Make carbon polluters pay


The Earth’s atmosphere is surprisingly shallow, as this NASA image shows.

The real cost of carbon pollution is paid by everyone. It should be paid by those who sell and burn the carbon. If a factory leaves a toxic residue of chemicals on its abandoned site, the factory owner is liable for cleanup. If someone dumps an old car in the river, he will be charged for recovery and recycling. It’s time that fossil fuel companies take responsibility for their pollution, too.

Spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is a classic case of negative externalities. A common good—the air we breathe—is degraded by someone who escapes without paying for that degradation. This is unfair, and it cannot continue for long, particularly since the consequences of carbon pollution are so serious. As ecologist Barry Commoner explains:

Clearly, we have compiled a record of serious failures in recent technological encounters with the environment. In each case, the new technology was brought into use before the ultimate hazards were known. We have been quick to reap the benefits and slow to comprehend the costs.

For decades, oil companies have not been charged for the CO2 their gasoline left behind, because the hazards seemed small and manageable. And pollution from coal-fired power plants appeared to fly away on the wind, diluted into insignificance by the infinite atmosphere. But as we have learned, the atmosphere is not infinite, and its heat-retaining qualities, so essential for human life, have been magnified by carbon pollution to dangerous levels. The Earth’s thin blanket of air no longer merely keeps us warm; it is smothering us.

What can we do? We can charge the polluters, forcing them to include the real costs of carbon pollution in the oil, gas, and coal they sell and burn. A true market price—an additional $40–100 per ton—will begin to ameliorate the problem. What else? We can stop providing subsidies to fossil fuel companies—and deny them the public funds that help degrade the common good.

We can also stop investing in their dangerous activities. It’s time now to divest from all companies that are carbon polluters. By moving out money to safer, more humane activities, we will highlight their antisocial business plan and begin to reclaim the natural environment that sustains us.

By the way, it makes financial sense to divest too. I turn the podium over to Robert Reich:

As Reich says, there are many petitions asking for divestment. Our petition is addressed to CalPERS and CalSTRS, our California state pension funds, and you can sign it here.