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The Social Cost of Carbon: A New Advancement in Sustainability


The Earth as an Infinite Resource

A professor of mine in the 1970s once told our class: 'You guys are going to love this characterization: Dilution is the solution to pollution.' We didn't particularly love it, but we lived with it, because that was the way our Spaceship Earth was envisioned in that day: infinite, infinitely abusable, and infinitely resilient.

That lead to industrial processes that worked something like this:

  • Find a resource that could be transformed into something useful and profitable (oil, coal, iron) ...
  • Process the resource into the valued good (fuel, heat, cars) ...
  • Send the valued good to market ...
  • Dispose of the waste generated by the process--burn it, bury it, discharge it into the river, etc.--or just leave it where it lay (black soot, coal ash, toxic landfills, rivers that catch on fire) ...

We still use this process today--when we can get away with it. The 'profitability' aspect still holds great power in political circles. Because of that, we tend to enter into environmental protection with reluctance, knowing that there will be great pushback. If you don't believe there's pushback, just look at any regulation put forth by the EPA and count the number of lawsuits that seek to prevent it.

But consequences of ignoring the disposal of waste are high--and so, over time, we have begun to integrate what could be called a complete life cycle of resource utilization into the industrial process, including proper treatment, reutilization if possible, and safe disposal of waste. The downside: lower profit margins. The upside: no more Love Canals, Kingston Fossil Plants, or Cuyahoga Rivers.

The Sustainability Cycle

Once we began to recognize that the original industrial process wasn't adequate to ensure that we could continue to use and abuse Spaceship Earth, we incorporated more features into the industrial process, so that it now looks more like this:

  • Find a resource that could be transformed into something useful and profitable ...
  • Process the resource into the valued good ...
  • Send the valued good to market ...
  • Capture the process waste and reutilize, transform, or otherwise render innocuous--and only then dispose of it in a safe manner.

The problem with this process is that the waste reutilization and disposal process is envisioned as being only a cost--and to many, still an unnecessary cost.

To overcome this perception, analysts began to work into the formula the cost of doing nothing. There is a cost--air and water pollution damages health and ends lives prematurely, Love Canal and similar destroyed the use of valuable land, etc. This type of cost has remained largely invisible because it's detached from the activity that caused it, either by time or solid proof of cause-and-effect. But these things don't make the connection any less real.

People are dying from the effects of pollution--the utilization of the original industrial model--every day.

And the industrial process pays for those effects all the time--just look at the legal judgements rendered against the companies involved with any of the examples discussed here, or any others that have been featured on the news over the years.

To date, and for many companies and industries, there are two options:

  • Integrate a full-cycle industrial process into the business model.
  • Risk a catastrophic disaster and/or lawsuit and/or government penalty for conducting hazardous business practices that went wrong.

Companies to date have selected both. Sometimes their choices work out, sometimes they don't. Sometimes, the profit margin from utilizing the original business model are so great that they don't care about catastrophic disasters--think the Exxon Valdez and the DeepWater Horizon. But these examples are becoming fewer, because our government oversight is making progress on our behalf, and despite all resistance, progress is being made.

The Social Cost of Carbon

Enter climate change. Climate change is the one impact of the original industrial cycle that has taken the longest to develop, is the most difficult to see in real time or envision in the future, and has the most prominent opposition from deniers and organizations that depend on profits from industrial sources--that we've ever encountered.

Nonetheless, we make progress. The signing of the Paris Agreement is an example. The denial of the permit for the Keystone Pipeline is an example. Fracking bans are an example.

All of these represent initiatives to force the industrial process to acknowledge and accommodate the cost of waste disposal and the risk of catastrophic accidents. So to tie together all of the various themes discussed here, please take a look at this effort by the EPA to assign a cost to the utilization of carbon in the industrial process in a way that captures the cost of risk and the cost of pollution to our society. It's worth the read.

From this, you will be able to envision how we will ultimately correct our processes to a state of full sustainability, and see the benefits from doing that. These benefits can then be integrated into your community mitigation plans that protect your served public, and make you more of a hero than you already are. So go for it.

Randall Cuthbert Dr. Randall Cuthbert is a retired APUS Professor of Emergency & Disaster Management. He has also worked as a Red Cross Shelter Supervisor, and spent a 20-year career as a US Air Force Civil Engineer Officer. His blogging interests include: protecting & enhancing the EDM profession in the areas of integrity, honorable public service, and social justice; education regarding the 'big picture' role of EDM in our society; educating our professionals and neighbors with regard to the greatest threat to our civilization--climate change; and in general terms, creating a better world for our children and grandchildren.