What would the price of gas be if it accounted for the environmental and health costs of burning it?


The average cost of a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. right now is $2.47. If that cost took into account the environmental and human health costs of burning the gasoline, however, it would more than double, according to a new study.

The study, published this week in the journal Climatic Change, created models for the “social cost of atmospheric release,” a method of determining the costs of emissions beyond their market value. According to the study, accounting for the social costs of burning gasoline would add an average of $3.80 per gallon to the pump price, raising the price to $6.27. Diesel has an even higher social cost of $4.80 per gallon.

The study also measured the social costs of other fossil fuels not used at the pump. Coal, for example, would jump from 10 cents per kilowatt hour to 42 cents per kilowatt hour, the study found. And natural gas, which has emerged in recent years as a cheap source of fuel, would see its price rise from 7 cents per kWh to 17 cents per kWh.

In all, according to the study, the environmental costs of producing electricity in the U.S. total $330-970 billion every year.

The costs of coal and natural gas increase when environmental and health-related damages are factored in.

The costs of coal and natural gas increase when environmental and health-related damages are factored in.

CREDIT: Shindell/Climatic Change

Right now, the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies use the Social Cost of Carbon to measure the monetary impact of carbon emissions on human health and the environment. But there is no similar measure for fossil fuels in general.

Drew Shindell, professor of climate sciences at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and author of the study, told ThinkProgress that he was interested in putting a price on the health and environmental impacts of pollutants other than carbon because he wasn’t satisfied with the current methods available for comparing sources of energy. People would discuss whether natural gas was more environmentally-friendly than coal, and come to a conclusion using metrics that only took into account the energy source’s global warming potential. But that ignored the fact that burning coal produces copious amounts of other air pollutants besides CO2, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates, and that natural gas produces air pollutants too, though to a lesser extent.

So Shindell worked to develop a way that would take both climate considerations and health and environmental considerations into account when looking at different forms of energy.

“I wanted to do something that would treat both air quality and climate consistently,” he said. “It’s easy to get misleading answers on what’s better for society when you’re only looking at a portion of puzzle.”

Multiple studies have confirmed air pollution’s toll on human health. A study last month found that air pollution in India is cutting three years off the lives of some of the country’s residents, and a more wide-reaching report from the World Health Organization last year found that air pollution is responsible for seven million deaths around the world every year. Shindell said he knew about air pollution’s effect on health, but he was still surprised at just how high the social cost of burning fossil fuels was, according to the study.

And even those costs, he said, are on the conservative side, because the study only included damages that he had enough data on, such as pollution’s ability to contribute to early death, or to send people to the hospital. There are plenty of other impacts — such as air pollution’s impact on children’s IQ, or ocean acidification’s impact on coral reefs — that are difficult to put a price on, and therefore weren’t included in the study.

Ideally, Shindell said he’d like to see this data get worked into the economic market. It might be hard to get places that already have an established carbon market, such as the European Union, to change their pricing to incorporate the social cost of pollutants other than carbon, but Shindell said he thinks there’s more of a chance that states and countries that haven’t yet put a price on carbon could consider his data when determining that price. For countries like India and China that contribute heavily to climate change and have a considerable amount of air pollution, he said, factoring in these social costs makes a lot of sense.

Shindell said incorporating the social costs of pollutants other than carbon into government decisions would help the government get a better picture of each fossil fuel’s true impact, but he’s also hoping that the data can be transformed into a tool Americans can use to determine the costs of their day-to-day activities. Even if the data doesn’t make its way into carbon markets, he said, finding a way to make it “as widely accessible as possible” to the average person would still be beneficial.

Is the environment a moral cause?

moralenvcausePALO ALTO, Calif. — ACCORDING to a recent poll, a large majority of Americans, and roughly half of Republicans, say they support governmental action to address global warming. The poll, conducted by The New York Times, Stanford and the research organization Resources for the Future, stands in stark contrast to the vast partisan gulf in political efforts to address climate change. How could it be that so many Republicans view global warming as a problem, but so few on the right are pressuring the government to take action to address it?

