Last week’s newspaper included a letter by Bruce Hammer of Manti, arguing against government subsidies for alternative energy (“Don’t squander money on speculative industry,” Feb. 18-24, 2016, Moab Sun News). Mr. Hammer alleges that the wind and solar industries are uniquely “socialistic [and] crony capitalistic” and “incapable of self-sustaining operation.” Instead of wasting money on such a “speculative industry,” he says, we should invest in “realistic private energy projects,” which he fails to name. Moreover, Mr. Hammer asserts (without offering evidence to support his claim) that alternative energy sources cannot “make even a 2 percent change in the quality of our environment.” In what follows, I would like to address those points.
As a matter of public record, 70 percent of all energy subsidies doled out by the U.S. government between 1950 and 2010 went to the fossil fuel industry, versus a scant 9 percent for wind and solar together. If this be crony capitalism, the game is hardly rigged in favor of Team Green. Subsidies to fossil fuel producers have the effect of undermining clean alternatives like wind and solar by making them seem cost-prohibitive by comparison. By one estimate, ending fossil fuel subsidies alone would result in a 20 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions.
But government subsidies are the tip of the iceberg. As is widely recognized, the combustion of fossil fuels has profoundly damaging effects on human health, the natural world and the global climate. The International Monetary Fund estimates the annual worldwide price tag of fossil fuel use at $5.3 trillion, or 6.9 percent of the global gross economic product. Most of these costs are borne neither by corporations like Exxon-Mobil nor by consumers at the pump. Instead, they are hidden from public view, factored invisibly into the price of goods like medical care, environmental clean-up and even national security. The overwhelming majority of American economists surveyed (upward of 90 percent) contends that the best way to attack this problem is to impose a carbon tax, which would make such “externalities” apparent to the public and, in doing so, level the playing-field for renewable energy. But lobbyists for Big Coal and Big Oil have done their utmost to prevent the enactment of such a tax. Transparency is the last thing they want to achieve.
Would green alternatives to fossil fuels have as minimal an impact on environmental quality as Mr. Hammer would have us believe? Not by a long shot. In fact, precisely the opposite is true. The scientific consensus is that we must hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to prevent catastrophic climate change. To stop cooking the planet, we must wean ourselves rapidly off fossil fuels. Technologies like wind and solar are far from perfect, but for practical purposes they remain our best bet, and happily, they are becoming both increasingly efficient and increasingly affordable. According to a recent study in Scientific American, renewables potentially could satisfy 100 percent of the global demand for power within just a few decades, provided that they receive sufficient support and promotion. The private sector by itself is not equal to this task, any more than it could have landed men on the Moon or created the Internet. The replacement of dirty energy with clean energy is contingent upon political will and — yes — public funding.