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James Boyce: Burning fossil fuels not only climate threat but pollutants from process killing people

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

A new report entitled Cooling the Planet, Clearing the Air: Climate Policy, Carbon Pricing, and Co-Benefits has come to the conclusion that reducing carbon emission isn’t just important because of climate-change issues; it’s also important because of our general health and the effect the process of creating carbon emissions has on the entire environment.

Now joining us to talk about the report is one of the authors, James Boyce. James is director of the program on Development, Peacebuilding, & the Environment at the PERI institute. He’s also a professor of economics in Amherst, Massachusetts. Thanks very much for joining us again, James.


JAY: So it seems to me one of the things, the conclusions one comes to after reading your report is that carbon trading, especially to do with offsets, where in other words a company in the United States or Canada could trade with somebody in Brazil or in India, and they grow more trees, and they keep spewing the stuff out here, it makes no sense.

BOYCE: The point of the report, Paul, is that when we burn fossil fuels, we not only emit a lot of carbon dioxide, which causes global warming, but we also emit a lot of other nasty stuff that harms people’s health. And the amount of nasty stuff that we emit varies from place to place and case to case. And the impacts on people vary, among other things, depending upon how many people live nearby. So the idea that it doesn’t matter where we cut emissions, which is basically the idea behind offsets, behind cap and trade, and even behind carbon taxes, that you just put a single price on carbon and let the chips fall where they may, doesn’t make a lot of sense once you realize that the public health benefits to be obtained by cutting emissions are far, far greater in some locations than in others.

JAY: Well, what about coal? Because coal seems to be at the center of this debate, coal-fired power generation.

BOYCE: Well, coal-fired power plants certainly generate a lot of nasty pollutants along with the carbon dioxide, but for that matter so does oil refining. I mean, one thing about power generation that’s important to remember is that power plants tend to be located in less-populated areas and tend to have rather tall smokestacks, whereas refineries also emit a lot of nasty air pollution, and they’re often located in very densely populated areas.

So, to give you an example, Paul, one of the comparisons we make in our report is between two facilities located in Southern California, both of which emit about the same amount of carbon dioxide every year. One of them’s a power plant in a place called La Paloma, located about 40 miles outside of Bakersfield, California, and the other is an oil refinery located in Torrance, California, owned by the Exxon Mobil Corporation. Now, the ExxonMobil facility emits about seven times as much particulate matter as the La Paloma power plant, even though they burn about the same amount of carbon dioxide. And moreover, living within six miles of that ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance are about 800,000 people, whereas living within six miles of the La Paloma power plant are about 800 people.

So when you combine the facts that the refinery emits a lot more particulate matter and that many, many more people are exposed to that particulate matter in Torrance, you have a good argument to be made for ensuring that you get more reductions of emissions in the densely populated, highly polluting refinery than in the less-polluting power plant in a very sparsely populated area.

So the idea behind cap and trade or behind offsets or behind carbon taxes, that you just have a single price because the damage of the emissions is the same everywhere, doesn’t really hold water once we take into account these local impacts on public health.

JAY: And is it not true that most of the areas or many of the areas where this is happening, where there’s a lot of this type of pollution, is in poorer areas?

BOYCE: That’s absolutely right. So, apart from the efficiency argument for directing greater emissions reductions to the places where you have greater public health benefits, there’s also a really strong argument in terms of equity or environmental justice. As you say, it does tend to be the case that many of the most polluting facilities are located in low-income neighborhoods and in neighborhoods with large percentages of people of color.

Let me give you an example of that. One of the most polluting refineries in the country is the ExxonMobil plant—there are two of them, actually, outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The air toxics impacts from the emissions of those refineries, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, fall disproportionately on people of color, particularly African Americans. So-called minorities account for more than 60 percent of the pollution impacts from those refineries, even though they account for something closer to 30 or 33 percent of the country’s total population.

So we very often find that the places where the benefits to be obtained from cutting emissions are greatest are also places where those benefits will be realized above all by low-income people, people who are least able to afford the health impacts of pollution. When their kids get asthma, they have to take time off work. They have a hard time affording that. They often don’t have health insurance to deal with the effects of this pollution. So there’s a really good argument—. Go ahead.

