Stan Holmes and David Bennett: Who should pay the costs of climate change?

We should move from fossil fuel subsidies to fossil fuel accountability.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Low water levels at Bullfrog resort, on Sunday, May 16, 2021.

Hardly a week goes by without news of another record-breaking weather event, unfolding climate catastrophe, or “take action now” warning from the scientific community.

Occasionally, there’s a price tag attached. Hurricane Katrina cost $125 billion (and 1,800 deaths). Wildfire suppression that cost federal agencies $2.2 billion in 2020 cost Utah $60 million. Saving the Great Salt Lake with water piped from the Pacific Ocean could cost upwards of $100 billion.

There’s little doubt that climate change-related damages mean big bucks. But how much? Who’s paying for it? And perhaps as importantly, who should pay?

First let’s identify some of the damages associated with climate change that, according to the global scientific consensus, is caused in large part by burning fossil fuels. In its 1989 resource plan, Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company PacifiCorp tried to identify the range of impacts from its carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emitting facilities.

The electric utility, which still operates coal-fired power plants in Utah, drafted a “partial” list of more than 30 potential “externalities.” It defined these external costs as impacts of its operations “that may be imposed on society at large and not borne directly by the Company [PacifiCorp] or its customers.” Those impacts included ozone effects, crop yield effects, effects on visibility and property values, displacement of people and wildlife, surface water impacts and effects of heat pollution.

Thirty-three years later, the real-world list of climate change/global warming costs has grown substantially to include “natural” disaster recovery efforts, extended and intensified wildfire seasons, adverse public health and related economic costs, megadroughts in some areas, coastal flooding in others, and more.

Close to home, a 2020 Brigham Young University-led team of researchers estimated that climate change-related air pollution could cost Utah’s economy up to $3.3 billion annually while causing up to 8,000 premature deaths and lowering life expectancy up to 3.6 years.

What can be done to address climate change threats and damages at the local level?

Salt Lake County’s Climate Adaptation Plan for Public Health proposes actions that include heat wave cooling centers, better air pollution tracking, toxic water and new disease monitors, provisions for especially vulnerable populations and health impact assessments for new projects — the inland port, for example.

All of this cost’s money. So, who’s paying for climate change-related damages and mitigation measures now? Taxpayers, to be sure. When state and federal agencies provide relief to climate casualties —individuals and communities — the taxpaying public picks up the tab. Increasingly so as insurance companies stop offering coverage for floods and wildfires.

Preparedness is pricey. Salt Lake County’s climate plan remains largely unfunded. Too expensive. The Inflation Reduction Act might provide federal dollars; but, again, taxpayers either foot the bill now or pass more debt to future generations.

Then there are costs of the growing number of Utah children and adults with asthma. Costs that include missed school days, parent work days and uncompensated medical bills. Even with all this happening, BYU researchers found that state legislators were unaware, with “an almost complete absence of quantitative health and economic cost estimates” shaping policy.

Ultimately, we come to a crucial question: Who should be covering the costs of climate change? The fossil fuel industry that produces greenhouse gas emissions to provide dirty energy? Consumers of that energy who heat and cool homes and offices, drive gas- and electric-powered vehicles and subsidize the carbon combustion industry with every utility bill?

Legislators and agency officials beholden to fossil fuel interests?

Fortunately, there are individuals and groups who’ve found innovative ways to deal with the situation. The Citizens Climate Lobby, for example, proposes a carbon fee on fossil fuel use across the economy, with proceeds distributed as dividends nationwide.

Others see the “user pays” principle applied to utility rates, so that health, economic and environmental costs are embedded in monthly bills rather than passed on for the general public to pay. We are reminded that what utilities consider “cost effective” doesn’t always serve the public interest.

Shifting the current energy model from fossil fuel subsidies to fossil fuel accountability gets to the core of solving the climate change challenge. Think about the ways that every Utahn can be part of the solution.

David Bennett

David Bennett is a retired criminal justice consultant living in Park City.

Stan Holmes

Stan Holmes is a retired educator living in Salt Lake City.

Both represent the all-volunteer Utah Citizens Advocating Renewable Energy.