A paper that Matthew Feinberg, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, and I published in the journal Psychological Science in 2013 suggests one answer to this puzzle: While the number of Republicans who say global warming is a serious problem has reached high levels, there remains a very large gap in moral engagement with the issue. We found that conservatives were less likely than liberals to describe pro-environmental efforts in moral terms, or to pass moral judgment on someone who behaved in an environmentally unfriendly way, for example by not recycling. Where liberals view environmental issues as matters of right and wrong, conservatives generally do not.

But why does this moral gap matter if most people now believe that global warming is a real threat? Other research has shown that people are generally reluctant to undertake costly political actions, even for a cause they think will be beneficial. After all, there are so many worthy causes competing for our time, effort and resources, and we can’t contribute to every one.

People think quite differently, however, when they are morally engaged with an issue. In such cases people are more likely to eschew a sober cost-benefit analysis, opting instead to take action because it is the right thing to do. Put simply, we’re more likely to contribute to a cause when we feel ethically compelled to.

Still, why do liberals moralize environmental issues, while conservatives do not? The answer is complex, owing in part to the specific history of the American environmental movement. A quick review of that history reveals that, while the environment has been politically polarizing since the 1960s, there is nothing inevitably liberal about environmental concern. After all, it was a Republican president, Richard M. Nixon, who founded the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Our research points to a different factor in the moralization gap: the terms in which these issues are commonly discussed in the media. We enlisted a team of research assistants to code the moral content of 51 environmental public service announcements and 402 opinion articles appearing in major American newspapers. The arguments found in these messages most often discussed environmental issues like climate change in terms of the need to protect people and ecosystems from harm and destruction. Protection from harm is a moral concern that, past research finds, resonates significantly more with American liberals than conservatives. By contrast, moral concerns more unique to conservatives like patriotism, respect for authority, sanctity or purity rarely appeared in the environmental appeals we studied.

It is unclear if moral rhetoric around the environment takes the form it does because it’s an intuitive fit (even the relatively conservative Mr. Nixon called it the Environmental Protection Agency), or because it is liberals who most often fashion environmental appeals. Regardless, we should not be surprised to find underlying moral polarization on issues discussed primarily in liberal moral terms.

But this research also suggests an intriguing possibility: that pro-environmental messages specifically targeting conservative values could close the moral gap and persuade conservatives to join the environmental cause.

To assess this, we conducted a final study in which we constructed a pro-environmental message based in moral purity. This message emphasized the need to protect natural habitats from “desecration” so that our children can experience the “uncontaminated purity and value of nature.” We presented one group of self-identified conservatives with this message, another group with a more conventional message emphasizing the need to protect ecosystems from harm, and a third group with a neutral essay that didn’t mention the environment. The conservatives presented with the purity message reported significantly greater support for pro-environmental legislation than the other two groups — indeed, they were as supportive as a group of liberals we also surveyed. Conservatives who read the moral purity message even reported greater belief in global warming, though the message itself didn’t mention global warming, only environmental issues in general.

To win over more of the public, environmentalists must look beyond the arguments that they themselves have found convincing. The next wave of moral arguments for environmental reform will need to look very different from the last, if they are to be maximally effective. Such efforts to understand others’ moral perspectives might not only bring both sides in line on this important issue, but also foster the sort of sincerity and respect necessary to sustain a large-scale collective effort.

Climate Change is a Greater Threat than Terrorism

In an interview with Vox this week, President Barack Obama said the media “absolutely” overstates the risk of terrorism, when climate change and epidemics affect far more people. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest elaborated on Obama’s remarks on Tuesday, saying that “[t]here are many more people on an annual basis who have to confront the impact of climate change or the spread of a disease” than have to face terrorism.

Conservatives like Mike Huckabee ridicule Obama for linking climate change to national security. “I assure you that a beheading is much worse than a sunburn,” Huckabee told Fox News on Monday. They will be disappointed to learn that climate change is, in fact, more dangerous.

Twenty governments commissioned an independent report in 2012 from the group DARA International to study the human and economic costs of climate change. It linked 400,000 deaths worldwide to climate change each year, projecting deaths to increase to over 600,000 per year by 2030. When scientists attribute deaths to climate change, they don’t just mean succumbing to a heat wave or, as Huckabee put it, to sunburn. Heat waves kill many, to be sure, but global warming also devastates food security, nutrition, and water safety. Since mosquitoes and other pests thrive in hot, humid weather, scientists expect diseases like malaria and dengue fever to rise. Floods threaten to contaminate drinking water with bacteria and pollution.

