By Jacob Derin
A recent study found massive air pollution on the New York subway. New Yorkers have been breathing in dangerous toxins daily without even knowing it. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve been experiencing another, gradual sickness of the Earth.
Scientists have been sounding the alarm about human-caused climate change for years. Last year, the United States experienced a frightening series of natural disasters, from hurricanes to fires. The consequences of our inaction on this front are no longer an abstract potentiality. They are here.
As frightening as these scenes are, they’re small potatoes compared to what could be in store for us in the next few decades. The fires won’t go out. The flooding will no longer be restricted to a relatively unpleasant “season.” In the extreme, these catastrophes could constitute an extinction-level event for humanity.
We don’t have to sit back and watch it happen, though.
Most of the proposals on the table for dealing with climate change face strong opposition from right-wingers who charge them with alarmism and economic irresponsibility.
I think we can safely take the first objection off the table. The science on this issue is clear — we’re staring into the abyss. It’s a question of when we’re going to suffer the consequences, not if.
The economic consequences of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions aren’t trivial, however. We still live in an economy built on fossil fuels. We rely on it for transportation, power and in an increasingly digital world (particularly during the coronavirus pandemic), electricity is no longer a luxury.
Of course, the consequences of not mitigating the effects of climate change would be far worse.
Ideally, we wouldn’t have to choose between saving the planet on the one hand and saving our economy on the other.
The best way to avoid that choice is to invest in “green” alternatives to fossil fuel, and the best way to invest in them is to fund research on how to make them more efficient.
Corporations are usually the bad guys in these conversations, and to be sure, they don’t have a great history of environmentalism. But corporations are essentially profit-maximizing machines; thus, they make the choices that they think are most profitable. Fossil fuels are still cheaper than their green alternatives.
As soon as that changes, however, they’ll embrace the new technology.
We need to make a case to businesses that doing this is in their interests. It will be much easier to do this if there’s some credibility to the assertion that green energy will become more affordable and efficient over time. That’s where the majority of our investments in this area should be.
In the long run, climate change is good for no one, not even those who contributed to it in the first place. Short term profit maximization can’t be pursued at the expense of profit maximization in the long run––that would be self-defeating.
Even still, these arguments are unlikely to sway the biggest and most profitable businesses, which will need to invest significant capital now to make this shift. In economics, we call this the effect of an externality. Sometimes, society at large suffers negative consequences that the market won’t punish a business for.
That’s where the state has to come in and impose its own penalties or mitigate individual costs.
Hopefully, some combination of these arguments and those consequences can stop the environmental disaster before it’s too late.
Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.
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