there. Americans don’t want to pay 25 cents a gallon more for gasoline under the president’s plan to add a carbon fee of $10 a barrel on oil? Imagine how they will scream when New York City asks for $5 trillion to keep the ocean from flooding Wall Street?
Climate change is leading to alterations in global weather patterns that are still not completely understood. But the best guess is that many parts of the world will become much drier than before, making it impossible to grow crops. Other regions will be far wetter, which will also inhibit normal agriculture. Fewer crops means famine and starvation for hundreds of millions of people. Billions may be affected. We just don’t know. What will be the cost of feeding all those people?
Atmospheric pollution is recognized as a leading cause of illness and disease among humans. Who should pay for the medical care all those unhealthy people need? Who will make up the millions of man-hours of lost productivity when workers are home sick instead of contributing to the economy? If food and water become scarce, wars will be fought over declining resources. Would Americans be happy to see the world explode in conflict and pay for endless war rather than have the price of gas go up a quarter? If we are horrified by the Syrian refugee crisis today, expand it by a factor of 10. Are we willing to countenance that for the sake of a few pennies?
The point is, burning fossil fuels has costs. Enormous costs, in fact. But the wealthiest citizens of the world have convinced themselves and convinced us that they should not have to pay the costs associated with their products. They are so brazen as to suggest that doing so puts an unreasonable burden on the capitalist system. Are you buying that?
A new report from MIT entitled “Will We Ever Stop Using Fossil Fuels?” certainly does not. According to Science Codex, it suggests that in the absence of a rational carbon pricing structure, “the world is likely to be awash in fossil fuels for decades and perhaps even centuries to come.” It goes on to find that burning all the available conventional fossil fuel will raise global average temperatures 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100. Burning oil shale and methane hydrates, two more potential sources of copious fossil fuels, would add another 1.5 to 6.2 degrees Fahrenheit to that. “Such scenarios imply difficult-to-imagine change in the planet and dramatic threats to human well-being in many parts of the world,” the report concluded.
President Obama will send a budget to Congress next week that proposes significant investments in clean energy technology. Called the 21st Century Clean Transportation System, the proposal would increase funding for public transportation, help America lower its carbon footprint, and create “hundreds of thousands of good-paying, middle-class jobs each year,” the White House press office says. The major priority of the proposal would be to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, which is responsible for about one third of all emissions in the US. House Republicans have labeled the Obama plan “The Worst Idea Ever.”
How would we pay for all this? The Obama proposal calls for a $10 per barrel fee on oil. According to Quartz, that would raise approximately $180 million a day if applied to all the oil sent to US refineries daily. For motorists, the fee would add about 22 cents to every gallon of gas or diesel. Opponents characterize this as an “oil tax.” Of course, everyone is opposed to taxes. It’s an article of faith in the political world that the surest way to kill an idea is to label it a tax. But it really is a mechanism to level the playing field and force oil companies to help pay for the incalculable harm they have done to billions of human beings and the environment for the past 100 years or more.
The Clean Transportation System
What would the plan do? According to Think Progress, the Obama plan would add money to the Highway Trust Fund to help maintain the nations roads, bridges and tunnels. It would fund clean energy research, add electric charging infrastructure for EVs, and promote the development of autonomous driving solutions. “This proposal, if enacted, would generate substantial and sustainable new revenue to transform our transportation sector and cut carbon pollution,” said Greg Dotson, vice president for energy policy at the Center for American Progress.
Americans waste an average of 7 billion hours a year while stuck in traffic. The plan boosts funding for public transit options, including upgrades to the nation’s railway system. It would add $10 billion per year for state and local governments to to cut carbon pollution, “by encouraging better land use planning, investing in clean vehicle fueling infrastructure or increasing use of public transportation.”
Response to the plan
Not surprisingly, environmental groups applaud the plan. Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune points out that the plan is in line with commitments made by the United States at the Paris climate summit in December. “President Obama laid out more of his vision of how we can meet this agreement by challenging Big Oil’s stranglehold on how America powers its transportation sector,” Briune says.
Also not surprisingly, Congressional Republicans and oil industry executives dismiss the plan as unworkable. Oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens tweeted, “Dumbest idea ever?” House Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement saying the “president should be proposing policies to grow our economy instead of sacrificing it to appease progressive climate activists,” and said it was an “election year distraction” that “this lame-duck president knows” is “dead on arrival in Congress.”
Economic Benefits From Investing In Infrastruture
Let’s examine those claims by Paul Ryan. I am no economist, but I am generally aware that the interstate highway system started in the 50’s and completed in the 60’s has been one of the greatest engines for economic growth in the history of America. According to the website Public Purpose, “It is not an exaggeration, but a simple statement of fact, that the interstate highway system is an engine that has driven 40 years of unprecedented prosperity and positioned the United States to remain the world’s pre-eminent power into the 21st century. [T]he nation as a whole…..has reaped a gain of at least $6 in benefit for each $1 spent in construction. And that’s just the beginning. There are additional benefits such as higher employment rates and greater economic opportunity that are simply beyond quantification.”
This leads me to question just what “policies to grow our economy” Paul Ryan is referring to? Reasonable people may have different ideas about exactly what infrastructure improvements will result in the greatest economic good, but is Ryan suggesting the President’s proposals will have no positive economic benefits? Such a claim seems patently absurd on its face.
What about oil subsidies?
The complaints of Ryan and Pickens conveniently ignore the massive subsidies the oil industry gets from taxpayers in America and around the world every year, a number the International Monetary Fund puts at $5.3 trillion dollars. That figure includes the massive health costs imposed upon society by the emissions resulting from burning fossil fuels.
