"What do you have to say about global warming to the whole segment of Americans who are just waking up to energy issues with $4.00 per gallon gasoline?"
That question came from an audience member at a workshop on climate change Phil and I presented at last week, and it's the same question that comes up again and again in the news coverage of the blockage last week of the Climate Security Act in the US Senate.
Any economist will tell you that markets only serve us when they include all the costs of a good or service. We find ourselves so close to the edge of climate catastrophe because, for several hundred years, our energy markets have failed us by not charging the costs of preventing climate change or repairing the damage it causes. That may have been understandable in the days before the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and that human greenhouse gas production is its cause. But today, with the world's leading climate scientists telling us that we have already exceeded safe levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, allowing the distorted signals of the energy market to persist is like knowing that tobacco causes lung cancer and dithering about putting warnings on cigarette packages, charging a tax to support public health and education, or banning second-hand smoke.
The CSA act, while not going far enough in its targets to provide safety against the most dangerous impacts of climate change, was a step towards rectifying the distortions of energy prices, because it introduced a cost for the production of climate pollution, and made plans for using some of revenues for supporting the transition to a cleaner energy system. It would have also used some of the revenues to help consumers switch to cleaner energy alternatives.
This cost for greenhouse gas pollution was framed by many Senators – aided by the news media and fueled by a campaign by the oil and coal lobbies – as a tax that would place an added burden on working people already struggling to cope with rising gas and food prices.
According to Senator Mitch McConnell (from the coal producing state of Kentucky): "At a time when the economy is struggling, when the price of gas, food and power bills are skyrocketing, this giant tax would be an unbearable new burden for Americans.”
At its most stark, this way of thinking says: "We've gotten used to the lie our energy markets have being telling us, we've gotten used to the mistaken impression that energy use has little cost, and, frankly, even though we now can see that this has never been true, we can't imagine how we will go on if that distortion is removed."
If we accept this framing without thinking about it, then trying to correct our energy markets to protect ourselves our communities, the ecosystems we depended upon, the agriculture that feeds us, the mountain snow pack that provides irrigation and drinking water starts to feel like a politically impossible task.
The good news is we don't have to accept this framing. If we stop to think about it, stop to push on it, even a little bit, we see that it has deep flaws.
Americans don't need cheap gas and electricity from coal. We need what cheap gas and electricity from coal have come to provide - affordable convenient ways to get to work in the morning, ways to get around our communities, access to food we can afford that is good for our bodies and our children, homes that are comfortable, activities that interest us, use our minds, muscles, and hearts and make a difference.
Americans are burdened by the rising cost of fossil energy not because of some immutable human need for fossil energy, but because we haven't yet created the shared infrastructure that will allow us to meet our primary needs without fossil fuels. We are burdened not so much by a gasoline price crisis as by a forethought crisis. The only way to make up for this lack of planning in the past is to do what could have been gradually over decades much more quickly now.
Oil supplies are dwindling, but reserves of coal, tar sands, and oil shale are vast. There is more than enough carbon dioxide locked up within these reserves to send our Earth into a period of irreversible warming, should we, in our race to meet our 'needs' dig up and burn those reserves. With so much at stake, we can't allow the voice of the oil and coal lobbies to tell us what our needs our.
Yes we need to get to work and put food on the table. AND, to have jobs to get to and a farming system to grow that food we need a stable climate.
These needs intersect in one place: the creation of a shared, clean, renewable energy infrastructure.
At this intersection advocates for climate protection and people hurting from $4.00 gas are, in fact allies, not the opponents McConnell and the coal lobby would have them be. By calling for affordable ways for people to get to work without depleting their bank accounts or the resiliency of the climate, by staying oriented to the common cause that can be found when we orient towards our true needs, perhaps we can find the power to repair the disorted incentives of our energy system while there is still time.