It’s the economy and the environment, stupid

“It’s the economy, stupid” was the signal theme of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 U.S. presidential campaign. A more apt slogan today would be “it’s the economy and the environment, stupid.”

Here’s why. Climate change poses, not only enormous dangers to our natural environment, but also — as if that weren’t enough — equally enormous risks to our economic well-being.

Even staunch free-market fundamentalists agree with this basic idea. In a recent op-ed published in The New York Times, former U.S. treasury secretary — and long-time chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs — Henry Paulson warns that “we must not lose sight of the profound risks of doing nothing” about climate change.

Paulson proceeds to draw an apt analogy between the financial crisis of 2008 and the climate crisis that we’re facing now.

“We are building up excesses (debt in 2008, greenhouse gas emissions that are trapping heat now). Our government policies are flawed (incentivizing us to borrow too much to finance homes then, and encouraging the overuse of carbon-based fuels now). Our experts (financial experts then, climate scientists now) try to understand what they see and model possible futures. And the outsize risks have the potential to be tremendously damaging (to a globalized economy then, and the global climate now).”

What’s at stake? Paulson puts it this way: “The decisions we’re making today — to continue along a path that’s almost entirely carbon-dependent — are locking us in for long-term consequences that we will not be able to change but only adapt to, at enormous cost. To protect New York City from rising seas and storm surges is expected to cost at least $20 billion initially, and eventually far more. And that’s just one coastal city.”

“I’m a businessman,” Paulson concedes, “not a climatologist. But I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with climate scientists and economists who have devoted their careers to this issue. There is virtually no debate among them that the planet is warming and that the burning of fossil fuels is largely responsible.”

So what does Paulson recommend? For starters, a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. According to Paulson, “many respected economists, of all ideological persuasions, support this approach.”

He’s right. As Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman explains, “emissions taxes are the economics 101 solution to pollution problems; every economist I know would start cheering wildly if Congress voted in a clean, across-the-board carbon tax.”

An across-the-board tax on carbon emissions means a tax not undermined by loopholes and exceptions bought and paid for by the fossil fuels industry, the wealthiest, most politically powerful industry in human history.

Now, why is such an across-the-board pollution tax so important? Beyond basic principles like democratic fairness and accountability, that is. Because, as Paulson explains, “renewable energy can outcompete dirty fuels once pollution costs are accounted for.”

Remember this point, if you remember nothing else: Once the fossil fuels industry can no longer externalize the outsize economic costs of extracting and burning fossil fuels onto the rest of us, once the price of carbon accurately reflects and internalizes those costs, renewable energy will beat fossil fuels hands down, both environmentally and economically.

Remember this the next time you hear our prime minister, or any politician for that matter, lip-sync the false choice between economic and environmental well-being.

But also remember this: Now that you know that building a renewable energy infrastructure is not only sound environmental policy, but basic economics as well, you’ve got no excuse for staying silent. It’s not enough — in fact, it’s deeply irresponsible — to know that something is wrong and to not try to do something about it.

So what should you do? The next time you hear a politician run through the same tired lines scripted for them by industry flacks, challenge them head on. Ask them to explain why it makes sense to subsidize the fossil fuels industry at the expense of both the environment and the economy. Tell them your vote depends on them listening to you, not the fossil fuels industry.

Now, to bring home this lesson that environmental protection and economic prosperity are not mutually exclusive interests, see if you can match the following quotes with their authors.

One was said by Bill McKibben, climate activist, author and founder of The other was said by Henry Paulson, former U.S. treasury secretary and CEO of Goldman Sachs.

The first quote: “There is a time for weighing evidence and a time for acting. We need to act now. Climate change is the challenge of our time. Each of us must recognize that the risks are personal.”

The second quote: “No more fine words, no more nifty websites. Hard deeds. Now.”

Answer: It doesn’t matter who said what. They’re both right.

Jason MacLean

Published in the bi-weekly column, Sustainability Matters, The Chronicle-Journal, Thunder Bay, Monday, June 2014