Sunday, May 2, 2010

The secondary costs of carbon energy

The destructive and seemingly ever-worsening BP oil spill off the Louisiana coast, a crisis that began with the deaths of 11 rig hands and continues with the release of thousands of barrels of oil per day, is a timely reminder that global warming and ocean acidification are only part of the cost of running an economy on hydrocarbons.

As we weigh the costs of a transition to low-carbon fuels, an up-front cost estimated to be about 1% of the GDP for rapid and deep emissions cuts, it is wrong to assume that the volume of the protests from industry interests is proportional to actual reductions in our apparent wealth.

I say "apparent," because obviously climate change is overwhelmingly likely to make us poorer in the medium- to long-term. The low price of the carbon today is not reflective of the real cost of that carbon to society -- the levels of consumption this artificially low price facilitates are comparable to a shopping spree paid for by maxing out your credit cards. It is an illusory wealth, not true prosperity.

But I had started to say that even the short-term costs are misrepresented by opponents. Capitalism is, by principle, a planless exercise in creative destruction in which old ways of doing things -- and those who invested in the those old ways -- suffer as new better ways of doing things displace them. By fairly pricing carbon, we can accelerate that process for fossil fuels, but regardless of the benefit to society, the people who extract, refine, and sell these fuels will suffer.

There is no getting around that, any more than the tobacco industry could help but suffer a loss of profits as this country, to the great advantage of its health and productivity, undertook measures to reduce smoking. The analogy is a considered one, as the same tactics and many of the same people used to attack the science on the health risks of smoking are now being deployed by the oil industry to obfuscate the scientific consensus of dangerous anthropogenic global warming:

In an effort to deceive the public about the reality of global warming, ExxonMobil has underwritten the most sophisticated and most successful disinformation campaign since the tobacco industry misled the public about the scientific evidence linking smoking to lung cancer and heart disease. As this report documents, the two disinformation campaigns are strikingly similar. ExxonMobil has drawn upon the tactics and even some of the organizations and actors involved in the callous disinformation campaign the tobacco industry waged for 40 years.

From this paper. H/t to DeSmogBlog. (That reminds me, they need to go in the blogroll.)

Reducing emissions will cost certain people a lot of money, but what are the costs and benefits to society at large? The long-term necessity of these changes is relatively undisputed (by credible people (including credible conservatives, anyway.) But there are short-term benefits as well:

1. A reduction in industrial accidents, like the one that started this oil spill, or the recent coal mine disaster that killed 29 miners, or this accident in India in 1965, which killed 300(!) people. Coal mining accidents continue to kill thousands of people each year.

2. A reduction in air pollution, and with it a reduction in reactive airway disease and cancer. The potential benefits are huge. This study found the benefits in air quality alone from reducing carbon emissions to be around $54 a ton. There are unquestionable many megatons of carbon emissions that could be eliminated for less.

3. In addition to the cost in human life, the environmental cost of energy industry disasters in staggering. The Exxon Valdez cleanup alone cost billions. And the costs are not all monetary. As I have often discussed on this blog, environmental stresses have cumulative effects and potentiate one another. Global warming and ocean acidification to not operate in isolation: loss of biodiversity, nitrogen pollution, damage to water tables, damming and logging and, most definitely, damage from oil and coal extraction contribute to the stress on the environment. From the NYT article above:

The questions that haunt this region are how much more can the wetlands take and does their degradation spell doom for an increasingly defenseless southern Louisiana?

Many variables will dictate just how devastating this slick will ultimately be to the ecosystem, including whether it takes days or months to seal the leaking oil well and whether winds keep blowing the oil ashore. But what is terrifying everyone from bird watchers to the state officials charged with rebuilding the natural protections of this coast is that it now seems possible that a massive influx of oil could overwhelm and kill off the grasses that knit the ecosystem together.

Healthy wetlands would have some natural ability to cope with an oil slick, said Denise Reed, interim director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of New Orleans. “The trouble with our marshes is they’re already stressed, they’re already hanging by a fingernail,” she said.

It is possible, she said, that the wetlands’ “tolerance for oil has been compromised.” If so, she said, that could be “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

To an untrained eye, the vast expanses of grass leading into Terrebonne Bay, about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans, look vigorous. Locals use boats as cars here, trawling though the marsh for shrimp or casting for plentiful redfish. Out on the water, the air smells like salt — not oil — and seabirds abound and a dolphin makes a swift appearance.

But it is what is not visible that is scary, said Alexander Kolker, a professor of coastal and wetland science at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Piloting a craft through the inland waterways, he pointed out that islands that recently dotted the bay and are still found on local navigation maps are gone. Also gone are the freshwater alligators that gave the nearby town Cocodrie its name — French settlers thought they were crocodiles.

All evidence, he says, is that this land is quickly settling into the salt ocean.

The survival of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands is not only an environmental issue here. Since successive hurricanes have barreled up from the gulf unimpeded, causing mass devastation and loss of life, just about every resident of southern Louisiana has begun to view wetlands protection as a cause of existential importance. If the wetlands had been more robust when Hurricane Katrina’s waters pushed up from the ocean, the damage might not have been as severe.

But they were not. Levees holding back the Mississippi River have prevented natural land replenishment from floods. Navigation channels and pipeline canals have brought saltwater into fragile freshwater marshes, slowly killing them, and the sloshing of waves in boats’ wakes has eroded natural banks.

Since 1932, the state has lost an area the size of Delaware.

A rare outline of how some of the different stresses feed off each other and end in potentially catastrophic consequences for humans. Oil spills worsening hurricanes. Levees and navigation channels weakening the ecosystem of the marshes, opening the door to untold damage from a spill that seems destined to rival the Exxon Valdez disaster. So it goes.

Human activity is always going to have a footprint. And I am not one to dismiss what that footprint makes possible -- the art and the science, the comforts of everyday life, medicine, travel, music and books (and movies and television and really cool cars.) Precisely because we are not going to turn our backs on civilization, we need to minimize our impact wherever we can.

I seem to have wandered a bit from my topic, but the post has gone on a bit already. In part two, I'll talk about the most-cited benefit of the low-carbon economy -- and why it's a fallacy.

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