It takes a planet: the whole cost accounting of climate change

What if it is true that it would cost less to resolve poverty than it does to sustain it? What if the same was true of the environmental crisis?

Paul Krugman of The New York Times seems to think so. But he is “just” a brilliant economist.

What if the time of God was closer and simpler than we think? “The time,” he always says, “is nigh.” But then, Jesus is “just a messiah.”

So if messiahs and brilliance can’t convince of the ease of repentance, what about my favorite diagnosis of the human condition?

What if we are just plain cheap?

Or so addicted to “King Status Quo” that no amount of AA or Al-Anon or hypnosis can cure us? Both salvation and justice are less expensive than their alternatives, spiritually and materially.

Whole cost accounting takes the whole price into account. It looks long; cheap people look short and can’t see beyond the King’s orders.

In a September column, Krugman examined two studies looking at the real economic costs of addressing climate change. Here’s his conclusion:

“So here’s what you need to know: Climate despair is all wrong. The idea that economic growth and climate action are incompatible may sound hardheaded and realistic, but it’s actually a fuzzy-minded misconception. If we ever get past the special interests and ideology that have blocked action to save the planet, we’ll find that it’s cheaper and easier than almost anyone imagines.”

Likewise, a Stanford study on estimated social costs of climate change seems to agree, finding that the actual social costs are around $220 per ton, or six times more than the value the U.S. has used to guide its energy regulations.

“If the social cost of carbon is higher, many more mitigation measures will pass a cost-benefit analysis. Because carbon emissions are so harmful to society, even costly means of reducing emissions would be worthwhile,” said Delavane Diaz, one of the Stanford researchers.

Apparently, facts have fewer valences than emotion or that thing we call faith. But maybe there’s even a spiritual cost, one attached to our fears about the future that could even be measured. What if there was a tax on every waking hour, a slow-dripping tax called worry? Even if we only worried a quarter of our time, what would the price of that be? Perhaps too expensive to pay?

Given the social and the economic and the spiritual costs of not addressing climate change -- what St. Paul might call the sin of omission rather than commission -- we might make a turn in our road and try to go home “another way.”

An old saying goes, “How do you make a million? Start with $900,000.” Lots of people are hanging on to what they have and bragging about how they are self-made, even though they inherited the car dealership from their parents. Does that accounting pay attention to whole cost accounting? Does it pay attention to what it really costs to have a bridge that gets you to your dealership? 

Actually, the fiction about self-made people does confirm whole cost accounting, it just does so sneakily. The whole cost of owning that dealership and having the metaphor of self-made to surround you is not acknowledged. Likewise, we have not calculated the cost of ignoring climate change on our spiritual, economic or social balance sheets.

Energy and money from the past may have eased your future. They confirm whole cost accounting, which looks long both ways, into the future and the past. When people speak of paying it forward today, it is helpful to acknowledge the bridges on which we stand and which allow us to cross them.

As they say, it takes a village. 

To look at it another way, would you feed your children a diet of candy that would render them obese and sickly just because it’s inexpensive and tastes good? We risk long-term sustainability and security for the sake of short-term comfort and ease.

When we deny the whole cost of things, we get to make-believe that we are getting a bargain. Instead of a bargain, climate hope is a worthwhile deal.

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