When the report looked at the added health consequences from burning fossil fuelsaside from climate changethe number of deaths jumps from 400,000 to almost 5 million per year. Carbon-intensive economies see deaths linked to outdoor air pollution, indoor smoke from poor ventilation, occupational hazards, and skin cancer.

You can see which countries are most vulnerable to climate change in this map:


And look at the associated deaths worldwide, broken down by cause:


Now, compare that to terrorist incidents between 2000-2013, compiled in the 2014 Global Terrorism Index by the Institute for Economics and Peace. There were 18,000 deaths from terrorist attacks in 2013, a peak year. Over the 13-year period studied, 100,000 people died. Unlike the widespread impacts of climate change, terrorist threats are targeted. Most of the attacks in 2013 affected just five countriesIraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria.

Institute for Economics & Peace
Institute for Economics and Peace

The ultimate irony of Republicans brushing off the impact of climate change: Drought and extreme weather can destabilize developing regions, making climate change one of the factors that drives terrorism.

Despair and Empowerment Work

Last week, Daniel Greenberg introduced us to the work of Joanna Macy who has been doing this work for many years.  She suggests that as we face an environmental crisis, we must not turn away – but rather must allow ourselves to “feel the pain.”  Here is Joanna Macy speaking about pain.

There are many of her videos on YouTube and her workshop materials on her web page.  For more from Joanna Macy, I can suggest her classic book Coming Back to Life.


Planning an Action Project – Your Thoughts?

A Spiritual Perspective on Environmental Sustainability:

A Call to Action

Brainstorming on “A Call to Action”

Below is a list of some preliminary ideas of what a call to action might look like.   Please add to the list by posting your ideas in the comments box below.

When designing this course, Mary Jo had the idea that the process of environmental action could benefit from a spiritual, ethical, moral or religious perspective, that the integrity of the process could be improved through these perspectives creating processes that were more sustainable in the long term.

In our seminar on February 4 we took the last 20 minutes to brainstorm what an action infused with spirituality would look like. (The purpose of brainstorming is to capture many ideas without evaluating them.)   Mary Jo thought that finding action projects would be easy, but figuring out what adding the spiritual perspective would look like would be hard. However, we brainstormed many such ideas.

One idea that came out of the brainstorming was that we questioned the assumption about the benefit of a spiritual perspective in environmental action. Was this perspective exclusionary?   Effective environmental action can come without an explicit spiritual view. This merits further discussion. Another idea was that spirituality leading to environmental action was in one direction, but it can also go in the other direction with studying and being in nature leading to a spirituality.

Some ideas that were identified include:

  • Making our own environmental declaration
  • Creating a book or pamphlet by compiling ecological songs, prayers, quotes and poems
  • Earth day—poetry slam, songs etc. event
  • A series of earth week seminars on practical environment ideas, composting etc.
  • Tying into the New York City Peace and Planet Initiative on 4/24 to 4/26
  • Reach out to other spiritual groups to collaborate on a project
  • Having an electronic recycling booth during earth week where we might have some literature available.
  • Taking some actions that involve town and gown collaboration

 Please add your thoughts in “comments”!

Resources for the Project:

Implementing a Civic Action Project

Best Practices for a Group Project

Welcome to the online discussion

jacobfineRegular participants in our seminar are invited to share your thoughts by clicking on “leave a comment” – below.   We will change the discussion topic each week.

This week, I’d like to follow up on Rabbi Jacob Fine’s presentation.  Toward the end of the seminar, one of our participants asked an interesting question that went something like this….

If God is everywhere including within human beings, and God is perfect….. well, then what is there for me to do?”


You are encouraged to share your own interpretation of this question.  For me, it suggested that humans can’t really do any harm since we are created by God and God is perfect.  This might lead us to think that it is perfectly okay to extract carbon from the ground and release it into the atmosphere.   The resulting climate change is just fine, since humans were created by God.  Takes us off the hook!

I have my own thoughts on this and I’ll include them in the comments box, like everyone else.  I hope you will too!