Since Al Gore ran for president in 2000, environmentalism has become a more entrenched political talking point than ever, and rightly so. At this point, it’s beyond debate that the climate is being negatively affected by human industrial activity, and something will need to change in the next several decades for the damage to be reversible.
However, the means through which we attack this problem are important to consider, as there is little diversity in the ideas proposed by mainstream politicians.
Most conservative politicians sideline this issue entirely, often denying the existence of climate change as a whole or simply claim it is not caused by human industry, but their liberal opponents often propose that the government must impose environmental regulation through expansion of the EPA. I see these options as denial of a pressing issue versus a completely ineffective and dangerous response. I hope here to provide an alternative proposal on how to respond to the crisis of climate change while adhering to libertarian principles.
First, it’s important to discuss the efficacy of the regulatory agencies which enforce our nation’s current environmental regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces policies relating to private sector entities drafted by the administrator, an office equivalent to Cabinet rank.
The restrictions placed on these corporations involve requiring said corporations to go through certain tests and certifications before undergoing some action, such as ensuring an auto company makes cars that emit less than a certain limit of carbon dioxide.
The main problem with this system is that since large industrial corporations have lots of market power compared to small firms, and are capable of lobbying the government to change unfavorable policy on pain of market shutdown, these policies often do little to reign in polluting activities regardless of the rhetoric of the president who appointed the EPA administrator.
This usually leads to regulations with loopholes that benefit the corporations which pollute the most while preventing smaller firms from participating at an optimal level. Intended as an agency to prevent climate damage, the EPA essentially acts as an extension of corporate will, rigging the game in their favor.
For example, BP, infamous for the oil rig explosion which took 25 lives and poured 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, was responsible for 97 percent of all safety and environmental violations between 2007 and 2010.
They paid $373 million in fines during this time period, pennies for a company of their size. By being able to get off of safety regulations with small fines, they didn’t bother fixing the many issues of Deepwater Horizon’s engineering, which resulted in the historic spill.
However, even considering BP, the largest polluter in the entire world is actually… the U.S. government. Operating in 500,000 buildings with 600,000 vehicles, the federal government’s carbon footprint reaches upwards 120 million metric tons of CO2 per year.
State and local governments are also very high on the list. Ironically, the largest polluter in the world has exacted tens of millions of dollars in environmental fines from all of the state governments, and the state governments take millions from the local governments just the same. It’s a weird cycle of enormous polluters fining smaller polluters for polluting.
However, no regulations proposed in the past nor any on the table now seek to reign in the massive pollution caused by the government.
What legislation could actually reduce our carbon footprint? For one, over one third of the U.S. government’s pollution is attributed just to the Department of Defense. Although this is a separate issue, ending our involvement in foreign conflict, coupled with the massive amount of gasoline burned to transport thousands of soldiers, all of their equipment, enormous aircraft carriers, tanks, etc., would have a significant reduction in our carbon footprint.
In addition, one of the most popular actions proposed by progressives and libertarians is the carbon tax. A tax on greenhouse gas emissions, while not placing a strict limit on pollution that can be avoided by large corporations, would require all polluters to pay a tax on each unit of CO2 emitted.
By making this a flat rate unavoidable by any polluter, corporations would have to devote more resources to covering the costs of their polluting actions; they would be pressured to pollute less to reduce their costs. Having the federal government factor this tax into the costs of other government agencies would also reduce their capacity to pollute at the level they currently do.
Environmental insurance policies would also be effective in maintaining green practices in the private sector. As mentioned earlier, BP was forced to only pay $373 million in EPA fines for an oil spill which cost $54 billion to clean up (although they did pay nearly $19 billion to settle other federal and state claims).
This spill, which was caused by avoiding safety regulations and paying tiny fines, could be avoided if instead BP were required to purchase environmental insurance. If BP were forced to purchase a $10 billion insurance policy, the insurance company would make sure BP weren’t pinching pennies when it came to the integrity of their machinery, or they would invalidate their insurance.
This system would also prevent large corporations from avoiding the regulations made to reign them in, since they would be forced to deal with private entities which are invested in getting money out of the corporation and avoiding having to pay for damages, like an entire gulf being filled with oil for example.
It would be dangerous to ignore the issue of our rapidly degrading climate entirely, but equally dangerous is our nation’s tendency to try the same policies over and over again after repeated failure.
Our current system is one that rewards the largest polluters at our expense, ignores the role of government, especially the military, in pollution, and fails to make any meaningful change or progress. If we’re to fix this pressing issue, we will need to take both a staunch support of science and an open mind to abandon the failed policies of the past.
Alexander Habbart is a second-year student majoring in economics, math and finance. He can be reached at AH855514@wcupa.edu.