JAY: There’s another thing these people can’t afford, and that’s lobbyists. I mean, these are people that don’t have much clout when it comes to passing laws and regulations. If these refineries or the effects of this were affecting wealthier neighborhoods, I suppose we would have heard more about it.

BOYCE: I think that’s absolutely true, Paul. I mean, the question is whether we live in a democracy or a plutocracy. In a democracy, everybody’s voice counts equally. In a plutocracy, everybody’s dollars count equally. Clearly, where we live is somewhere in between. And to reorient our climate policies in a way that take into account public health benefits means that we also need to reorient our climate politics away from the plutocratic dollars-rule system towards a democratic system that takes into account the well-being of every American regardless of their income, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

JAY: I guess part of the argument too is that while poor people are more directly affected in these areas by the pollutants, the actual social cost of this production isn’t taken into account in terms of health care and all kinds of things.

BOYCE: Well, absolutely right. I mean, these are what economists call external costs or externalities. So it doesn’t figure into the price of your petroleum or your electricity how many people ended up in the hospital or dying prematurely as a result of exposure to the pollutants emitted in the production of that energy. The National Academy of Sciences produced a report three years ago, in 2009, called The Hidden Costs of Energy, in which they estimated that the total premature mortality associated with burning of fossil fuels in the United States was almost 20,000 extra deaths a year, Paul—20,000 a year.

Now, if you think about it, think back to 9/11, when 3,000 people were killed in those tragic attacks, right, think about how much money and treasure the country has spent since then trying to prevent a repeat of that kind of attack. Think of all the billions spent on war. Think of the millions and millions of hours waiting in line at the airport taking your shoes off. Think about the money, think about the lives lost in trying to prevent that from happening again. And yet in the years since 9/11, we’ve had about 20,000 deaths a year from the pollution generated by producing fossil fuels. You add that up, that’s over 200,000 Americans have died since 9/11. That’s like 70 9/11’s have happened, right? Imagine how different our energy landscape would look today if we’d done anything close to what we did in responding to the terror attacks of 9/11 to deal with this low-level terrorism of communities and individuals being impacted by pollution as a result of our reliance on fossil fuels. I mean, basically—.

JAY: Well, doesn’t this speak to, then, that market mechanisms, which, number one, take a long time to have effect, two, almost—most of—not all, but most of the market mechanisms are connected to this offset idea, and three, given the sense of urgency, both in terms of climate change and, as you’re talking about, the effects on people in the short-term, doesn’t that speak to that there just simply needs to be regulation to deal with this?

BOYCE: Well, I think regulation’s important, Paul, for sure. I also happen to think that putting a price on carbon emissions is important in order to give the incentives to individuals and businesses to invest in energy efficiency and invest in clean and renewable energy. So I don’t think it’s an either/or question. I think you need regulation and you need pricing on carbon.

The point that we make in our study is that first of all the price on carbon should be higher, given that there are all these extra benefits to be associated with cutting emissions, and secondly, that if we do have a price on carbon, we don’t necessarily want to have a one-size-fits-all policy, but instead we want to try to tailor the regulatory system to achieve greater emissions reductions in those communities that are most vulnerable and most heavily impacted by the pollution associated with burning fossil fuels.

There are various ways that can be done. You can designate priority zones, priority facilities, priority sectors where you want to get extra emissions reductions. You can prevent those sectors from offsetting their emissions or buying permits from others where the public health benefits from emissions reductions are not as great. And you can take some of the revenue that’s generated by carbon pricing and plow that back into community benefit funds, as is being done now in California, in order to try to ensure that there are environmental improvements in the communities that are bearing disproportionate burdens from pollution.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, James.

BOYCE: You bet, Paul. Nice to be with you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. Don’t forget we’re in our year-end fundraising campaign. Every dollar you donate gets matched. So over here somewhere is a Donate button. Please click on it, and we can keep doing this.


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James K. Boyce is a Professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the Director of the Program on Development, Peacebuilding, and the Environment at PERI - The Political Economy Research Institute.