Those who bemoan the cost of transitioning to a fossil fuel free economy fail to address the costs of not transitioning away from fossil fuels. They seem to believe that we can continue with business as usual for ever and a day and never have to pay the piper. As long as selected individuals can fatten their wallets at the expense of others and continue to buy malleable politicians who will say anything to keep their jobs, we are all at risk from rising sea levels, shrinking agricultural production, hotter temperatures, and poisonous air.
Should I write a letter?
YIP Harburg, the noted songwriter who composed Over The Rainbow, was also the author of a collection of satirical poems entitled Rhymes For The Irreverent. One of them attempts to answer whether writing a letter to a Congressman is a worthwhile endeavor. It goes like this: “Each Congressman has two ends — a sitting and a thinking end. And since his whole career depends upon his seat……why bother, friend?” An excellent question if there ever was one. Perhaps the “dumbest idea ever” is not the President’s Clean Transportation System plan, it is continuing to elect ignorant people like Paul Ryan to Congress.
One of the goals we heard a lot about during the Paris climate change summit this month was transitioning to 100% zero emissions cars by the year 2050. That seems like such a long way off, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s not. Matthew Stevens is an engineer who has writes for FleetCarma. In a recent article, he explains why it takes so long for goals set today to become reality. He says it can take up to 18 years before changes mandated by a regulation that takes effect today get included in 50% of the cars on the road.
The way Stevens explains it, the answer is simple. The average car on the road in America is 11.4 years old. That means it will take almost 6 years to replace half the cars on the road with cars that have the latest and greatest features. Manufacturers take 2 to 3 years to design a new car. After the design is approved, it takes another few years to line up suppliers and make the modifications to assembly lines the new design will require. If the process began today, by the time the new cars were designed, agreements with suppliers made and changes to the factories made, it would be 2019.
But cars don’t all get redesigned at the same time. The typical model is replaced every 5 to 6 years. The first new models would be ready for 2019, but all the cars in a manufacturers portfolio would not incorporate the required changes untio 2025. Add in the 6 years it takes to replace half the cars on the road today and we are suddenly at 2031.
And that assumes all the technology to comply with the regulation is out of the lab and ready for manufacture. When it comes to zero emissions vehicles, the technology is still in its infancy. The upshot is, a child born today will be ready to graduate from high school before a change in vehicle technology mandated today gets built in to half the cars on the road. For the change to affect all cars, add yet another 6 year. Hello, 2037!
All this means that if the world is going to hit its target of 100% zero emissions cars by 2050, it has about 13 years to perfect battery technology and control systems, complete the build out of the electric car charging infrastructure and get the price of ZEV cars down to the point where ordinary drivers can afford to buy them. Does it seem likely or even possible all that can be accomplished in so short a time? Only if we get started right away. The world can’t wait.
Image credit: FleetCarma
Until December 9, 2015, India represented one of the biggest hurdles to an effective global strategy to address climate change. It’s position was simple. It chided all first world countries, saying, in effect, “You got wealthy by burning fossil fuels. Now it’s our turn.” India said it would build a massive new network of coal fired electric generating facilities to power its way to prosperity.
For world leaders, India’s position presented a conundrum. No one can argue that Europe, the United States and other leading economies haven’t pumped trillions of tons of carbon dioxide and other emissions into the atmosphere over the past two centuries. But the atmosphere is now saturated and cannot hold any more. How to show developing nations a way forward without further poisoning the environment?
The solution, of course, is so obvious that even an child can see it. Or it may be more accurate to say that only a child can see it. The answer to India’s need for energy lies in renewables like solar, wind, geothermal and the like. Yesterday in Paris, India’s senior negotiator, Ajay Mathur, abruptly altered his country’s stance, saying India “will cut back its use of coal, if sufficient cash for renewables emerges from a Paris deal. We look forward to an agreement that enables financial support from the countries that have developed on the backs of cheap energy, to those who have to meet their energy with more expensive but low carbon energy,” according to the BBC.
But here’s the rub. Congressional leaders in the US have already gone on record as opposing spending one penny to help other countries. The fact that they are willing to fund unlimited war, regardless of cost, does not bother them in the slightest. Most lack the intellectual fire power to understand that climate change and global warfare are inextricably linked. Warfare to secure access to oil has already cost America many trillions of dollar and will consume metric tons of money in the future if the cycle of violence is not broken. How sad that many of our national leaders are unable to do simple math.
For those who say that supporting other countries in their quest to become fossil fuel free is too expensive, remember that the International Monetary Fund estimates that the nations of the world provide more than 5 trillion dollars a year in direct and indirect incentives to fossil fuel interests every year. That is 5,000 times more money than would be required to help India and other similar countries acquire the resources they need to power their economies in perpetuity from renewable sources.
“We are very clear that solar and wind is our first commitment, hydro and nuclear all of these non-carbon sources are what we will develop to the largest extent we can. What cannot be met by these will be met by coal,” Mr. Mathur says. Now, according to Think Progress, it is time for the world’s leading nations to step up and lend a hand to countries like India. It will cost less money to do so than it will cost to sit idly by and do nothing. It’s a no brainer.
Still, no brainers are beyond the ability of many members of Congress, from Mitch McConnell on down. They would gladly sell their souls to wealthy fossil fuel interests as long as they can continue to hold on to their seats. Many years ago, the man who wrote “Over The Rainbow” published a series of satirical poems entitled “Rhymes For The Irreverent.” His name was Yip Harburg and his wit was razor sharp. When asked whether a friend should write a letter to his Congressman, he penned this ditty: “Each Congressman has two ends — a sitting and a thinking end. And since his whole career depends upon his seat……why bother friend?”