Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Hurricane Harvey A Poignant Reminder for Why We Must Decarbonize Economy

The loss of life and property damage from Hurricane Harvey has been a very real human tragedy for those living along the U.S. Gulf Coast.  For the rest of us, the impacts from Harvey have largely been felt at the gas pumps.  With Harvey shutting down almost a quarter of U.S. oil refining capacity and several critical transport pipelines, filling up our cars has suddenly become more expensive.  Here in Sudbury, over 2,500 kilometres from Houston, the price of gasoline has spiked by about 10 cents a litre in just a week and a half (see: “Hurricane Harvey: US petrol prices rise as key pipeline shut,” BBC News, August 31, 2017).

We understand how supply and demand works. What we sometimes forget is that globally our governments are using our taxes to subsidize the fossil fuel sector to the tune of $325 billion annually (see: “World Energy Outlook 2016,” International Energy Agency, November 30, 2016). Further, the price consumers pay at the pump for gasoline does not cover the true costs of carbon pollution – costs like those accumulating thanks to a weather system super-charged by the addition of fossil heat to our atmosphere (see: “With “True Cost” Of Emissions Factored In, Gasoline Would Cost $3.80/Gallon MORE Than The Pump Price,” James Ayre, CleanTechnica, March 8, 2015).  Our broken marketplace is contributing to the climate crisis.

We can’t stop the planet from warming, given all of the carbon pollution that we’ve already put into the atmosphere (see: “Ex-NASA Scientist James Hansen: There is a Clear Link Between Climate Change & Stronger Hurricanes,” Democracy Now! August 30, 2017).  But we can try to slow things down by holding global warming to just 2 degrees Celsius.  That’s what the signatories to the Paris Accord resolved to do – although international commitments made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions still have the world tracking for up to 4 degrees of warming by the end of this century (see: “Earth Almost Certain to Warm by 2 Degrees Celsius,” Scientific American, August 1, 2017). The world our children and grandchildren inherit from us will be one unrecognizable to us.

We know what we have to do to minimize the negative impacts of a warming planet: stop burning fossil fuels.  However, the political will to take aggressive actions to decarbonize our economy is clearly missing.  In Canada, our federal and provincial governments pay lip service to the climate crisis while continuing to champion new fossil fuel infrastructure, like pipelines for expanded tar sands production.  Earlier this year, our own Prime Minister told a group of Texas Oilmen, “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.” (see: “'No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them': Justin Trudeau gets a standing ovation at an energy conference in Texas,” Jeremy Berke, Business Insider, March 10, 2017)  And yet leaving fossil fuels in the ground is what we know we will have to do if we are going to avoid the very worst impacts of climate change – and ultimately save the Texas Gulf Coast from being permanently wiped off the map.

In 2015, scientists, faith leaders, indigenous rights advocates, and social justice and labour movement leaders came together to create the Leap Manifesto – a document that provides a clear and equitable roadmap for societies to confront the climate crisis in a way that reduces wealth inequality, bolsters democratic institutions and ultimately has a positive impact on global economies (see: “The Leap Manifesto,”, 2015).  Ending fossil fuel subsidies and putting a progressive price on carbon pollution are market-based tools recommended by Leap to help aggressively decarbonize the economy.

Economists have long seen the value of ending fossil fuel subsidies and pricing pollution to create a more level marketplace for renewable energy and conservation initiatives (see: “Poor Vic Fedeli,” Dr. David Robinson, Economics for Northern Ontario, January 4, 2017).  Prices have to be high enough to shift consumer choices away from fossil energy.  The public, however, won’t buy into any scheme where all they see are rising prices and no relief (see: “The Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change has its Head in the Sand,” Dr. David Robinson, Economics for Northern Ontario, December 26, 2016).  That’s why carbon pricing initiatives like Ontario’s Cap and Trade program are doomed to fail.  To offset rising prices, revenues collected from fossil energy sales must be returned directly to consumers through a fee and dividend approach to carbon pricing (see:“What Glenn Might Be Saying if He Understood,” Dr. David Robinson, Economics for Northern Ontario, December 3, 2016).

Hurricane Harvey provides us with a poignant reminder of why we need to quickly decarbonize our economy – and shows us how we can use the marketplace to accomplish that very task.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

An edited version of this post originally appeared in the Sudbury Star, as ""May: 'Harvey' reminds us why we must decarbonize," online and in print, September 2, 2017 - without hyperlinks.

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