How Much is the Environment Worth to You?

© Josh Sager

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When debating whether or not to pass legislation aimed at stopping global climate change, those who reject climate protection legislation usually use one of two arguments:

A Denial of Climate Science: A significant percentage of anti-climate change individuals simply don’t believe that climate science is real. These people reject the very existence of climate change, thus they don’t believe that any action needs to be taken to protect the climate.

Put plainly, climate change is real, imminent, and potentially very harmful to humanity. The scientific community has reached a consensus on this fact and only a very small contingent of scientists reject the reality of climate change—oftentimes, these scientists are working for polluting industries and have a financial incentive to remain ignorant. A rejection of climate science is just not rational and cannot be considered a serious position on public policy. This article is not arguing the existence of climate change (if you reject the reality of climate change, I suggest that you stop reading now and direct your attention towards one of the numerous studies proving its existence) but is looking at the primary argument used by people who believe in climate change yet refuse to act to stop it.

An Assertion that Environmental Protection is too Economically Costly: Those who acknowledge climate change but reject reform usually argue that the potential economic disruption of climate protecting legislation overshadows the potential effects of climate change.

To those who make this argument, I have only one question: “How much money is the health of our environment worth to you?”

It is certainly true that an economy unencumbered by environmental regulations would be able to make large short-term profits. Lax regulations on dirty energy use and pollution lead to decreased costs on production for many corporations (ex. production costs less when carbon emissions are not regulated because there is no need for producers to take expensive measures to curb air pollution) and allows for increased profits. Increased profits can lead to increased employment when corporations expand but—particularly in the current economic climate of hugely inequitable wages—many times it simply leads to increased personal wealth for top executives/owners.

Unfortunately, the long-term effects of unregulated production have dire consequences to humanity that far overshadow the short-term gains. The effects of global climate change will have unprecedented and highly damaging effects on humanity at a global scale:

  • Sea Level Rise: Climate change will lead to massive flooding as the polar ice caps melt into the world’s oceans. This flooding will destroy cities (ex. New Orleans) and will reduce the available space for human habitation.
  • Extreme Weather: Larger and more powerful storms will begin to form in many parts of the world as the atmosphere becomes warmer and wetter. In addition to storms, many areas will begin to experience droughts and wildfires (ex. Texas 2012) as others will experience aberrant weather patterns (ex. large tornado outbreaks).

When looking at the potential gains for industry when climate protection regulations are blocked, those who oppose climate protection legislation fail to take into account the costs of future events; they simply look at the short-term gains to corporate interests while ignoring the future costs to society when dealing with the consequences of climate change.

In essence, this argument supports allowing private entities to make huge profits in the short-term at the expense of huge societal costs in the long-term. Private individuals will take their profits now, while leaving every human—present and future—to experience the environmental costs of their actions. This distribution of costs/profits is simply not fair and should not even be considered by serious politicians.

The extreme weather occurrences which are fueled by global climate change—powerful storms, floods and droughts—will cost our country billions of dollars a year in repairs and human injuries. To put this into perspective, Hurricane Sandy alone cost our country approximately $60 billion dollars in damages. As global climate worsens, such powerful storms will increase in frequency and every human on earth will have to shoulder the costs.

Once the damage to our climate has been done, there is no way to change it and we will be forced to deal with the consequences of our inaction for centuries. Even those who stand to gain immense fortunes in the short-term will suffer as their environment slowly becomes more volatile. After all, there is no real purpose to making money when you leave your descendants without a habitable planet.

When thinking about climate change, I would like everybody to think about the distribution of costs that is being enforced by our inaction. We are letting the short-term profits for a few private individuals blind us to the incoming societal costs that we will all have to shoulder. There is no justification for allowing industry to destroy our planet’s climate and inflict the consequences of climate change on us and our children.

How much money is the planet worth to you? This is like asking “how much money is your life worth” in that no possible short-term gain could justify the eventual costs. If we let a small group of people (or even our entire generation) ruin the planet for future generations, we will be remembered as the generation that let greed blind us to reality; we will have failed and it will be every human to be born in the future who will pay for our mistake.

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