THE BLOG
06/06/2014 09:09 am ET Updated Aug 06, 2014

It's About Time, Again

Co-written by Bill Russell

I called my first big TV series back in the '70s, It's About Time! On Monday, that phrase leapt to mind as I read that President Obama is serious about curbing carbon pollution. I almost certainly would not have environmentally-induced asthma if any President after Jimmy Carter and before Barack Obama had chosen to act this wisely and courageously.

About the time I was getting started in television, Congress -- with strong bipartisan supported -- passed major amendments to the Clean Air Act which President Obama and the EPA are now committed to enforcing ... forty years later. So I'm elated that our much and oft maligned "government" is finally coming to everyone's defense.

For those who judge their financial interests or ideological blindness to be more reliable than evidence, American energy policy has been a success. For the rest of us, it has been clear for decades that the policy is an abject failure. There are (and have been) three compelling reasons to replace fossil fuels: 1) health, 2) climate change and 3) economics. Any of the three, taken alone, is sufficient to require rapidly phasing out fossil fuels including, specifically, one of the nastier such fuels: coal.

Health
Coal kills. Q.E.D.

In 2008 the World Health Organization estimated that coal particulate pollution resulted in 1,000,000 premature deaths worldwide.

The toxic outputs of burning coal are extensive. The health-related consequence of burning coal are only part of the problem. Producing the coal also has many negative health consequences from black lung disease (yes, after all these years people are still dying from it) to contaminated water.

And, to be clear, "premature deaths" is what happened to 2606 people in New York's World Trade Center in September of 2001. That number, over which we've fought two wars, destabilized large areas of the Middle East, expended tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, is less than 11% of the "premature deaths" caused in 2004 in the United States by the burning of coal. Nine times more people were killed in that year by coal burning power plants than were killed by Al Qaeda terrorists. Fortunately, that number is declining. Why? Because of strengthened federal and state regulation.

Climate Change
"Coal contributed over 78 percent of the total carbon dioxide emissions by electric power plants, but generated less than half (48.6%) of all the electricity generated by U.S. power plants in 2007." (ref.) Energy requirements for extraction and transportation add to the total CO2 footprint of coal. Coal generates a disproportionate share of greenhouse gases. If you are a paid-up member of the flat earth society and think that humans are not major contributors to climate change, you're not reading this.

Economics
The fossil fuel industry has for more than a century proved adept at keeping unnatural portions of their income and externalizing much of their cost. They have done this via the time-honored American tradition of subverting the political process, AKA, the will of the people. Though an extreme case, the Kochs are very much in this tradition. As much of their wealth and, thereby, power (thanks to five people sitting on the United States Supreme Court) derives from fossil fuels, it is fore-ordained that the Koch sock-puppets, formally known as the Republican Party, are in full-frontal outrage, high dudgeon and mouth-frothingness over President Obama's decision to mitigate the damage being caused by coal. Or, they would be if they had any remotely plausible objection. The banality of the reflexive responses to this point may, we hope, mark a de facto signal of the economic and political waning of the fossil fuel cabal (or, perhaps, just the coal club).

Still, there is the matter of money. Researchers at Harvard University tried to quantify what those externalities are worth. Their figure: $345,000,000,000.

That's three hundred and forty-five billion dollars each and every year that the companies which produce and sell the coal don't pay. The coal-burning utilities don't pay, either. You and I pay. And pay. And pay.

For $345B per year, you and I get disease, death and electricity. There are better, healthier, more environmentally sustainable and economically viable ways to get the electricity we need. As Stanford University's president pointed out when announcing its divestiture of coal-related business from the university's portfolio: "coal is one of the most carbon-intensive methods of energy generation and other sources can be readily substituted for it."

Had we started to phase in a carbon tax in 1973 as a long-term response to the first OPEC oil embargo, this discussion would not be necessary. Indeed, it would seem absurd. For those who believe in the divinity of markets, a carbon tax is the only plausible market-based solution to the externalization of fossil fuels' costs. For the rest of us it is a useful tool to begin to fix much of what ails us.

John Kenneth Galbraith said that "The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable."

The long-term economic consequence of global climate change are, for all practical purposes (except the inducement of stark terror), incalculable. The cost of abandoning New York City and rebuilding it on higher ground cannot be reliably predicted. Add all the other American cities and towns with their ankles already in the water, and the bill becomes ... unmanageable. The good news is that relocation and construction costs will provide a mighty boost to GDP. Alas, paying for the move will turn today's national debt into a rounding error. As the rest of the world will be trying to cope with similar disruptions, none are likely to step forward with the loans needed to fund our efforts at adaptation. No doubt Wall Street, as it is being evacuated, will create some sort of incomprehensible financial instrument which will further ensnare us in terminal debt. This will give the phrase "drowning in debt" new cachet.

However, if you don't give a damn about the future and, thereby, have a discount rate which is functionally infinite, YOU DON'T CARE.

For the rest of us, this prospect is very unpleasant. Indeed, it is so unpleasant that we should actually do something about it. It's About Time.

Indeed, It's About Time that we acted to save millions of lives and billions of dollars. In fact, it is well past time. The greedy and their ideological pawns will whine and raise the usual objections ("not necessary" and "costs too much") to saving lives, restoring health and salvaging the Earth. They are wrong. For their own selfish reasons, they have been manifestly wrong for decades. Finally our government is acting in the peoples' interest (arguably the EPA will now be doing a better job of defending the genuine interests of the American people than the Department of Defense). What Obama is doing is nowhere near enough, but it is a start (a re-start, actually) which will begin to reverse the processes by which we are killing ourselves along with our nearest and dearest.

Finally, the greedy-with-accompanying-marionettes will tell us (if they stop their blatant lying) that, while the death and maiming and pauperization of millions of people and the extinction of 75% of Earth's species is regrettable, we really have no choice. This is and has always been, self-serving crap, the rhetoric of the benighted .01%.

We do have a choice. Starting now. Again.

As E.O. Wilson said to us years ago, "When our children find out what we've done to them, they're going to be peeved."