Not Harming by Not Externalizing CostsWith Special Reference to the Climate Crisis

Not Harming by Not Externalizing CostsWith Special Reference to the Climate Crisis


Externalized Costs in the Climate Crisis

Now I’d like to talk about an obvious example of externalized costs – the climate crisis. 

One aspect of it is that petrochemical companies and their economic and political allies have made and are making and will make enormous profits from fossil fuels – whose costs include over a hundred million tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses poured into the sky each day. 

There are uncertainties about the exact pace of the consequences – and some use those uncertainties to sow doubt and muddy the water. But the fundamental physics of adding greenhouse gasses is indisputable: there has been and will be an inexorable and inevitable heating of our planet. 

The near-universal scientific consensus is that humanity’s current behavior will produce “only” an average increase of about 5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, and with additional warming in the century after that. 

Inexorably and inevitably, this will lead to vast harms to the weather, food supplies, sea level rise, mass species extinctions, famine, climate refugees, war, and worse. 

These harms are already beginning to happen, but the business executives and politicians who are reaping the benefits of petroleum can avoid these costs in their air-conditioned homes and business suites. They can move to higher ground or cooler regions. The current costs are already being externalized.

Further, the really intense harms to come will not be faced or felt by almost everyone supporting fossil fuels today. They are being externalized into the future for many generations: for our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and beyond for the next hundreds if not thousands of years.

One of the most basic things we teach our children is to manage their own excrement. Basically: don’t poop in the street. Whether from petrochemicals or other sources such as factory farming, greenhouse gasses are like pouring excrement up into the sky, with consequences inevitably raining down upon billions of people these days and for centuries to come – particularly upon the most impoverished and vulnerable of our fellow humans. 

We can take individual actions to reduce our personal carbon footprint. You’re undoubtedly familiar with many of these such as walking instead of driving, shifting toward electric vehicles, getting solar power, eating less beef, and purchasing carbon offsets. We can hold these actions not as guilt-driven shoulds but as forms of sila, forms of virtuous conduct that we undertake as trainings, as ways to reduce suffering and foster suffering for ourselves and others.

In addition to individual efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses, there remain huge industrial, agricultural, and political forces to address as well. As we contemplate our intentions for this new year, a very powerful and far-reaching way to reduce harms and practice virtuous conduct is to push for the policies and laws that will draw down – as Paul Hawken outlines it in his marvelous book of that title – and reverse the forces driving global warming.