Sunday, March 11, 2018

Taking a dump in the commons

(I have sent the following to the editor)

Like many, I am disappointed that Oregon’s legislature did not pass a cap and trade bill in its short session that ended on March 3rd. It will be a while, therefore, before we Oregonians figure out how to stop pumping carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.

In discussing emissions, politicians often try to sell the laws they propose as jobs, jobs, jobs. Here in Oregon, the cap and trade bill was floated as the “Clean Energy Jobs Bill.” Politicians take this approach for a good reason—public discussion on emissions is incorrectly framed by climate change deniers as job killers. Hence, the constant repackaging of legislation in this arena as an employment generator.

If a significant percentage of the public and their preferred leaders are not receptive to straight talk about the urgency to limit the emission of CO2 because of the role it plays in climate change, then there is another way to repackage it in a form that will appeal to many—as public health infrastructure.

In order to understand limiting CO2 emissions as an “infrastructure bill” we can learn from recent history. When England, and later the US, started industrializing, cities grew rapidly. People rushed to London, New York, and Philadelphia, in search of jobs and fortunes, and the growth of such population centers was unprecedented. The crowding of people and their close contact with each other made it easy for pathogens to wreak havoc, and life in the city became nasty, brutish, and short.

Two hundred years ago, Londoners were not only in close proximity with each other, they also lacked the piped water supply and sewer systems that we now take for granted. In the absence of protected systems, human feces found their way into fresh water supplies, like wells, and illnesses and death followed. A widely discussed example is the cholera epidemic in London in 1854 that was traced back to a single well where a mother had washed her child’s dirty diapers.

When American cities started growing as important economic centers, the population here, too, experienced health issues. Cities recognized the importance of public health and started investing in protected water supply services. As the Harvard economist Ed Glaeser points out, by the end of the 19th century, municipalities in the US were spending as much on water supply systems as the federal government was spending on everything except the military and postal services. It was a massive public infrastructure investment that wins applause from even contemporary anti-government crusaders.

These public investments in clean water supply and sewer systems separated the bad—the feces—from the good—potable water—and did wonders to decrease the incidence of water-borne diseases like cholera, and contributed to sharp increases in life expectancy. Thanks to our public sewer system, we now use the bathrooms at home and at the office, and don’t worry for a nanosecond about what happens after we flush.

This infrastructure is not for free. We pay monthly bills to our wonderful local utilities that collect all our refuse, process them at large sewage treatment plants, and make our cities livable and beautiful.

We do not want people to treat the banks of the Willamette River as their bathrooms—unlike, for instance, how the poor do in India by the side of lakes and rivers. Yet, we are the same people who have been merrily discharging filthy CO2 waste into the air that all of us breathe! We need an infrastructure plan to address this public dumping.

CO2 is a harmful byproduct of our activities that should not be dumped in the commons. Whether it is the smokestacks in factories, or the tailpipe in the car that I drive, the CO2 that comes out is casually and irresponsibly released into the air. All of us—yes, I, too—should be held accountable for this public dumping, and be required to pay for the needed infrastructure.

However, unlike with human feces, it is not easy to capture CO2 from the air and process it, though scientists and technologists are working on that approach. An easier and simpler approach is to limit our use of carbon in the first place. The less carbon we use, the less CO2 we will produce and, therefore, we will dump less in the commons.

Which is why I suggest that attempts to limit the use of carbon, through taxation, should be an important aspect of public health infrastructure investment for the future, similar to how generations past invested for the betterment of our lives. I hope that our elected officials will decisively act on this in 2019.